By Karl Romano
Philippine authorities said Thursday they killed five suspects and arrested 95 others in the first anti-narcotics raids of 2018, a month after President Rodrigo Duterte put police back on the frontline of his government’s much-criticized drug war.
The suspects were killed during more than 50 sting operations spread across 12 hours in Bulacan, a suburban area north of the capital Manila, ending before midnight Wednesday, local police chief Senior Supt. Romeo Caramat said.
Twenty-three police stations in Bulacan participated in the operations, which included intelligence operatives and quick-response mobile units, Caramat said in a police report.
“The arrested suspects and confiscated pieces of evidence were brought to Bulacan crime laboratory office for appropriate examination,” a statement issued by Caramat’s office said, adding that appropriate criminal complaints were being read in court against those taken into custody.
Despite the number of arrests and deaths, the drug haul yielded about 171 grams (6 ounces) of methamphetamine and 21 grams (three-quarter ounce) of marijuana. Also seized were nine weapons, including a grenade.
Philippine media reported two suspects were killed in San Jose del Monte city and one each in Malolos city and the towns of Calumpit and Santa Maria.
In August 2017, Bulacan police carried out what was called then a “one time, big time” anti-drug operation resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 suspects.
Among those killed was 17-year-old student Kian Loyd delos Santos. Two other teenagers died in later round-ups, triggering massive street protests and criticism from local and international rights groups, and eventually forcing Duterte to remove police from the lead role in drug operations.
In December, Duterte announced that he was reviving an active role for police, arguing he had promised the electorate that he would rid the country of the drug menace by the time his six-year term ended.
Police place the number of alleged drug dealers and addicts killed since Duterte took power in 2016 to about 4,000, a number far less than estimates by Filipino rights groups, who claim that as many as 12,000 people have died.
The roundup came the same week that Interior Undersecretary Martin Diño, a close Duterte appointee, ordered the country’s nearly 50,000 village chiefs to submit a list of drug dealers and addicts in their respective areas or resign.
Rights groups slammed the order, arguing it was dangerous because any village chief could put the names of anyone, including political enemies, on a list without proper vetting.
A village chief is the highest elected public official at the grassroots level. While they control the country’s smallest administrative political and administration divisions in the country, village chiefs traditionally are courted by higher public officials for their ability to deliver votes during elections.
Earlier, Diño was removed as head of a freeport zone north of Manila, amid reports of alleged abuse of powers. Despite that, Duterte recently named him as an undersecretary at the Interior Department, giving him direct control over the national police force.
On Tuesday, Diño vowed to “make sure that all barangays (local term for villages) all over the Philippines will be fighting against illegal drugs.” He said those who failed to submit a list faced being sacked from their posts.
Previously, Duterte said that nearly half of all village chiefs in the country were involved in the illegal drug trade and actively lobbied to have elections for new village officials canceled last year.
On Thursday, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque did not directly answer whether Diño’s directive was backed by Duterte, a former long-time mayor in the south supported by many village chiefs.
“Those that are being asked are only required to submit names. I am sure there would be investigations to follow,” Roque told a local television station, based on a transcript of an interview his office had released.
He downplayed fears by rights groups that the lists could lead to another round of killings, noting that the names Diño was asking for would be verified by the authorities.
“First, there needs to be an investigation. And if there was truth to the allegation, there are ways to remove a local official from office. Secondly, if there really is evidence they are involved in drugs, a case can be filed in courts,” Roque said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.