Drug war dead exhumed as grave leases expire
MANILA, Philippines — Rodzon Enriquez’s skeletal remains are pulled out of a coffin-sized tomb in Manila and placed in a body bag. Five years after the 21-year-old was killed in the country’s drug war, the lease on his grave is expiring.
Activists estimate tens of thousands of people have died since President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police to go after drug addicts and dealers in a widely condemned campaign that has largely targeted poor men.
Many of the dead were put in “apartment” tombs stacked meters high in jampacked cemeteries across the sprawling capital, where a five-year lease on a rectangular concrete box costs about P5,000 ($100).
As leases run out, a Catholic charity is helping families unable to afford the renewal fee to retrieve the bones of their loved ones with the aim of having them cremated and put in a permanent burial site.
“I don’t want his remains thrown away,” Corazon Enriquez, 63, told Agence France-Presse (AFP), after her son’s bones were carried away on a stretcher by two men wearing masks, gloves and protective coats.
The mother of seven had welcomed Mr. Duterte’s promise to rid the country of drugs.
“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” Mr. Duterte told the public soon after he was sworn into office.
‘He’s still there’
But Enriquez never imagined the campaign would target her own family.
Rodzon, a fishing port worker who used methamphetamine to stay awake during overnight shifts, was shot dead by police in his bed weeks after Mr. Duterte took power in 2016, she said.
“I wanted to have him at home—even if his physical body is no longer here, I know he’s still there,” Enriquez said of the ashes she plans to keep until another location is found.
“I still feel the pain—I would have wanted to swap places with my son.”
Fr. Flavie Villanueva, a vocal critic of Mr. Duterte, is spearheading the exhumation effort. He said thousands of cremations could be needed in the coming years as leases expire.
‘Lose the remains, too?’
Villanueva hopes to eventually store the ashes in a columbarium to give victims a “dignified” final resting place—and help families find closure.
“It’s already too much that you lose a loved one—should you also lose his remains?” said the priest, who is raising money to finance the ambitious plan.
It is too late for some families. The bones of their relatives were removed and thrown into sacks with the remains of others before the tomb leases expired, Villanueva said.
Militant groups Karapatan, Alliance of Concerned Teachers, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), Kilusang Mayo Uno, and Bayan said the human rights violations committed by Mr. Duterte and his subordinates in the drug war and counterinsurgency campaign far eclipsed any gains from both campaigns.
These violations also led the country into a human rights crisis, they said.
No peace, no justice
The groups called on Filipinos to reject Mr. Duterte’s attempt to escape possible prosecution for his alleged crimes by running for vice president in May 2022.
“As long as there is a Duterte in Malacañang, there would be no peace and justice,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, echoing a political slogan associated with the protest movement against racism and police violence in America.
Despite the likelihood of a constitutional challenge, Mr. Duterte had declared a desire to seek the vice presidency in next year’s national elections—supposedly to remain immune from suits. His daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, had expressed openness to run for president.
Human rights groups estimate that around 12,000 to 30,000 drug suspects have been killed by the police or by vigilantes since 2016.
But the prosecution of policemen involved in questionable operations has been “virtually nil” compared to the magnitude and speed with which the administration brought drug suspects to court, Palabay noted.
Possible abuses in the counterinsurgency campaign, which saw many peasant leaders, community organizers and human rights defenders arrested or killed, were another matter, said Josa Deinla of NUPL.
According to Karapatan’s tally, at least 414 from this sector fell victim to extrajudicial killings, while 487 were arrested since 2016.
“The Filipino people for the past five years have experienced the worst—the full spectrum of violation of human rights,” Deinla said. “The government was waging twin wars: a war on drugs and a war on dissent.”
In June, the International Criminal Court’s former chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda sought judicial authorization to open a probe into alleged crimes against humanity committed in the drug war.
Mr. Duterte has repeatedly dismissed the court’s findings and vowed never to cooperate with any such probe into the drug war.
—REPORTS FROM AFP AND KRIXIA SUBINGSUBING
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