One puzzle in the death of drug war victim Kian delos Santos may have been solved five years after he was murdered by Caloocan policemen in August 2017 with the recovery of a bullet in his body that had gone unnoticed despite two autopsies.
A third autopsy on the exhumed remains of the 17-year-old boy led forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun to the discovery of the intact bullet lodged in his neck region, sparking fresh questions about the reliability of other postmortem examinations by the Philippine National Police on thousands of people killed during the Duterte administration’s bloody drug campaign.
At a press conference on Thursday, Fortun said the recovery of the bullet from Delos Santos’ body answered the question that stumped the authorities, including the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), almost six years ago: Why were there three entry wounds but only two exit wounds?
At the family’s request, PAO, which had been dissatisfied with the PNP’s first examination of the body, performed a second autopsy on Delos Santos at their residence shortly after he was embalmed.
Based on PAO’s examination, the victim sustained three gunshot wounds with the first entry point in his back, the second behind the left ear and the third inside the left ear. But at the time, PAO’s chief medicolegal officer Erwin Erfe couldn’t explain why there were only two exit wounds.
The answer, according to Fortun, was “the bullet was still there.”
“This is very important because this can be connected to a gun which was in possession, which was fired by someone,” she said.
Police station fire
Unfortunately, Fortun noted, a fire razed the Caloocan police station shortly after Delos Santos’ killing, destroying potential evidence, including the firearms with which the newly discovered bullet could be matched.
“It’s useless if you don’t have something to compare it with,” she lamented.
Fortun’s own autopsy found two gunshot wounds to the victim’s head: one by the left ear shot at close range, and a second by the left temporal bone. The two bullets exited through the right side of his head.
The doctor said she determined that the recovered bullet entered Delos Santos’ left chest and traveled up, getting stuck in his neck.
Still, finding the bullet “demonstrates how awful our investigations are,” she said, adding: “I’ve seen this many times.”
Fortun was referring to the exhumed remains of several victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) that she had examined with the help of activist priest Flavie Villanueva since 2021. A number of the bodies were misidentified in their death certificates as having “died by natural causes,” even though they were killed in police operations.
Many of these victims, including Delos Santos, had to be exhumed and relocated after the five-year lease of their “apartment tombs” expired.
Delos Santos’ family had wanted his remains to undergo a new autopsy in hopes of uncovering new truths about his death even though his killers—Police Officer (PO) 3 Arnel Oares and PO1 Jerwin Cruz and PO1 Jeremias Pereda—had already been convicted.
The three were found guilty of murder and sentenced to a maximum of 40 years in prison with no eligibility for parole by the Caloocan Regional Trial Court in November 2018.
On Thursday, Fortun said she also discovered that Delos Santos’ body was only superficially cut during the first two autopsies.
She questioned a portion of the PNP’s original autopsy report stating that the stomach “contained 250 cc of digested food particles…”
“How did you even see that if you didn’t really open up the body?” Fortun said.
She also criticized PAO’s own examination, saying it took only a picture of the chest cut done by the PNP but did not explore the internal organs.
“They just pretend to have done a legitimate autopsy [and] this is why we never get anything solved,” Fortun said.
She reiterated her call on international forensic experts to help her in reexamining the bodies of EJK victims, and on the government to help their families correct their death records.
In April last year, Fortun said she autopsied 46 persons killed in the drug war from 2016 to 2017 and found that some of them were falsely recorded as having died of natural causes.
One who supposedly died of a heart attack had multiple gunshot wounds, she said.
Fortun’s findings suggested that the falsified death certificates could have obscured the true toll of the drug war.
Based on government records, a total of 6,252 individuals were killed in the drug war from July 2016 to May 2022 but rights groups believe this is only a fraction of the actual number.