Eight Drug Lords and a Key Witness Allegedly Died of COVID in a Philippine Prison. Now Everyone Wants Proof.

The suspicious combination of rushed cremations, a lack of death certificates, and, perhaps most crucially, a lack of trust in public officials have caused some to suspect foul play.
21 July 2020, 11:55am
bilibid 1 cc
The entrance to the Philippines' New Bilibid Prison. Photo: Creative Commons/Monzonda

At least eight convicted drug lords and a high-profile witness housed in the Philippines’ New Bilibid Prison (NBP) have recently been reported dead due to complications arising from COVID-19.

But, in a testament to the prison system’s troubled history, rather than sparking a debate over prison facilities’ vulnerability to the ongoing pandemic, the deaths have instead prompted questions as to whether the deaths were faked as part of elaborate escapes and cover-ups.

With no autopsies, rushed cremations, and an anonymous tip to journalists listing the names of the allegedly deceased, lawmakers have called for an investigation, while speculation among the public has reached the point that “pseudocide”—a word for faking one’s own death—has been trending on social media.

According to the Inquirer, a list of eight inmates who died in New Bilibid was anonymously distributed to journalists on Saturday naming Benjamin Marcelo, the purported leader of the Chinese prisoners inside NBP; Amin Imam Buratong, who operated a shabu market in Pasig City; and fellow convicts Jimmy Kinsing Hung, Francis Go, Jimmy Yang, Eugene Chua, Ryan Ong, and Zhang Zhu Li.

In addition, Jaybee Sebastian—a co-respondent in a widely criticized three-year-old criminal case against Duterte critic Senator Leila de Lima—was also listed as being among the dead. Bureau of Corrections Chief Director General Gerald Bantag confirmed Sebastian’s death, and that the 40-year-old had been immediately cremated.

Sebastian was seen as a primary witness—though he had not yet testified—in the drug-related charges against de Lima, which local and international rights groups have dismissed as politically motivated. De Lima was arrested shortly after announcing a Senate investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war.

The men are among the 15 reported COVID-related deaths at New Bilibid since March. The Inquirer reported that it had requested, but did not receive verification of the nine-person list from Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag, who reportedly cited the Data Privacy Act in declining to provide the names of the deceased.

Justice Department Undersecretary Markk Perete has said that until the department receives BuCor death certificates for the drug personalities, “it may be premature to confirm their deaths, much less the cause thereof,” according to Rappler.

Bantag said that BuCor protocol stipulates that bodies must be cremated within 12 hours to prevent viral transmission, information that Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra allegedly conveyed in a closed-door meeting on Monday, Rappler reported.

However, the Panteon de Dasmariñas Public Cemetery confirmed to local media that four of the men listed among the deceased had been cremated since May 31.

“But our people [at the crematorium] were not to open the body bags anymore. So long as there were death certificates and the proper papers, the bodies were cremated straight away,” Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga told the Inquirer.

Meanwhile, suspicions surrounding the alleged deaths are not limited to the Twitterati. An unnamed high-ranking police official told the Inquirer that higher-ups had asked some police officials to “gather intelligence” on the deaths and investigate potential “body switching.”

“How would we know?” the official asked. “There were no more fingerprints.”

Senator Vicente Sotto III told the South China Morning Post that there were “compelling reasons” to investigate the purported deaths.

“For one, why no autopsies? Were the relatives informed? What do the death certificates say?” he asked.

Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, said that there should be transparency “to guard against abuses, such as fake or simulated deaths.”

Muntinlupa City Representative Ruffy Biazon asserted in a statement the “right to know if the deaths that occurred in a government facility [were] of natural causes or wrongdoing.”

Others, however, have maintained that there is no reason for the Senate to investigate the matter. Senator Ronald dela Rosa, a former right-hand man to Duterte, said “COVID doesn’t exclude anyone.”

Even so, the National Bureau of Investigation has been ordered to launch a full probe, with the Justice Department’s Perete telling Rappler that the investigation would “dispel any doubt” about the nine deaths.

Philip Sawali, Senator De Lima’s chief of staff, did not set aside the possibility that the alleged deaths of the prisoners were in fact an elaborate ruse.

“Your guess is as good as ours on the possibility of these supposedly ‘dead’ drug lords resurrecting in the outside world as free men with new identities. We won’t put it beyond this government’s capability,” Sawali said.

New Bilibid’s reputation, meanwhile, does not necessarily inspire confidence. Inmates in the facility sometimes give the impression of living by their own rules, even going so far as to build their own private dwellings, known as “kubols,” on prison grounds.

Past efforts to curb the practice have turned up sometimes-astonishing contraband, including ice cream freezers, cash, and hand grenades. In some cases, guards have been implicated in smuggling in creature comforts like booze and cell phones.

One effort to dismantle kubols in 2019 even led to the detonation of an improvised explosive device in apparent retaliation for the demolition.

The possibility that the recent deaths could have been part of some malfeasance appears to have captured attention online, and with rumors swirling, a 2017 Telegraph article characterizing the Philippines as a global leader in the fake-death trade has resurfaced.

The article cited author Elizabeth Greenwood, who visited the Philippines to test that characterization after being told was the best place to fake one’s death. Within a week of her arrival, she had received her own death certificate and procured official documents with multiple witnesses attesting she had crashed a rental car and been pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

The article alleged that interested parties can purchase “death kits” with documents proving their demise for the bargain price of around $440. The process includes buying a corpse from a morgue.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.