Is the police’s impunity in the Philippine drug war to blame for the killing of military men at the hands of police?
In a deadly shooting that the Philippine police call a “misencounter” and the army call a “rub-out,” four army intelligence personnel were fatally gunned down by policemen in Jolo, Sulu on Monday afternoon. The major, captain, sergeant, and corporal who died were on an official mission when they were killed.
Emotions, meanwhile, are running high, and the details of the incident remain not only blurry, but fundamentally contested.
According to an initial police report, Jolo police were patrolling with anti-drug agents when they came across and stopped “four armed male persons” in an SUV. Police directed the men to the Jolo police station “for verification”—as the cops allegedly doubted their credentials—but maintained that the four army men “fled” upon arriving at the station. The report said a chase ensued and the four men pointed their guns at the police.
“Before they could pull the trigger, the Philippine National Police (PNP) personnel were able to shoot them in defense, thus an exchange of gunfire ensured which resulted in the death of the four suspects” the police report said.
The army, however, disputes the self-defense narrative.
Army commanding officer Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay told reporters that the police report enraged him, describing it as “fabricated, full of inconsistencies.”
“It’s like in the movies and very misleading,” he said.
The army has maintained that the two officers and two enlisted men were on a mission against Abu Sayyaf militants, tailing suicide bombers when the shooting occurred—and that they did not provoke the police.
Eleventh Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan told CNN Philippines that his troops were “unarmed.” Gapay said in an official statement that eyewitness accounts said that “no altercation transpired between the two parties nor was there any provocation on the part of Army personnel to warrant such carnage.”
An army officer with knowledge of the situation told the Associated Press that the soldiers left the SUV with their arms up to indicate no hostile intent, but the police opened fire on the four plain-clothed military men without reason.
Challenging the idea that the army men fled, military spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said photos from the scene showed the victims’ bodies fell near or inside their vehicle.
The killing has also raised broader questions as to whether the police’s narrative of shooting in self-defense—one that has been used countless times in the country’s brutal drug war, which has left thousands of Filipinos dead at the hands of police—has become a catch-all excuse for police brutality in the Philippines.
Former Senator Sonny Trillanes IV said Monday's shooting was part of a broader trend of national impunity. He wrote that the killing of four men by the PNP is “the latest price we have to pay” for tolerating the extrajudicial killings that have happened over the past four years, adding that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s encouragement of the police's narrative of "self-defense" is the “poison that destroyed the PNP.”
On Twitter, other users echoed his concern.
“If they can suspect the AFP [t]o be terrorist... What more of the ordinary people... Conclusion: Shoot first... Investigate later," one user said.
“Duterte has transformed the PNP into a terror organization,” added another.
With tens of thousands killed during the Philippine “war on drugs,” the United Nations has concluded that police and vigilantes enjoy “deep-seated impunity.” Despite the thousands of extrajudicial killings, only three cops, from one case, have ever been convicted.
The UN has also cast doubts on police claims that they were acting in self-defense in anti-drug operations. In an examination of 25 fatal police anti-drug operations, two guns reappeared at five different crime scenes, suggesting the police were planting evidence.
Disbelief in the narrative of “nanlaban”—or "fighting back," as police often claim—is widespread in the Philippines. A 2017 Social Weather Survey found that more than half of respondents agreed with the statement, “Many of those killed by police in the anti-drug campaign did not really fight back during police operations.” Only 20 percent disagreed.
But Danilo Andres Reyes, a Filipino researcher at the Department of Asian and International Studies of the City University of Hong Kong, said there is widespread impunity for both the military and police in the Philippines.
“On impunity, which means either lack of or impossibility to punish security forces, both the police and the military share a long history of impunity,” Reyes told VICE News. “Yes, unpunished crimes do embolden them to commit crimes without fear of prosecution.”
He added that Monday's case, with the military experiencing police violence first-hand, would have been “a dose of shock and disbelief.” He’s expecting the military top brass to hold the policemen accountable.
But Reyes warned that it may not be accurate to interpret this case in the context of the drug war, adding that in Sulu, where the killing happened, it is “not unusual to suspect public officials, police, and military of having links with terrorist or insurgent groups.”
“In other words, if you are a group of men driving an SUV, not wearing military uniforms, and showing gestures that increase the police's—who are already highly alert—suspicion… you can be easily suspected as 'armed and dangerous.' Thus, must be eliminated right away.”
That belief is shared among some officials. Philippine Army (PA) spokesperson Lt. Col. Louie Villanueva told reporters, "This thing, though unexpected and uncalled [for], [does] happen sometimes in the course of performing our critical task of serving and protecting the people.”
He suggested that the incident happened “due to the common desire” of the Philippine Army and National Police to “eliminate the real nuisance (communist terrorists) of our community.”
Still, many have called for a National Bureau of Investigation probe.
PNP Internal Affairs said on Wednesday that, along with the National Police Commission, it would investigate the fatal shooting. The military spokesman said that the army and PNP will revisit their techniques, tactics, and procedures to see what steps could prevent the incident from happening again.
Until the results are out, officials called for calm.
Senator Ping Lacson, who served as PNP Chief from 1999 to 2001, said in a statement that heightened emotions is the last thing the police and army need. He added that, “for all they know, their common enemies such as the terrorists and armed insurgents are already celebrating the Sulu incident—and even making plans to exploit it.”
He said that “our people” and enemies of the state are capable of “fanning the flames” of animosity and “creating intrigues to further divide the country’s two major security forces.”
Gapay said that the Philippine Army wants to “get to the bottom of this without any intention to create animosity between the Army and the PNP.” He also said on Wednesday that “forces authorized by the state to bear arms must be properly trained,” and there is a “need for retraining” of some National Police units.
Three of the four killed soldiers were given military arrival honors at an airbase on June 30, where their remains were received by their families and comrades. The fourth soldier’s burial rites will be held in Sulu.