AS the brutal war on drugs ravages the streets of the Philippines, families of slain drug suspects are not only suffering from the toll of losing their loved ones but also bearing the costs that come along with processing their bodies.
At the time of writing, an estimated 6,000 people have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took office mid last year, fulfilling his campaign promise to launch a wide-scale and merciless assault against those involved with the narcotics trade.
Many of the drug suspects, mostly from impoverished backgrounds, were either killed at the hands of police or vigilante groups who have taken the law into their own hands.
But as Duterte’s approval ratings skyrocket from his populist war, bodies are piling up in overcrowded public morgues. And this has posed a headache for the authorities who have now moved to outsource certain aspects of handling the cases, including the removal and transportation of the deceased from the crime scene to the morgue, and then on to the mortuary.
An instance in which a family was forced to foot the bill for the government’s sanctioned killings was brought to the attention of the Asian Correspondent last week, following the death of 35-year-old Emilian Miranda — a suspected drug user who was shot outside his San Pedro house in what appeared to be a summary execution.
Miranda’s sister, Donna, said her family forked out nearly PHP45,000 (US$1,000) to have his body processed for the crime case and later cremated, an accumulated expense which she feels should not have to be entirely borne by the family.
Donna, a dance choreographer and development officer with several international NGOs, said during the arrangement for her brother’s funeral, the government-accredited funeral parlour handling his remains had included “pull(ing) out of cadaver from the crime scene (sic)”, along with other irregular charges, as part of the funeral arrangement package.
Describing it as an “awfully bureaucratic and dismissive system” in dealing with shooting cases, Donna said this was part of the parlour’s initial contract of services that she was made to sign before her brother was to undergo an autopsy.
In a widely-shared Facebook posting Donna said: “I of course… questioned why the transfer body of my brother, who had been killed in front of our house to a morgue… had to be shouldered by the victim’s family.”
“What kind of system passes on that burden to the family when no one had asked for it to happen? Why are we being made to pay for something we were not given a choice ‘to purchase’?” she asked.
When contacted, Donna told the Asian Correspondent that her family forked out PHP25,000 (roughly US$500-600) to take Emilian’s body from the crime scene at home to the morgue, and for the morgue to restore and embalm his body after autopsy, before he was sent to the crematorium.
“Well, the cremation charge is understandable as it was our (family’s) own decision, we have to pay for it, I get that,
“What I don’t get is that why was there a need to bring our brother into a private mortuary?” she asked during a tele-conference interview with the AC last week.
“If the Duterte administration has launched this war against drugs and they’ve been on a killing spree, the least they can do is have enough morgues to process all these bodies,” she added.
On Jan 9, Emilian, who runs a small water refilling company was loading the final water bottle on his truck outside his house when an unknown gunman approached him from behind and fired two fatal gunshots – one behind his ear and the other to his body – in broad daylight.
Donna, who lives in Manila, said her 63-year-old mother called her to convey the heart-breaking news at about 4pm that day, less than half an hour after Emilian was gunned down. She said she and her younger sibling rushed down to her San Pedro home town, where Emilian lived and looked after their mother, roughly an hour’s drive from the capital.
“The police had not arrived when I received the call so I asked my mother to take photos of my brother’s body and to ensure that no one goes near it. The most important thing then was to secure his body,” she said.
“When we arrived, that’s where we saw our brother still on the pavement on the road outside our house – the police were there, there was a police line but the SOCO (crime forensics team) had not arrived, so everyone was waiting for them to process the crime scene,” she recounted.
Donna’s mother was inside the house when she heard the sound of firecrackers and did not make anything of it until their neighbour knocked on the door to say that Emilian’s lifeless body was on the pavement outside.
Based on close circuit camera television footage retrieved from a nearby location, Donna said the gunman was already waiting in front of the house some 30 minutes before the shooting.
The shooter arrives near the house on a motorcycle at about 3:17pm, she said. After parking the vehicle, the gunman darts across the adjacent road near the house, waiting for the time and opportunity to ‘execute’ Emilian. Donna said just as Emilian loaded the last water gallon into the vehicle at about 3:49pm, the gunman approached her brother and shot him in the head.
The shooting took place in broad daylight and on a busy stretch of road but no witnesses have come forward. Donna believes that villagers fear reprisal for coming forward as witnesses.
Although Emilian, a father of two young girls, was not known as a drug pusher, the main target of Duterte’s war, Donna said there was little doubt that his murder bore the makings of an execution typical of a drug-related killing.
After inquiring with the local police on the shooting, Donna found that Emilian had apparently been placed on the barangay (district) drug watch list. Although it was supposed to be a publicly accessible document, the list was not displayed at the local public hall and it was only after pressing the local authorities that the police issued a document to certify that he was a drug user the day after the murder.
She said although it was likely that her brother had a drug problem, the punishment for his alleged addiction was unreasonably severe.
“He may have had a drug problem but we don’t know to what extent. We were looking to take him to rehab but while government facilities are affordable, they are generally not well-kept.”
In recent months however, Donna said her brother had shown signs of improvement.
“Last Christmas, he was doing better; he was sleeping, eating and socialising and maybe he looked like he was doing fine and taking steps to overcome the problem,” she said.
However, Donna said she does not know whether her brother was still using drugs at the time of his death, adding that drug usage should not be criminalised the way it has been in the country.
“People take drugs for mental health reasons and when they are in that sort of situation they have no one to speak to,”
“In the Philippines, people are poor and a packet of syabu (methamphetamine) costs less than a good meal and its funny for the government to declare war on drugs instead of feeding the people,
“I think the way they (government) criminalise drug use is way out of proportion.”
A systematic failure
Aside from the emotional toll that came with her brother’s death, Donna explains that her family has been financially burdened by the government’s system in handling the case.
“It’s funny how you think the worst thing that can happen is having a family member shot, only to realise that much worse things await you when you have to process his body, ensure that he has a proper burial, ensure that proper investigation goes through.
“So it was really sickening because we were the victims and it’s funny how convenient it is for the government to pass on the burden to the victims,” she said.
Forcing the family to pay for the transfer of the body to the morgue led to conflict, pushing Donna to clash with the operator of the funeral home.
“I was quarreling with him and he could not answer me because this is an arrangement that the government has made with him, and the government did not explain the matter to him properly, so he just kept saying that this was part of the package.”
“Imagine a private business is telling you that this is what you have to pay when it was a crime that has been committed,” she said. “It’s just extortion.”
Asked whether she thinks the government accredited funeral parlours were taking advantage of the grieving families and cashing in on the higher number of bodies rolling into their facilities as a result of the war, Donna says it is difficult to tell.
“I don’t want to make any assumption on it yet until I have data to back it up. But there needs to be a review of how many killings there have been and how much the funeral parlours have earned,”
“I have been told by some media practitioners that other parlours are losing money because most of the victims are poor people and they end up not being able to pay so they also lose business and end up compensating for it by taking it out on other cases.”
She stresses the need for a comprehensive study to show the magnitude of the burden that is being placed on the families.
“The police would say that this (paying for the processing) is part of the procedure but that has not been made clear. For example, they say that they will pay for the autopsy as it was a crime that has been committed but the families would have to pay for closing up the body,
“This is stupid because closing up the body is part of the autopsy.”
As for the next course of action, Donna says her family plans to file a civil suit against the Philippine National Police and its crime lab over the manner in which the crime scene was handled.
“Certainly we will be working with certain human rights groups who have put together proper documentation on the issue,” she said, adding the country’s Commission of Human Rights has already been alerted to Emilian’s story and intends to pursue the case.
On a personal note, Donna said she now plans to research the aftermath of the drug war and publish a paper when she has obtained enough data.