The most outspoken opponent of Duterte's crackdown, Senator Leila de Lima, says the drug busts are designed to be lethal. "These operations are not meant to just apprehend or arrest the drug suspects but really to liquidate them," she said in an interview.
At an August Senate inquiry, de Lima, a former justice secretary, quizzed national police chief Ronald Dela Rosa about the killings. At that time, police had killed 756 suspects.
"All resisted arrest?" asked an incredulous de Lima. "Yes, they resisted," replied Dela Rosa. "Otherwise, they are alive today," he added. His response provoked disbelieving laughter.
In November, the National Bureau of Investigation charged de Lima with involvement in the illegal drug trade at a national jail. De Lima called the charges "trumped up," part of a harassment campaign by Duterte and his allies.
The mounting death toll is putting pressure on the police force's forensics unit, the Scene of Crime Operatives (SOCO). Officers routinely work 24-hour or even 48-hour shifts, its chief, Reynaldo Calaoa, told Reuters. From the moment a suspect is shot to the time the funeral parlor gives his or her body to the family for the wake, SOCO controls almost every process by which forensic evidence is gathered.
Signs of 'tattooing'
Forensic evidence can be vital in determining whether cops or witnesses are telling the truth. But in the Philippines, police forensic scientists are underfunded and overwhelmed, and the evidence they produce is hard for CHR investigators to access. The crime laboratory at the police headquarters at Camp Crame in Manila has only two dissection tables and no cold storage for bodies, SOCO said. It also lacks an X-ray machine to scan corpses for bullet fragments.
Instead, SOCO performs most of its autopsies at police-accredited but privately owned funeral parlors, which act as both official morgues and crime labs. The funeral parlor then embalms the body before it is given to the family for the wake.
SOCO autopsies are mandatory and usually take place at the funeral parlor within hours of the body's arrival. The full autopsy reports are not released to the families. CHR investigators told Reuters they had to subpoena SOCO to get full autopsies, even though CHR is a government agency.
Those autopsies are potentially damning, as a killing in the first week of Duterte's campaign suggests. Police said they shot dead Conrado Berona, 36, who was wanted for robbery and drug dealing, in a gunfight on July 6, and that shabu was found on his body. But a CHR investigation into his death, reviewed by Reuters, noted that the bullet wound in Berona's chest showed "tattooing." This distinctive skin abrasion is caused by partially burned or unburned gunpowder and indicates the victim was shot at close range.
In its report, based in part on sworn witness testimony, CHR found that "the alleged shootout never happened," and that Berona was unarmed and surrendering when plainclothes and uniformed police shot him. CHR said it recommended filing criminal and administrative cases against the police who killed Berona.
SOCO medical-legal officer Jane Monzon told Reuters she had seen evidence of tattooing in four victims of police buy-bust operations in Manila. She declined to say more. SOCO's chief, Reynaldo Calaoa, said his agency is not tracking close-range shootings.
Prison cell shooting
SOCO came under scrutiny in November in the shooting of one of the few high-profile people targeted in the anti-drug crackdown. On November 5, Rolando Espinosa, a mayor from central Leyte Province, was shot and killed in his prison cell. A fellow prisoner, Raul Yap, was also killed in what police said was a shootout.
Earlier, Duterte had put Espinosa's name on a list of top drug suspects. The mayor, who denied involvement in narcotics, was arrested on October 5 on drugs and firearms charges. Police said Espinosa and Yap fired at a police team that had come to search their cells for guns and drugs. Police returned fire and killed them.
A Senate hearing on November 10 into the mayor's death found that the police team had summoned SOCO crime-scene investigators about 40 minutes before entering the prison, according to an affidavit from an officer at a police operations center.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief who co-led the hearing, likened this to phoning a funeral parlor before a shoot-out. He said the call suggested Espinosa's killing was "premeditated."