By Martin Petty
MANILA (Reuters) – Jomar Palamar and his girlfriend Juday Escilona were killed in the early hours of Wednesday, cut down in a hail of bullets fired by unknown gunmen in a rundown backstreet of the Philippines capital Manila.
Described by a family member and community leaders as drug users, the couple appeared to be the latest victims of the deadly war on drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte in which over 8,000 people have died. Most have been small-time dealers and users killed in police operations or shot dead by unknown gunmen.
Duterte said on Tuesday he would recall some police to anti-drugs operations to provide fresh impetus to the campaign. He had suspended police from operations a month ago after which the killings slowed but did not end.
Police said they did not know who killed Palamar, 22, and Escilona, 20.
“They were on a watch list, because they were users,” said Nestor del Rosario, the deputy leader of the local barangay, or community, who was huddled along with dozens of neighbors behind a police cordon at the crime scene.
Police and barangay officials said the two died in shots fired by gunmen on motorcycles as they stepped out of a ramshackle convenience store in the Pasong Tamo area of Manila. At least a dozen shots were fired, they said, going by spent bullet casings on the street.
Palomar died on the spot, shot in the head. His body was lying on the street when a Reuters team arrived at the scene, his face covered in blood. Escilona was taken to hospital but didn’t make it there alive.
No one in the crowd claimed to have witnessed the shooting. Del Rosario said four security cameras on the street could have captured the killing. But none were working.
Duterte suspended the national police from his war on drugs in late January after rogue officers kidnapped and killed a South Korean businessman and handed charge to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
More than half a dozen drug users and dealers in some of Manila’s toughest areas told Reuters that the drugs trade had come out in the open after the suspension, although it was not possible to verify their comments.
The “vigilante-style” killings of drug suspects slowed, down to about 400 in February, but it was unclear how many were drugs-related.
On Tuesday, Duterte said he needed more men to fight drugs, and had no choice but to put some police back in the campaign. He said the PDEA would remain in charge of the crackdown, with the support of the police and the military.
However, authorities have not spelled out when police are likely to return to the campaign.
In one of a series of investigative reports last year into the war on drugs, Reuters found that low-level officials in poor neighborhoods helped police assemble “watch lists” of alleged drug users and pushers that were effectively hit-lists, with many of the people named ending up dead.
Authorities strenuously deny that, and dismiss allegations that police are behind thousands of these shadowy killings, either pulling the trigger themselves, or paying hit men to do it.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa warned on Monday that lawlessness and narcotics were returning to the streets and gains in the drug war would soon be lost unless police were allowed to tackle the problem.
In another part of Manila after midnight on Tuesday, the body of a man was pulled out of a swamp behind a labyrinth of slums in the city’s Malabon area.
The victim, Jonathan Lapuz Valles, 28, was shot through the side of the head. Police at the scene declined to give details.
“Still under investigation,” said the lead officer.
Funeral home workers hauled his black body bag awkwardly through winding, narrow alleys, repeatedly dropping it and as they stumbled on planks of wood and rocks sunken into the mud.
His girlfriend howled as the body was loaded into a van on a stretcher in front of crowds of onlookers and taken to the funeral parlor before it was laid out on a table. One of the workers at the parlor said the victim was a small-time seller of drugs.
“He had no job. I don’t know if he was into drugs,” said Valles’s younger brother, Julius, his next of kin, who showed no emotion as identified the body.
“I didn’t know him so well.”
(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Romeo Ranoco; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)