When cops turn into masked killers

We don’t know if Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa realizes it. But no other event since the Duterte administration came to power has dealt a greater blow to the credibility of the police in the war on drugs than the treacherous killing last Sunday of anticrime crusader Zenaida Luz in Oriental Mindoro.

Ms. Luz’s killers drove by her house on a motorcycle wearing a bonnet and a mask. It was close to midnight. She was shot in cold blood while standing in front of her house, waiting for someone who had contacted her asking for help. It was clearly a ruse.

Responding to a distress call from village officials, a police patrol team caught up with the fleeing masked killers, who traded shots with them. Cornered and wounded, the gunmen desperately shouted “Tropa, tropa!” to signal that they were friendly troops. To their horror and shock, the police recognized the gunmen as indeed from their ranks. The assailants turned out to be Senior Insp. Magdaleno Pimentel Jr. and Insp. Markson Almeranez—out of their uniforms, moonlighting as vigilante killers.

The two were brought to hospital and are under police custody.  It is not clear what their motive was for the murder of Ms. Luz, the regional chair of the anticrime group Citizens Crime Watch. In an ideal world, she would have been their essential ally, a pillar in the community’s campaign against crime.

One could imagine how a different narrative would have taken shape if her killers had managed to flee in the darkness and remained unknown. I doubt if any serious effort to investigate would have been mounted. Instead, false accounts of the murder would have been circulated. And she would have been portrayed as the victim of vicious drug traders that have been on a killing rampage, targeting anticrime crusaders and their own people who could point to them.

Zenaida Luz had been an active and fearless civic leader who encouraged and helped drug pushers and users to take back their lives and seek rehabilitation.

Alternatively, her senseless murder would have been explained away as the outcome of a personal vendetta that had nothing to do with her anticrime work. Even worse, she could have been depicted as an unwitting coddler of drug offenders, someone who had incurred the ire and enmity of antidrug vigilantes.

Surely, in a season where the police have their hands full going after drug syndicates, no one would have suspected police officers as the killers of this 51-year-old law-abiding and civic-spirited woman. Why would anyone in the police want to eliminate someone like her?  There could be any number of reasons—reasons that precisely warrant a serious rethinking of this administration’s gruesome antidrug war.

But I can think of only one reason Senior Inspector Pimentel and Inspector Almeranez, both of them graduates of the Philippine National Police Academy, would want to silence Zenaida Luz. They must have known that she was in possession of information about their involvement in criminal activity, whether drug-related or not.  They could be among the so-called “ninja cops”—policemen who make a living reselling confiscated shabu, or working as protectors of drug syndicates.

What ought to alarm all of us is the manner in which brazen murders like that of Ms. Luz are normalized in the prevailing atmosphere of daily killings. It is obvious from the methodical way in which police officers Pimentel and Almeranez carried out their brutal deed that they had meant to mislead investigators by passing it off as an integral part of the many-sided drug war. Pimentel wore a bonnet and a jacket, while Almeranez donned a wig and a mask. They used a small motorbike, a vehicle that, unfortunately, has become the signature of vigilante-style killings.

People who express deep reservations about the daily killing of suspected drug peddlers and addicts are told they have nothing to worry about so long as they themselves are not into drugs. But—given that a lot of crimes can be committed and concealed under the cover of the war on drugs—this assurance hardly inspires confidence. It presumes many things that a modern society would be foolish to ignore.

It assumes that the police themselves have cleansed their ranks, a process that admittedly is not accomplished overnight.  One needs to ask how an entire institution could have been so misled about these two officers, particularly Insp. Markson Almeranez. No less than PNP Chief Dela Rosa recently pinned a medal on him as an outstanding police commissioned officer of Calapan City. Almeranez was in the top 10 of the PNPA graduating class of 2013, and was the chief of police of Socorro town in Oriental Mindoro. How could this man’s criminal inclinations have passed unnoticed by his superiors and peers?

The most grievous thing about the daily killings in our midst is not just the body count. It is also the fact that, when the public becomes desensitized, there will be no serious demand and no real effort to investigate these crimes. That is when an entire society begins its descent to barbarism.