Corrupt policemen and the war on drugs

The biggest beneficiaries of the current campaign against drugs are the rogue elements in the police force—particularly those “with an entrepreneurial affinity for proactive graft.” This type of police officers can turn every rebooted anticrime effort into an opportunity to shake down the vulnerable.

They will not hesitate to use the exigencies of law enforcement as a blanket warrant to justify trampling on basic rights that are meant to protect citizens from illegal arrests, searches, and intrusions into their dwellings. And they are ready to kill for the same reason—because they expect to be protected by superiors who grant them the presumption of regularity in their work performance, under a cover of secrecy made possible by the absence of any palpable effort to investigate the misdeeds of their brother policemen.

This seems to be the culture that created the likes of SP03 Ricky Sta. Isabel, a member of the Philippine National Police’s Anti-Illegal Drugs Group, who has been accused of abducting and killing Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo. The commission of this crime is astounding in its impunity, and perhaps nothing illustrates this more grimly than the cold, unruffled look on the face of the principal accused.

The 53-year-old victim, along with his housemaid, was taken from his home in Angeles City in October 2016 by unidentified police officers. The maid was later allowed to go home. There was no warrant for Jee’s arrest, but, according to the maid, her boss was “invited” for questioning in connection with illegal drug activities. Before he could contact a lawyer, the Korean was brought to the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame, where, according to the affidavit of another accused officer, SPO4 Roy Villegas, Sta. Isabel took over the interrogation and strangled the victim.

From Camp Crame, Jee’s lifeless body was transferred to a funeral parlor in Caloocan City, and then to another in the same area, where it was cremated. The owner of the first funeral parlor, retired policeman Gerardo Santiago, currently a barangay chair, allegedly received payment of P30,000 in cash and a set of 14 golf clubs belonging to the Korean for agreeing to accept the body. The golf set was later recovered from Santiago’s funeral home. The story, however, doesn’t end there.

Jee’s wife, Choi Kyung-jin, was subsequently contacted by her husband’s police abductors, who made her believe he was still alive and would be released in exchange for a sum of money. Ms Choi managed to raise only P5 million, which she promptly delivered to the group. But, of course, they did not release Jee, who at that point was already dead. Instead, they asked for more money. It was then that she sought the help of the National Bureau of Investigation. The NBI has since informed her of Jee’s gruesome death and cremation.

From the accounts given by SPO4 Villegas and another police officer, Christopher Baldovino, who has admitted to being part of the team that conducted surveillance on the Korean businessman, the entire operation was planned and led by Sta. Isabel from beginning to end. Their testimonies point to Sta. Isabel as the mastermind.  But, it is hard to believe that these two police officers, Villegas and Baldovino, were unwitting participants in a criminal plot hatched solely by one of their own.

We don’t know what happened exactly. We don’t know if the Korean was involved in drugs or not, but it’s important to know how and why he became a target. Initially, perhaps, there was no plan to kill him, but there was a clear intent to shake him down. When he could not deliver what the police wanted, they killed him just like that. Their first instinct might have been to wrap his body in packing tape, and dump it somewhere with a cardboard sign indicating his drug links.  The basic paraphernalia needed for vigilante-style killing had been prepared.

But, this was not an ordinary “tokhang” operation. These policemen had other things in mind, for which they had to make it appear the victim was still alive. They were determined to squeeze some money from his wife.  They had to make the body disappear instead, and how convenient that a former police buddy owned a funeral parlor.

Even if only half of the testimonies against Sta. Isabel were true, the evidence would be more than enough to support his guilt. In deciding to testify against their police buddy, Villegas and Baldovino were, I am sure, driven less by conscience than by a wish to be exonerated or charged with a lesser offense. It would be instructive to know how our police organization breeds this level of depravity in its ranks. How did these police officers graduate from bribery to extortion, and from graft to murder?

Sociological studies of the “moral career” of police officers show that almost all policemen everywhere find themselves initiated into a life of graft by the routine offer of a bribe (“pangmeryenda” or “pangsigarilyo”). This is passed off as a minor perk of the job. From there, they graduate to organized collection (“for the boys”) from operators of gambling and prostitution joints.  Once a policeman accepts a share from the group “take,” it is almost impossible for him to talk about honest enforcement. The descent to pure extortion is a certainty especially when dealing with narcotics.

No single police officer, no matter how brazen, can pull off a heinous crime like this without the collusion of other officers.  But, more to the point, a crime of this nature can only be the byproduct of a climate of impunity and public timidity that—in the name of the so-called war on drugs—has normalized abduction and the raiding of homes, and has made killing an everyday thing.