Kian delos Santos was delivered to his grave by a consoling throng of family, neighbors, by kin of fellow victims and strangers; an unexpected, unlikely martyr to the excesses of the Philippine’s anti-drug campaign.
Kian, just 17, was killed – indications point to cold-blooded murder – during a police narcotics operation at a slum community of Caloocan City last Aug. 16. The way his young life was snuffed out and the brazen attempt by authorities to find justification and cover it up are fueling a public rage rarely seen in the country.
We surmise the backlash has been so serious that Pres. Rodrigo Duterte who in the past has applauded the killing of thousands of suspected drug users and traffickers – overwhelmingly poor – apparently felt compelled to issue a rare warning to cops. “You are not allowed to kill a person who is kneeling down, begging for his life,” he declared.
But the teen’s death has helped galvanize opposition to the President’s anti-drug drive, particularly extrajudicial killings that are blamed for the majority of deaths since the campaign was launched last year. Kian has provided a face to the ugly repercussions of the government’s deadly rampage.
Though there have been many before him, Kian’s death looks to have hit a raw nerve in Philippine society that seems increasingly frayed by political divisions, the perception of unabated corruption, fresh threats from Islamic terrorism, unkept promises or simply the vexation of seeing too many dead bodies on television. Whatever it may, Kian’s death may signal a turning point for the Duterte administration.
As the angry started boiling over, Duterte supporters and social media trolls swung into action, aiding an apparent cover-up that focused on portraying Kian’s alleged links to drugs. Still, the counter attacks didn’t look as venomous or full-throated as in past instances. One could sense they realized it was different this time around.
The Delos Santos family was a poster card of today’s Filipino family. His mother Lorenza related how she had to kneel in desperate supplication to her Saudi employer so she’d be allowed to fly home for her Kian’s wake.
“My son is full of dreams,” his father Saldy told reporters who converged on their modest home. “All that kid did was study. He studied hard so he can lift himself from our poverty. And they just killed him.” Kian was in 11th grade at Our Lady of Lourdes College in nearby Valenzuela City.
“We were just chatting on Facebook the night before his death. His classmates had bikes. He said, ‘Mama, I want a bike too.’ But I told him to wait 10 days. He got excited,” she related. She has not seen her son for three years.
They were a typical Filipino family. Attempts by authorities to portray Kian or his father as deep into the drug trade cut further into the wound, not only for the Delos Santos family but also for a grieving, perturbed nation. And it also served to undermine further the credibility of an already damaged Philippine National Police (PNP).
Earlier this year, some members of an elite PNP drug-fighting unit were implicated in the abduction and murder of South Korean businessman Ick Joo Jee. An official probe determined that Jee was accused of being involved in drugs and supposedly arrested from his home in Pampanga; the PNP men however demanded millions in ransom from his wife. It turned out he was strangled to death on the very same day the cops hauled him away to the PNP national headquarters at Camp Crame. Jee reportedly died within a stone’s throw from the home of PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa.
That triggered an international incident which forced Pres. Duterte to issue a formal apology to South Korea last January. Though there were also calls for him to scrap his bloody campaign, he ordered instead a pause in PNP anti-drug operations. The campaign restarted with vengeance six months later with the killing of Ozamis City Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog, his wife, brother and a dozen others under suspicious circumstances.
The government’s brutal anti-drug crackdown enjoys wide public support, an acknowledgment of gains made against the country’s pervasive drug problem. There is no sign, however, that Pres. Duterte or the PNP has effectively addressed a longstanding infirmity in the war against drugs – police corruption. And it’s left the President’s get-tough agenda vulnerable to the shifting political winds.
The Delos Santos family, reports say was an ardent supporter of Pres. Duterte in the 2016 elections. Kian was even wearing the president’s campaign tee. “Siyempre masakit ‘di ba? Masakit samin na sumuporta tapos ang anak ko naging biktima pa,” (Of course it’s painful, isn’t it? It’s painful because my son became a victim), Saldy told reporters at his son’s wake.
“Mali, no?” (It was a mistake?) he asked no one in particular.