‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ Bad Cops in the Philippines

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‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ Bad Cops in the Philippines

The murder of a Korean businessman shines a light on abuses of power by Philippine police.

‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ Bad Cops in the Philippines
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal

On October 18, 2016, wealthy South Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo was allegedly kidnapped and murdered by members of an elite anti-drugs unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP), who were reportedly working in collusion with criminal elements.

Under the pretext of an anti-drugs operation, eight armed men dragged Jee from his house in Angeles City and took him to the police headquarters in Camp Crame, Manila before contacting his wife, Choi Kyung-jin, to demand a ransom of eight million pesos, roughly $160,000. Thinking her husband had been kidnapped, she paid the ransom. Her husband, however, was already dead. The perpetrators strangled him at the police headquarters on the day they kidnapped him. They also reportedly incinerated his body in a crematorium owned by a former police officer and flushed his ashes down a lavatory.

The incident came to light in January 2017 after several of the police officers involved were apprehended, causing significant embarrassment for the current regime under President Rodrigo Duterte. The president promised that the officers involved “will suffer” and both he and police chief Ronald dela Rosa have apologized to Choi Kyung-jin, the widow, and the South Korean government.

Jee’s kidnapping has further raised concerns around Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Duterte was elected president in June 2016 on a populist, tough-on-crime platform. During the elections, for example, he promised to dump the bodies of 100,000 criminals in Manila Bay. This campaign was largely successful given a stark increase in crime, reportedly by 300 percent since 2012. In 2012, the total number of reported incidents was 217,812 while by 2015, this figure had risen to 1,161,188. Additionally, the ability of the police to solve crimes has reportedly steadily declined as well. In 2004, 89.86 percent of crimes were solved whereas in 2013 that figure had dropped to just 28.56 percent.

Since coming to power, Duterte has delivered on his campaign promises and given both police and vigilante groups the go-ahead to kill suspected drug dealers and users. An estimated 7,000 people have been killed thus far, 2,500 of them allegedly by police, drawing international condemnation from the European Union, Human Rights Watch, and the Catholic Church. Police have also been accused of looting the homes of slain alleged drug dealers. Now, as a result of Jee’s murder, police chief dela Rosa has confirmed that drug-busting units will be disbanded while the police attempt to address internal corruption.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who watches the watchmen?” is a question often invoked when discussing issues around accountability. Coined by the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal, the phrase refers to one of the central questions at the heart of all political matters: how can the public trust those in authority, like politicians and police officers, to act justly? Based off their track record, the Philippine police are in dire need of watching. The police have been consistently ranked as the most corrupt institution in the Philippines. Additionally, they have a concerning history of criminal activity, including, but not limited to extortion, kidnapping, torture, and murder.

Spurious police raids also take place with alarming frequency. These raids often lead to demands for ransom. For example, three South Korean nationals on a golfing holiday were allegedly kidnapped by police officers during a spurious anti-gambling raid in January 2017. The three were staying in the same upscale gated community in Angeles City as Jee. Police entered the property and robbed the three Koreans, stealing watches, cash, and expensive golf clubs. They were then taken to a local police station and a friend was compelled to pay a 300,000 peso ransom ($6,035) to secure their release. While the officers responsible have been dismissed, no charges were filed owing to the fact that the three Koreans fled the country. In both cases, it is evident that corrupt police are trying to take advantage of the fear generated by Duterte’s anti-crime campaigns to target wealthy foreigners.

Duterte’s statements and actions to date suggest a dismissive attitude toward notions of accountability. For example, he has promised to protect police accused of drug-war-related extrajudicial killings, thereby giving carte blanche to local security forces. “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you. And if they try to impeach me, I will hurry the process and we will go out of the service together,” he reportedly said.

This attitude pervades the Duterte administration and is apparent in the ousting of opposition Senator Leila de Lima from a senate investigation of extra-judicial killings in September 2016. De Lima had initiated an inquiry to look into the surge in extra-judicial killings that accompanied the advent of Duterte’s government. However, Duterte’s allies, which include boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao, control the senate’s legislative chamber. These allies have accused de Lima of being biased against the president and asserted that her investigation was ruining the country’s image.

By shining a global spotlight on police criminality, Jee’s kidnapping has further damaged this global image. It also undermines Duterte’s political standing at home, by showing that opposition figures are right to be critical of the “war on drugs.” To avoid future incidents, the culture of impunity prevalent within politics and in the Philippine police service needs to be replaced with one of accountability.

Rob Attwell is an Asia-Pacific analyst at S-RM, a global business intelligence, risk management and cyber security firm.