MANILA - Just days before Christmas, Filipinos woke up on Monday morning (Dec 21) to a harrowing five-minute video of an off-duty police officer shooting point blank at a neighbour and her son in broad daylight over some disputes in front of a small crowd.
The incident was shocking and disturbing for its portrayal of brazen impunity, critics said. It has also once again cast a harsh light on perceived abuses by policemen purportedly emboldened by a president said to be mollycoddling officers carrying out his bloody drug war.
The video showed Mrs Sonya Gregorio, 52, with her arms wrapped tightly around her son, Mr Frank Anthony Gregorio, 25, as they were being confronted by Sergeant Jonel Nuezca, 46, just outside her house in Paniqui town, Tarlac province, 230km north of the capital Manila.
Initial media reports said the scuffle began after Mr Gregorio set off an air cannon made out of a PVC pipe at around 5pm on Sunday, creating loud noises.
Nuezca stormed out of his house to confront and arrest Mr Gregorio. A heated argument ensued, not just over the noises but also a long-running land dispute Nuezca had with Mrs Gregorio's family.
Her relatives gathered around Nuezca as the dispute escalated. A man was seen trying to pacify him. One woman was wailing and pleading for Mr Gregorio to just apologise and for Nuezca to leave.
Seconds before the shooting, Nuezca's daughter, a minor, approached Mrs Gregorio, slapped the woman's arm, and told her to let go of her son and hand him over to Nuezca, who by then had grabbed one of Mr Gregorio's arms.
"Just let go of him! Just let go!" the girl shouted. Mrs Gregorio told her: "You tell (your father) to let go."
When the girl shouted that her father is a policeman, the woman replied "I don't care!" and taunted her.
Nuezca then pulled out his 9mm pistol and shot Mrs Gregorio in the head, with dozens watching and at least two people taking videos with their phones. He then shot Mr Gregorio, also in the head.
Just before he fled the scene, he again shot Mrs Gregorio in the head as she was sprawled on the ground.
Nuezca surrendered hours later and is now facing murder charges. Investigators said he expressed remorse over what he did.
By late Monday morning, the hashtags #StopTheKillingsPH, #JusticeforSonyaGregorio", #EndPolicebrutality, #PulisAngTerorista and #OUSTDUTERTENOW were trending on Twitter in the Philippines and Singapore.
Politicians, celebrities and social media influencers demanded accountability and justice for the victims.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief, said the Philippine National Police (PNP) should show no mercy. "They should spare no effort to make sure that he rots in jail. He's the last policeman that they need in the force," he said.
Opposition senator Franklin Drilon shared the same sentiment. "This is pure evil. That devil who committed an evil act in front of his own daughter deserves to rot in jail," he said.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, whose ministry supervises the 200,000-strong police force, said: "We do not and will never tolerate such acts and we will make sure that he will account for his crimes".
But Mr Ano described it as an "unfortunate but isolated incident".
"While there are unfortunate incidents like this, the vast majority of our PNP personnel perform their sworn duties everyday with honour and integrity to protect and serve the people… The sin of Nuezca is not the sin of the entire Philippine National Police," he said.
Government critics disagreed, saying the killing reflected the "executioner's mentality" among policemen because of a "culture of impunity" stoked by President Rodrigo Duterte himself.
"This is what happens when the 'kill, kill, kill' culture becomes prevalent and reigns supreme among the police and military. This is also the same system that also enabled this worsening state of impunity that is running amuck in our country today," said Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate of the Bayan Muna (People First) political party.
Mr Drilon said: "So long as the culture of impunity exists in the country, and when there is a system that rewards misdeeds instead of punishing them, police abuses and violence will continue. Impunity breeds trigger-happy cops."
The International Criminal Court last week issued a preliminary report in which it said there was evidence to show crimes against humanity had been committed in the Philippines under Mr Duterte, whose bloody drug war has left thousands dead since 2016.
The report found there was "a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, torture and the infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm" had taken place.
At least 8,000 drug suspects have been killed since Mr Duterte took office more than four years ago.
Rights groups have reported higher numbers, and said the violence has continued even as the country remains under a coronavirus lockdown announced in March.
But Mr Duterte has stood firmly behind the police, attributing most of the killings to turf wars among drug gangs, and exonerating policemen involved by saying they merely shot back when fired upon.
He has said he will pardon any officer found guilty of murder while carrying out his crackdown.
There has been only one conviction so far, for the 2017 murder of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student. Three police officers were convicted after CCTV footage led to public outrage.
Critics have said such high-level rhetoric is being interpreted within the police force as "permission to kill".