MANILA - A province north of Manila has emerged as the Philippines' "bloodiest killing field" in President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal drug war, activists said on Monday (July 8).
"Bulacan is the new epicentre… It is now the country's bloodiest killing field," Mr Butch Olano, section director of Amnesty International Philippines, told reporters.
No exact figures were provided for Bulacan but at least 542 drug suspects were killed last year in sting operations in a seven-province region in the central part of the main Philippine island of Luzon. Most of those killed were in Bulacan, just an hour's drive north of Manila.
That was nearly double the 285 killings reported in the same year in Metro Manila, the capital region which spans 16 cities and one town.
Mr Olano said the spike in killings in Bulacan coincided with the transfer to central Luzon of police officers who presided over the drug war as it peaked in ferocity in Metro Manila, when over 600 suspects were killed in just three months in 2016.
One of those officers was Colonel Chito Bersaluna, who now heads the Bulacan police.
Col Bersaluna was police chief when three anti-narcotics agents killed 17-year-old Kian de los Santos in 2017 in a raid on a slum area in Caloocan city, in Metro Manila.
The teen was shot thrice as he begged for his life in a dark, trash-logged alley by a river, near a pigsty. His death drew widespread condemnation for its brutality and brazenness, and forced Mr Duterte to dial down his drug war.
Amnesty, in its report "They Just Kill", focused on Bulacan, examining 27 killings in 20 incidents in the province, 18 of which were official police operations.
Most of those killed were on community "watch lists" of people suspected of use or involvement in drugs, Amnesty found.
It viewed those lists as unreliable and illegitimate.
"These are essentially kill lists… These are not products of a fair and legal process," said Mr Olano.
Amnesty said that based on witness testimonies and other credible information, half of the cases appeared to have been extrajudicial executions,
The police narrative that undercover officers posing as drug buyers killed only in self-defence "doesn't meet the feeblest standards of credibility", it said.
Mr Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty's regional director for East Asia, said the drug war's brutality seems to have shifted to places like Bulacan where there is less media scrutiny.
"The attention given to the epidemic of extrajudicial killings in Metro Manila itself may have forced the government to conduct this murderous policy outside of the capital. The government wants to escape scrutiny. It wants to evade accountability," he said.
Amnesty described the drug war as still a "large-scale murdering enterprise for which the poor continue to pay the highest price", and that it has reached "the threshold of crimes against humanity".
In response, Mr Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo slammed Amnesty for "politicising the so-called extrajudicial killings".
"There is bias. There is prejudice," he said.
Mr Duterte and the police have denied any authorisation for extrajudicial killings.
Mr Duterte, however, has warned the crackdown would be more dangerous for suspects in the final three years of his six-year term.
Amnesty's report comes as the United Nations Human Rights Council prepare to vote on a resolution calling for an investigation into Mr Duterte's bloody crackdown on the narcotics trade.
A vote on the resolution by the 47-member council is expected later on Friday (July 12).
The exact number of dead in Mr Duterte's drug war is impossible to independently verify. But many thousands are reported to have been killed with more than 6,000 of those during operations in which police said suspects were armed and had fought back.
The government has repeatedly rejected allegations that police have executed drug users and dealers.
Amnesty said the authorities used "deliberate obfuscation and misinformation" to make it impossible to monitor the full extent of killings, which overwhelmingly targeted poor and marginalised communities lacking the means or support to mount legal challenges against police.
Mr Olano said with the drug war no longer as documented as before, "the killings are being normalised".