The rain was relentless the night Cherwen Polo turned 38, transforming his slum into a slurry of mud and garbage. Water leaked through his corrugated tin roof. Inside, he and four friends had been celebrating for hours, drinking late into the night.
There was a knock at the door. It was the police.
Moments later, they shot and killed Polo and three of his friends.
The raid on Aug. 14, 2016, was business as usual for the Philippine police, who have killed an estimated 3,800 suspected drug dealers and users since that summer in a brutal but popular campaign waged by the president, Rodrigo Duterte. As is typical in such cases, police said that the operation was a “buy-bust” and that Polo had fired on them first.
The dead have left behind countless family members, most too overwhelmed, too impoverished or too afraid of police retaliation to pursue justice through the courts.
Polo’s 30-year-old widow is different: Kathrina Polo has decided to seek justice.
Her attorney, Ona Caritos, said she will soon file a case with the Ombudsman of the Philippines — which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting officials — accusing 16 police officers of indiscriminate killing. Human rights advocates have dubbed the case the “Birthday Massacre.”
Polo’s widow, like the majority of victims of Duterte’s drug war, is poor. Her neighborhood — Payatas in Quezon City, near Manila — is a warren of shacks, open-air kitchens and piles of trash, and home to up to 500,000 people.
She met Polo in 2006, when she was 19, and before long, the two eloped. “I didn’t fall in love with him right away,” she said. “It developed over time. He wasn’t very good-looking. But he was nice.”
The couple had three children: Marco, Kaithlyn and Erinne, now 2, 7 and 10. Polo was a good father who did much of the cooking and other household chores, his widow said.
He was also a drug runner for two years before finding work last May in construction, according to Kathrina, a buyer for local pharmacies.
What follows is her account of events the night of the killings.
Polo and his friends were drinking heavily upstairs while Kathrina stayed downstairs with the children, who fell asleep on a mat.
Around 11 p.m., she went upstairs to check on her husband and found him and a friend — whom she knew only as “Rambo” — passed out.
The other men — Darwin Hamoy, 17, William Bordeos, 29, and Harold Arevalo, 29 — sat in the corner, starting on a fresh case of beer.
Kathrina was preparing milk formula for Marco at 11:45 p.m. when somebody knocked at the gate — just a light tap.
Then she heard the voice of Bordeos, who had gone to answer the door. “There’s nothing — please don’t,” he said.
Gunfire rang out. “This is a raid!” the men shouted as they trundled up the stairs. Then she heard two more shots.
A police officer came downstairs, opened the front door and told Kathrina to get out.
“Why would I get out?” she replied. “This is my house!”
But when the officer grabbed her 10-year-old, Kathrina followed them outside.
She saw Bordeos on the ground, a gunshot wound beneath his eye, his head a mess of gore.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“You know what’s happening,” an officer replied.
Kathrina took the children to a neighbor’s house. Then she heard Arevalo crying for help. There was a thump, like a blow to the body, and a solitary scream.
It was 4 a.m. when she returned home.
“Everything was taken away,” she said — her money, her jewelry, a new TV, even the pharmaceuticals that she sold. Blood coated most of the second floor. The roof above the kitchen had collapsed. Arevalo must have jumped onto it from the second-story window, Kathrina figured.
She went to the local police station.
“Sir, where can I find my husband?” she asked an officer.
“Are you related to Harold [Arevalo]?” the officer replied. “He’s the only one who survived.”
“I don’t believe you,” Kathrina said. “My husband was sleeping. How could you shoot someone who’s asleep?”
The police had taken all five men to hospitals, where all but Arevalo were pronounced dead on arrival.
Charged with assault, Arevalo was briefly detained, then went into hiding.
Kathrina approached a higher-level police officer about the case, and he connected her with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, which was established under the country’s 1987 constitution to investigate alleged human rights violations.
The commission took the case and solicited testimony from Payatas police, who told a very different story from Kathrina’s account.
In a joint affidavit, two police officers present that night — Herbert Angoluan and Wilson Escuro — said a “reliable informant” told them that Polo was selling shabu, a cheap methamphetamine.
Their station commander dispatched a team of 14 officers to Polo’s house to conduct a buy-bust operation. Escuro, wearing plainclothes, knocked on the gate, as the other officers hid nearby.
Polo opened it, “apparently waiting for a drug customer while his cohorts actually engaged in a drugs … session inside his house,” the affidavit said. When Polo realized Escuro was a policeman, he shouted and began shooting while retreating into his house, the statement said.
The five men in the house “pulled their handguns and fired towards us and … the team, prompting us to retaliate resulting in the neutralization of the suspects,” that account said.
Police said they took the bodies to the hospital, searched the house and found five loaded guns and two small plastic bags full of shabu. They also said a fifth man died in the raid, but he has not been identified, and Kathrina said nobody else was in her house that night.
The officers dismissed Kathrina’s testimony as “mere conjectures and presumption.” The superintendent overseeing the raid — Lito Patay — could not be reached for comment.
The human rights commission said the officers’ testimony raises several questions: If it’s true, why does the house show no signs of a gun battle — no bullet holes in its walls, its roof or its staircase? Why the inconsistency between the police and Polo’s account over who answered the knock at the gate?
Why did the police give the commission pictures of guns and drugs in the house, but no bodies? Why did they remove the bodies before crime scene investigators arrived? Why did they find no firearm on Arevalo? Why would he jump out of a window and leave a gun behind?
Kathrina’s story is supported by an autopsy report that was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and shows that Bordeos was probably shot in the back and that Polo was presumably not outside when he was shot, but rather lying in the right corner of the upstairs bedroom.
Duterte’s government has expressed hostility toward the human rights commission. In a display of contempt, the Philippine Congress’ lower house voted last month to slash the commission’s $17-million budget to about $20. The Senate pushed back by proposing an increase. The two houses must negotiate a final budget.
Soon after Polo’s widow decided to pursue the case, she said, she began receiving threatening calls from people who refused to identify themselves. In one instance, the caller said he represented the human rights commission and told her to come to the local police station. When she called the commission, it denied placing the call.
Later, she received a text message: “you’d better stop,” it said, “or you’ll follow in [your husband’s] footsteps.” Another time, two unidentified men attempted to pick up her children from school but left after the school security guard began asking questions.
If the Ombudsman of the Philippines finds there may be enough evidence for an indictment, it refers the case to a court, typically within a year. The court then has the final say on innocence or guilt. Analysts say the case of the Birthday Massacre could drag on for years.
“Whenever the trail leads to a government official, or police officers themselves, then it goes cold, it dies,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “And this happens a fair bit.”
“It’s the bravest, most resilient people who would want to try to risk that and go through this meat grinder of a system to try to get justice for their loved ones,” he said. “And that deserves great respect, but ‘an uphill battle’ doesn’t even begin to describe what they’re going through.”
In the meantime, the drug war continues. On Aug. 14, police in the province of Bulacan killed 32 drug suspects in what’s become known as the campaign’s “bloodiest night.”
The next day, Manila police killed 12 more in what they called a “one-time, big-time” crackdown on drug suspects. One of the victims — Kian Loyd delos Santos — was 17, spurring thousands of people to take to the streets in protest.
The demonstration was a rare display — and perhaps a sign that support for Duterte’s campaign may be starting to wane.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted between February and May this year found that 78% of Filipinos supported Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. But the polling organization Social Weather Stations reported this week that 49% of Filipinos agreed that many victims of the campaign were “not really drug pushers.”
This week, in an apparent response to his critics, Duterte said he was transferring anti-drug operations from the police to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. He issued a similar suspension of police involvement in the drug war in January but lifted it a month later.
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