In the Philippines, a doctor discovers the true toll of a war on drugs

QUEZON CITY, Philippines – Standing in a university classroom surrounded by six skeletons lying on wooden tables, Raquel Fortun held up ...

QUEZON CITY, Philippines – Standing in a university classroom surrounded by six skeletons lying on wooden tables, Raquel Fortun held up the shattered skull of a man who was killed during President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs.

She poked a finger through a hole in it.

“It looks like an entry,” said Dr. Fortun, who is one of only two medical examiners in the Philippines. “So an apparent gunshot wound to the head for this one.”

Since July 2021, Dr. Fortun, 60, has been quietly examining these bones at the request of a Catholic priest, the Reverend Flaviano Villanueva, and the families of the victims.

What Dr. Fortun discovered made headlines across the country.

Of 46 remains she had examined, there were seven cases in which death certificates had declared the cause of death to be natural, although her investigations had clearly shown that they were homicides. The findings, released at a press conference in April, raised questions about whether medical authorities were complicit in a cover-up.

Dr. Fortun’s discovery also suggests that the true extent of the war on drugs could be much bigger than what the government has revealed. Rights campaigners have long argued that the number of people killed – up to around 30,000 since 2016 – is far higher than the official figure. The Philippine National Police put the number at more than 6,200.

Prior to Dr. Fortun, there had been no independent investigation into the war on drugs, including its many victims. The International Criminal Court said last year it would open an investigation, but the Duterte administration said it would block investigators from entering the country.

In response to Dr Fortun’s findings, the Philippine National Police said they would conduct their own investigation into the falsified death certificates, although a conviction was unlikely. Since the beginning of the war on drugs, oOnly three police officers were imprisoned – for the murder of a 17-year-old boy.

In a country with a weak justice system, where extrajudicial executions are common and where forensics is almost non-existent, Dr. Fortun has a kind of celebrity status. Family members of homicide victims call her at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, where she heads the pathology department, or find her on social media.

She is skeptical of the police narrative that many drug war suspects were killed because they tried to fight back. She criticized the lack of a death investigation system in the Philippines for police to manage evidence, witnesses and the bodies of victims killed in police shootings.

“That’s how you get away with murder. Easily,” she said in an interview in her office. “And here I am in my ivory tower, saying, ‘No, you’re wrong. You missed this, you missed that. How do you think they feel for me?

“They hate me,” she laughs.

Dr. Fortun grew up in Quezon City in a family of lawyers and doctors. As a child, she loved taking things apart, wanting to find out what was wrong with a broken door handle or car part. She said she gravitated towards pathology, viewing it as “the backbone of medicine”.

Dr. Fortun graduated from the Philippine Medical School in 1987 and began her residency in Anatomical and Clinical Pathology in 1989 at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine.

But it was a year-long training at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office in Seattle in 1994 that led her to focus on forensics. Dr. Fortun left his 4-year-old daughter, Lisa, with her in-laws. “It was the hardest thing ever,” she said.

In a telephone interview, Dr Richard Harruff, King County Chief Medical Examiner and former boss of Dr Fortun, said he enjoyed being her mentor because “she wasn’t afraid of anything”.

“She was as good as any pathologist I’ve trained over the years,” he said. “She just absorbed it all, and the decomposed bodies and skeletal remains weren’t a factor at all. She just got the job done.

Over the years, Dr Harruff said he “always wondered how she managed not to be killed or murdered”.

This is a question that Dr. Fortun has thought a lot about.

“Am I in danger? Should I consider moving elsewhere? Dr. Fortun wondered aloud. “There is a certain effect on your psyche. You are not safe. Knowing that in the Philippines assassins can just walk up to you, start shooting and get away with it.

Regardless of the dangers, Dr. Fortun makes no effort to mince words.

She is talkative on Twitter, where she tweets under the account @Doc4Dead. In 2016, she irritated Mr. Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, after asking if Ms Duterte’s announcement that she was pregnant with triplets was part of a public relations campaign for her father. Mrs Duterte, who is ready to become vice president on June 30, called Dr. Fortun a “bitter melon” and urged her to “turn off her Twitter.”

Dr. Fortun’s work has taken her to Cyprus, The Hague and East Timor. She would make more money if she practiced medicine abroad full-time, but said she felt “there was always this guilt that I’m not in the Philippines where I’m needed.”

Most mornings, Dr. Fortun arrives at her makeshift lab at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine that she hastily assembled with tables from a junkyard. She works alone, sifting, piecing and gluing the bones together. For the past month, those mornings have been interrupted by a radiation treatment program to treat early-stage breast cancer, after which she would go to the lab.

“When I’m there in the room with all these skeletons, I feel like I’m giving them what was denied to them before,” she said. “They have not been properly investigated, properly reviewed. So I’m trying to see what was missed.

Several things caught Dr. Fortun’s attention: the victims were almost all men, the majority had head injuries, and they were the “poorest of the poor”.

She was holding a toothless jaw. “They’ve probably never seen a dentist in their life,” she said.

Dr. Fortun works for free—she charges Father Villanueva about $96 per body to cover the costs of materials only. With more and more bodies needing to be exhumed, she said she “is on a treadmill”.

Dr Fortun said she hoped to get help from the international forensic community, but acknowledged that was unlikely even when Mr Duterte left office. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., elected president in Maysaid he would not help prosecute the ICC case and would only allow investigators to enter the Philippines as tourists.

What troubles Dr. Fortun the most, she says, are unidentified people. “What happens to unnamed and unclaimed bodies? ” she asked. “Where are they?”

Dr. Fortun saves her hair and fingernails to remind herself that they “were all part of someone”. Halfway through the interview, she dug into a shelf behind her desk and held up a clear plastic bag of kneecaps that she keeps for possible DNA analysis. (“I love the patella!” she exclaimed.)

“You never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with a person,” she said. “Especially when you meet relatives.”

When presenting his file to the families to have the remains of their loved ones appraised, Father Villanueva, known as “Flavie”, declared that he had told them “we have bones that could speak”.

“In Tagalog, we call it the bones of truth,” said Father Villanueva, the founder of the AJ Kalinga Foundationa non-profit organization that helps victims’ loved ones. “Because bones can’t lie.”

After completing his examination, Dr. Fortun explains his findings to the families. Father Villanueva says he saw many parents kiss the urns with the ashes of their loved ones, while listening to it.

Father Villanueva said he knew there was only one person to turn to to examine the bones. He had never doubted Dr. Fortun about his “sense of justice”, he said, and remembered his enthusiasm when he told her about his plan.

“She demanded, craved and, at a minimum, demanded that we bring her bodies,” he said.

Five years from retirement, Dr. Fortun said she considers this project the culmination of her life’s work.

“When Father Flavie started referring them, I felt a sense of satisfaction, that, OK, I’m going to use what I know,” she said. “Finally, I wouldn’t feel so useless. I shouldn’t have these regrets for staying anymore.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In the Philippines, a doctor discovers the true toll of a war on drugs
In the Philippines, a doctor discovers the true toll of a war on drugs
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