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Philippines: Duterte Under Fire as Mayor Shot Dead in Jail Shootout

A Philippine mayor died in a shootout with police in his jail cell Sunday, arrested after surfacing on a list President Rodrigo Duterte made public of suspected drug criminals operating within the government.

Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa, Sr., was the father of Kerwin Espinosa, suspected of running one of the largest shabu (methamphetamine) trafficking operations in the Philippines. Duterte accused him of being fully aware of his son’s business dealings, though the mayor rejected the idea that he had participated in the drug trafficking.

After surfacing on a list of more than 150 policemen, elected officials, and judges – later upgraded to an excess of 1,000 individuals allegedly involved in drug trafficking – police raided Espinosa’s home in August. The mayor surrendered to police, but only after authorities killed six of his private bodyguards in a dramatic shootout. He had reportedly been cooperating with police before the incident Sunday.

Acting on new evidence, members of the Philippine Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) acquired a warrant to search Espinosa’s jail cell this weekend, and entered it around 4 a.m. local time Sunday. What happened next is a matter of dispute. The officers claim Espinosa was selling drugs out of his cell and had smuggled a weapon into the jail. Killing him was a necessary act of self-defense, they say.

Other prisoners allegedly told a different story, the Philippine Star reports. Witnesses claim Espinosa loudly told police not to “plant evidence” on him and asserted, “I’m not hiding any firearms.” They add that it did not appear the authorities possessed the proper warrant for the raid.

“Closed circuit television footage of what the CIDG team claimed was an armed encounter with Espinosa and Yap is missing,” the Star notes.

Chief Inspector Leo Laraga supported the officers, claiming they properly filed for their search warrant and Espinosa and his cell partner confronted the officers with firearms.

Kerwin Espinosa, reportedly the mastermind behind the family’s alleged shabu operation, is also in police custody. He was arrested in Abu Dhabi in October. Authorities expected his father to be a key witness in the case against him; the elder Espinosa signed an affidavit listing fifty individuals he believed to be running his son’s operation, one that uncle Ramon Espinosa claims he signed under duress. The police have dismissed this claim.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ronald dela Rosa has stated that the affidavit is still valid and vowed to fully protect Kerwin Espinosa until he can stand trial.

“I think it’s still admissible because the affidavit has already been subscribed to. That’s what the SolGen said. It’s still useful,” he said, adding that Kerwin “should not worry.” He said, “I will watch over him even if I have to do it myself. Nothing will happen to him.”

The case has raised alarm among the human rights activist communities warning that since President Duterte took office his campaign promise to eradicate drugs from ravaged urban communities would result in significant violations of human rights. Duterte not only promised to eliminate the illegal drug trade, he set up a bounty with surplus campaign cash meant for civilians and police who kill drug suspects, and vowed to kill anyone who, upon being accused of a drug crime, did not immediately surrender.

Duterte has responded to criticism on repeated occasions with profane tirades, including an instance in which he told the European Union, “Fuck you.”

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