UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Make-up covers a bullet entry wound beneath the chin of Florjohn Cruz, who was killed in October in what police said was a drug-buying sting operation in Manila. His family don't believe the police's account of what happened. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Burying the Truth

A family challenges the official story of a killing in Duterte's drug war

Philippine police say they shot Florjohn Cruz in a narcotics raid after he opened fire on them. Two days before he was buried, his family demanded a second autopsy in an effort to clear his name.

MANILA – It’s a Friday morning in late October, and Florjohn Cruz’s body lies on a metal table at a funeral parlor in the Philippine capital of Manila. A forensics team is about to perform an autopsy on him - his second.

His widow, Rita, glances at the tidy stitches running up his torso from the previous examination. Then she poses for the picture that will serve as proof of Florjohn’s identity in the report being compiled on his death by the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

Rita, who had been separated from her husband for more than a year, starts crying. Then she leaves the room.

Rita and her grief-stricken family are desperate for answers. They don’t believe the police account of the killing of her husband. The police have conducted an autopsy, but the family has asked CHR to perform a second one.

Florjohn Cruz, 34, was shot dead in his mother’s house in northern Manila on the evening of October 19, joining the more than 2,000 people police say they have killed so far in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

Police say plainclothes officers killed Cruz in self-defense after he fired at them during a drug-buying sting operation. The family says police burst into their home and shot Cruz, as he protested his innocence.

In a rare move, the family has pushed for a second autopsy, which Reuters attended, in a bid to challenge the police version of events. With Duterte encouraging police to kill drug addicts, and officers answering his call with a near-perfect kill rate, many bereaved relatives say they are fearful of questioning law enforcement authorities.

But the Cruz family crave information. There are things that don’t add up. If Cruz fired first from close range, how is it possible that no policemen were injured? And how could Cruz have fired at police if he didn’t own a gun?

“We had no information whatsoever,” said Rita. “All we saw was the body in the body bag.”

According to the police report, Cruz and two accomplices were selling drugs outside the house on October 19 at about 9.45 p.m. when they realized their would-be customers were undercover police. Cruz ran inside the house, pulled a gun and shot at the officers, missing them. The police returned fire “to prevent and repel Cruz’ unlawful aggression,” said the report. Cruz was killed.

HARD TO BEAR: Rita Cruz cries after seeing the body of her husband Florjohn at a Manila funeral parlor where the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) prepares to perform an autopsy on him. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

“He’s just a normal human being who used to do drugs. It’s like they just killed a dog.”

Sophia Cruz, 26, niece of Florjohn Cruz

The family tells a different story. They believe he was executed.

Policarpia Cruz, 74, said she was at home with her son, who was fixing her radio, when between four and six men in civilian clothes barged in with guns drawn and ordered her outside. She said she couldn’t see what happened next, but she heard her son pleading, “Please stop, there’s nothing here,” as the men slapped him around. Then she heard someone shout, “Gun!”

Shots rang out. The police didn’t allow family members back into the house to see what had happened.

The family next saw Cruz’s bullet-riddled body at Eusebio Funeral Services, a privately run funeral home that also serves as a police morgue. Photos taken there by the family show that Cruz was shot beneath the chin, through the heart and in the abdomen.   

“He’s a father. He’s just a normal human being who used to do drugs,” said Cruz’s niece, Sophia, 26. “It’s like they just killed a dog.”

Cruz, who left behind three daughters, aged 5, 7 and 12, had stopped using drugs when Duterte took office and had never owned a gun, Sophia said. “If he really did try to protect himself with a gun, then one of the (policemen) would have got shot,” she said.

The police report makes no mention of officers getting hurt.

Sophia said the family found a cardboard sign in the room where Cruz was killed. Scrawled in the Filipino national language, it read: “PUSHER AND ADDICT – DON’T IMITATE.”

Hundreds of nearly identical signs have been retrieved from the corpses of drug suspects purportedly killed by vigilantes. Cruz’s niece Sophia said she was “shocked” to find it. She believes it was left by the police, and thinks this may be evidence to support a widespread suspicion in the Philippines that police and vigilantes are acting together.

The police report makes no mention of the sign, and Johnson Almazan, the police chief of Caloocan City, told Reuters his men “vehemently denied” leaving it. Putting such a sign there served no purpose, since “they have already neutralized Florjohn Cruz,” he said.

“Are there many funeral parlors here? Go put them up now. I'll supply the bodies to you.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a campaign speech in March.

While campaigning for president, Duterte vowed to kill so many criminals if he won that people should go into the funeral business.

“Are there many funeral parlors here? Go put them up now,” he told a crowd in a campaign speech in March. “I'll supply the bodies to you.”

But most victims of Duterte’s drug war are poor, and their families often struggle to pay for funeral services. The Eusebio funeral home charges about 35,000 pesos ($700) for storing and embalming a body. About one in five Filipinos lives on less than $1.20 a day, according to government statistics.

The bodies of some drug war victims remain unclaimed. Orly Fernandez, Eusebio’s operations manager, shows Reuters a shelf stacked with five rigid corpses dressed only in underwear.

“Duterte said a lot of funeral parlors are going to be rich, but that’s not the case,” he said. “How can you make money from unclaimed bodies?”

Fernandez said Duterte’s campaign has been costly because about one in five drug-war victims arriving at his funeral home aren’t claimed. They are eventually buried in a mass grave, he said.

After the police autopsy, Cruz’s body was embalmed at the funeral parlor and placed in an open casket. The casket sat for the next nine days in the narrow alleyway outside his mother’s home.

Observing Filipino tradition, family and friends gathered there to gamble with cards and listen to music, often into the early hours of the morning. Many donated money to help pay for the funeral.

Autopsies conducted by CHR, a government-funded body, are free. CHR investigators screen the case for suspected human rights violations before agreeing to take it on.

The autopsy room at the Eusebio funeral home is stark, clean and odorless. Kitchen knives and a sharpening stone are stacked in a sink. A wire rack holds glue, metal probes and other tools.

First, the CHR team takes an inventory of Cruz’s tattoos – on his right upper pectoral, right arm and back. Then they remove the stitching from the previous autopsy and sponge away the embalming fluid from his torso.

The CHR team finds a hole above Cruz’s right ear and another in his shattered skull.

They discover three bullet wounds, in Cruz’s abdomen, chest and head. Later, they trace the path that each bullet took. One entered his chest, crossed a lung and ventricle of his heart, then exited through his back. Another bullet entered near his navel and pierced part of his small intestine.

The path of the third bullet through Cruz’s brain is more difficult to trace. The CHR team finds a hole above his right ear and another in his shattered skull.

With a foot-long kitchen knife and a hacksaw, the team opens his skull and finds a bullet fragment. The police coroners missed it because they didn’t open his skull.

Only toward the end of the autopsy does the CHR team spot the entry wound beneath Cruz’s chin, obscured by embalming putty and make-up applied after the first autopsy. They use a metal probe to trace the bullet’s path. It entered from underneath his chin, then the bullet split.

MISSING EVIDENCE: The bullet fragment found inside Florjohn Cruz's skull by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) forensics team was apparently overlooked by police during an earlier autopsy. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Coroner Joseph Jimenez says ‘thank you’ to Cruz’s corpse, and his team observes a moment of silence.

“It happens that you sometimes overlook something,” says Joseph Jimenez, a CHR coroner, referring to the difficulty of conducting a second autopsy on Cruz. “There is putty and makeup. It’s not obvious.”

The CHR autopsy takes two hours. That’s twice as long as the police autopsy, according to Eusebio’s staff.

At the end, Jimenez says “thank you” to Cruz’s corpse, and his team observes a moment of silence. Then he explains his findings to the family. The bottom line: None of the findings of the second autopsy suggest that Cruz was executed, he says.

There are no obvious clues pointing to an execution, such as a shot to the forehead or the back of the head. And only limited information can be gleaned from an autopsy on a body like Cruz’s that has already been embalmed, Jimenez told Reuters. Organs change consistency, he said, and stitching destroys the edges of wounds and changes their size and shape.

Nevertheless, some evidence has clearly been overlooked. And Rita seems mollified by the new information from the second autopsy. The police hadn’t opened her husband’s skull and hadn’t found the bullet fragment lodged in his brain.

“There are new findings. We may file a police case.”

Rita Cruz, wife of Florjohn Cruz

She says she and her family will need to decide whether to continue to press for answers. “There are new findings,” she says. “We may file a police case.”  

Back inside the funeral parlor, Rogelio Coraza, who has worked at Eusebio for a decade, spends an hour re-stitching Cruz’s wounds and bathing and dressing the body. He glues Cruz’s eyes shut, then uses an assortment of sponges, brushes and make-up on the body.

He then puts baby oil in Cruz’s hair and combs it. After Cruz’s body is placed in the coffin, he combs his hair again.

Two days later, the family again leaves home with Cruz’s coffin, this time for the cemetery. Family and friends crowd around the coffin inside a small concrete chapel, holding white helium balloons with the words, “We will miss you Florjohn FJ Cruz.”


Duterte’s War: Burying the Truth

By Clare Baldwin, Andrew R.C. Marshall and Damir Sagolj

Photography: Damir Sagolj

Design: Catherine Tai

Edited by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague