Arrests of drug dealers continue in the Philippines despite the conviction of several low-ranking police in Manila last week for the murder of a teenager during the country’s notorious anti-drugs crackdown.

A former Filipino migrant worker was caught with 15 packets of illegal drugs – shabu or crystal meth – in Dumaguete City in Cebu province early last week.

Arniel Repe, 36, was arrested during a buy-bust operation conducted by the City Drug Enforcement Unit, the Regional Special Operations Group and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Philippines News Agency reported.

The Dangerous Drug Board estimated that the packets of suspected crystal meth seized were worth about 885,000 pesos or US$16,907.

Repe admitted that he went to Consolacion in Cebu on November 25, to deliver the drugs to Dumaguete City for distribution during a festival in the city. Authorities recovered a mobile phone, the buy-bust money and a motorcycle that was allegedly used in his suspect’s illegal activities.

Police convicted of murder

Days later, three Philippine police were sentenced to decades in prison for murdering a teenager during an anti-narcotics sweep – the first conviction of officers carrying out President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

Duterte had vowed to pardon authorities involved in his bloody crackdown, but he refused to defend the 2017 killing of Kian Delos Santos in a dank Manila alley, which helped spark rare protests against the campaign, AFP reported.

Police said the 17-year-old was a drug courier who fired at them while resisting arrest. However, CCTV footage showed two of the policemen dragging the unarmed boy moments before he was shot dead.

In the teen’s final moments, he was on the ground covering his head with his hands and pleading, “Sir, please don’t do it”, according to eyewitness testimony.

Delos Santos’ family erupted in tears in the cramped northern Manila courtroom after the men were convicted of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years behind bars.

“I feel so happy because this proves that my son was innocent and was never involved in drugs,” Delos Santos’ mother, Lorenza, told reporters. “[Policemen] can be jailed for life if they do not stop their abusive practices,” she said.

Drug war critics hailed the conviction as an example of justice and accountability, which they said has been rare since Duterte unleashed the campaign to rid the Philippines of narcotics in 2016.

About 15,000 suspected to have been killed

Since then police say they have killed nearly 5,000 alleged drug users and pushers who fought against arrest, while rights groups say the true toll is at least triple that and may amount to crimes against humanity.

Carlos Conde, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AFP: “This is a warning to the Philippine National Police that they better follow due process and respect the rights of suspects.”

But Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo also welcomed the ruling as he gave assurances the president opposed “intentional killing”. “It shows that this country has a robust judicial system,” he said.

Duterte’s government has argued a preliminary probe of the drug war killings launched by the International Criminal Court is unjustified because the nation’s justice system is functioning.

Rights advocates agreed that the decision was important, but noted that it only involved low-ranking police. They have said they will be watching closely to try to assess if the court verdict results in less drug dealers being killed.

Protests

Duterte and his drug war are backed by many Filipinos fed up with high crime rates and a slow-moving judicial system. But the death of Delos Santos, as well as of two other Manila teenagers accused of robbing a taxi driver, triggered rare street protests in 2017 and highlighted concerns about police abuse.

Days after the killing, Duterte said in a speech: “It was really bad. That was really not performance of duty. Do not commit a crime”.

It led to Duterte briefly suspending police participation in the drug crackdown for a second time. The first occasion was in January last year after narcotics police officers were arrested for the kidnapping and murder of a South Korean businessman in 2016.

However, in both instances the police were reinstated in the campaign without major reforms.

Meanwhile, the PDEA said it encourages the public to report any suspected illegal drug activities to them or other authorities such as the Philippine National Police or the National Bureau of Investigation.

Filipinos abroad who are being targeted to be drug-peddlers or drug mules can report such problems or concerns to the nearest Philippine embassy, they said.

– with reporting by Agence France-Presse