A woman cries as her son, a victim of drug-related killings, is laid to rest in Manila. (Photo by Vincent Go)
The bodies were found in the northern part of Manila in the early hours of Nov 22. All the victims — young men aged under 20 — had their throats slit.
Three of the victims knew each other. Harrold, 17, was the cousin of Jerico, 16, and his brother Jomari, 17.
They were last seen having drinks at the home of Harrold's girlfriend, Mey, two nights before.
Harrold's mother, Mary Jane, said her son, the fourth among six siblings, was a "good boy," who cared for family members when they got sick.
"He was sweet, and good looking. He was popular with the girls," she said.
Things changed after Mary Jane's husband, Joel, was killed at the market where he worked. Harrold got involved with the "wrong crowd," his mother said.
Harrold's gang of petty thieves is known in the community. They are regulars at the city's juvenile detention center.
Harrold, Jerico, and Jomari were missing for almost two days when Mey received a message from him at 2:32 a.m. on Nov. 22.
"Love, we got arrested," read the message posted on social media.
"Where are you, we will go there," Mey wrote back. "Love, I am already very worried," she added.
There was no reply.
A couple of minutes later, Mey received a message she thought was from Harrold. "He is already dead. It's a pity."
"Love? Hey, answer me," Mey replied.
At about 3 a.m. that same morning, a close-circuit camera in the village caught a vehicle stopping at a street corner before speeding off.
Local security guards later found the body of Jomari. The bodies of Jerico and Harrold were later discovered in a neighboring district.
A cardboard sign was left near the bodies. "This is our territory, don't come here, you will be next," it read. After an hour, two more bodies were found in nearby areas.
Police believe the killings were the result of a turf war.
Manila's killing fields
On the day that Bishop Virgilio Pablo David of Kalookan, an outspoken critic of the government's deadly "war against drugs," held a healing Mass for families of drug-related killings, Harrold was laid to rest.
The boy's wake lasted 17 days because the family had no money for the burial, which was delayed because of the need to raise about US$140 for the tomb.
At the cemetery, Mary Jane demanded that the coffin be opened so she could see her son for the last time. "It is not right," she wailed. "A mother should not be burying her children."
In his homily during the Mass for victims’ families on the other side of the city, Bishop David said "no one is born evil, but there are those who will try to sway us into darkness."
"Let us strive hard to look for the light in others with genuine compassion," said the prelate, adding that masked murderers have turned his diocese into a "killing field."
The bishop tried to provide words of comfort for the families. "While there is life, there is hope," he said. "It is not right for anybody to put a period to end anybody's life.”
"It really hurts to be a victim, it hurts more to continue to be a victim," said Bishop David. "But what is worse is if we lose all hope in humanity and let hatred take over us that we become like those who victimize the helpless."
Bishop Virgilio Pablo David of Kalookan comforts a woman who lost a family member to the Philippine government's deadly war against drugs. (Photo by Vincent Go)
Rising body count
The body count of victims in the government's drug war continues to rise but the police claim the media has been misreporting and exaggerating the numbers to make the government look bad.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact figures in a campaign that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said would be accomplished in three months, then six, then another year and finally until the end of his term.
The government itself is releasing conflicting figures.
An investigation by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism concluded that the government’s numbers were "varied, unreal, inexact and locked in riddles."
When #RealNumbersPh published its July 1, 2016 to May 30, 2017 infographic, it showed 12,833 homicide cases, 2,091 of which were drug related, 2,447 non-drug related, and 7,888 cases still under investigation.
Another infographic showed that 3,050 drug-suspects were killed in police operations, while homicide cases rose by 447 from May 15 to May 30 in 2017.
In its latest infographics that covered July 1, 2016, to Nov. 27, 2017, the police appeared to have been more guarded about information given and the number of homicide cases. It only showed 3,967 "drug suspects" killed during anti-drug operations.
Jose Luis Martin Gascon, chairman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, blamed a "lack of transparency" by government agencies for the conflicting figures.
On several occasions, National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa accused the media of giving the police a bad reputation and "sensationalizing" news about the killings.
Gascon noted that the unprecedented number of killings surpassed the number of those killed under the authoritarian rule of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The deaths of Harrold and his cousins, Jerico and Jomari, might only be another bleeding heart story for Duterte.
For the families of the thousands who died in the government's "total war against drugs" — close to 13,000 people according to human rights groups — Christmas this year means wishing for justice for their loved ones in what is supposed to be a season of peace.