Omerta-Like Silence Shrouds Vigilante Killings In Philippines

Since Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated two months ago, some 2,000 people have been killed across the country in the past two months in what experts say are extra-judicial vigilante murders. Fear and silence make it all possible.

Police officer in Manila, Philippines
Police officer in Manila, Philippines
Kate Lamb

MANILA â€" Lea Bascguin, the owner of a funeral home in this city, runs her finger down the page as she counts the names in a file that records the dead. The number has tripled since the start of Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.

Across the country, almost 2,000 people have been killed so far â€" 712 in police "shootouts" and more than 1,000 by so-called vigilantes.

Many are "salvage" victims, unidentified bodies that turn up in the street overnight, Bascguin explains. "When the body is just dropped, they will leave the cadaver somewhere in the street without knowing who is the perpetrator. We consider that salvage," says Bascguin.

No one knows for sure who the vigilantes are, although some suspect that the police or the military is involved. Every day, distraught relatives turn up at Bascguin’s morgue looking for their loved ones. In some cases, the families learn about the victims from TV after their picture, or an identifying tattoo, is flashed across the news.

That’s what happened to the family of 32-year-old David Miraran. A few weeks ago, he got on his bike to see his girlfriend and never came back. Miraran's sister Vivian found out about his death three days later. "On the news the police said the robber fought back, so that’s why they had to shoot him. They said he fired at them with a 38-caliber gun in a dark street," says Vivian.

"He doesn’t have a gun. He lived in our house and we never saw a gun in his room. If my brother was a robber it would be us who would know first," she says.

In Manila, many of the victims are from shantytowns and poor neighborhoods. Miraran barely had enough money for food. When he was hungry, he would sometimes ask neighbors for plain rice and soy sauce.

Occasionally he sniffed a cheap solvent, or glue, to get high because he didn’t have money for shabu, or crystal methamphetamine. But there’s no way that Miraran had the money to buy a gun, his sister says.

Activist Max de Mesa says the drug war is a cover for police to commit violations. He believes the human rights abuses echo the days of martial law in the Philippines.

Duterte has said drug users and dealers don’t deserve human rights. In his first state of nation address in July, Duterte declared that, "we will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars, or below the ground if they so wish."

Duterte, a former mayor of Davao, has been linked to death squads in the past. Strikingly, his methods appear to be popular among Filipinos. Many believe the deaths are necessary collateral when it comes to combating drugs and crime in the Philippines.

Then again, if you do want to speak out it’s not that easy.

That’s the feeling I got when I went to the scene of a double murder. Two women had been shot dead in broad daylight on a rainy Tuesday in August. They lived in a small room connected to dozens of others along a narrow path in a crowded slum by the port. The area is so small that it’s difficult to believe that no one saw anything.

While police investigators examined the crime scene, I started talking to the crowd of residents who had gathered around. Trono, one man I spoke to, told me of his "see nothing, hear nothingr" policy.

"Just keep your mouth shut if you want your life to be long, if you want to keep breathing, don’t say anything. We don’t know what happened, why she is lying there because of a gun. I don’t say anything, but in my mind I know what happened," Trono says.

Rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly condemned the killings in the Philippines, and called for an end to the climate of lawlessness.

But as the bodies continue to pile up, the country’s new president has shown no sign of letting up.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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