As the only known survivor of a so-called buy-bust operation, Mr. Morillo has provided a chilling first-person account that challenges the government’s assertion that the thousands of suspects killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s antidrug campaign were killed by the police in self-defense. And his testimony lies at the heart of the first court case to challenge that campaign.
Efren Morillo, The Rare Survivor
  • Sex: Male
  • Age: 28
  • Occupation: Vegetable Vendor
Incident Details
  • Killed in police operation at home
  • Date of Incident: August 21, 2016
  • Location of Incident: Quezon City, Metro Manila



Efren made a decent living selling vegetables in the local market, he had loaned his friend Nonoy some money and he needed it back because he is running out of capital to buy vegetables for his business. On a random day, like any other day, Efren decided to make the trip from his home in Montalban where he lives with his parents and two children, to Payatas.

He grew up in Payatas, has friends there, but he no longer lives in the famous village-atop-a-landfill. Efren left Payatas, where the city’s poorest families live and scavenge to survive, several years ago.

But on this random day, 21 August 2016, he decided to go back to Payatas to visit his friend to collect a debt.

Efren today cannot make a living anymore, he hasn’t seen his two children in months, and he is stowed away in a safehouse where he is hidden from the police. You see, Efren Morillo, this 34-year-old vegetable vendor and single father of two, is the lone survivor and witness of a massacre of 4 of his friends.

August 21, he repeats the date over and over in his retelling of these events, as if saying it again and again would somehow erase that horrible day when he was shot and left for dead. Saying the date over and over doesn’t make it any less painful, nor any less real. Efren tells us what happened on August 21, while he was catching up with his friends Nonoy Daa, Jessie Cule, Anthony Comendo, and Raffy Gabo.

Wala po akong alam dito

Nanay Daa’s house is a shanty at the top of a hill in Payatas. The back of the house sits on an overhang of land that leads quickly to a steep cliff.  There are no neighboring houses and there is a 15-minute hike between the populated community below and the Daa house which has an old beat-up billiard table beside it. The five young men were together in the house after lunch.

At 2pm, five men and two women trekked up that hill with two (bags) “bayongs.” When they got to the house, they started shouting, accusing Efren and his friends of having drugs, rummaging around to try to find something that would prove their accusations. Efren tried to talk to them, “Ser, wala po ako’ng alam dito, pinapunta lang po ako ng mga magulong ko dito para singilin yung perang pinahiram ko. Dahil yung perang pinupuhunan ko kulang na.”

They said they were police and started pointing guns at Efren, Jesse, Nonoy, Anthony, and Raffy. Efren and Nonoy were handcuffed, then having come unprepared for five people, the attackers ran out of handcuffs for the others. They pulled electrical wiring out of the light fixtures and some exposed wire from somewhere in the house and used those to tie the hands of Anthony, Jessie, and Raffy together behind their backs. Efren and Nonoy were taken to a room in the back of the house by (Officer Formilleza), and their three other friends were taken inside the house by (Officer Emil Garcia).

Having found nothing, one of the men, Garcia, pulled out a small bag of white powder and some tin foil, brandishing it about as if it was found in the house, when in fact, they had brought it with them.

Inside the house, the police officer took of their handcuffs and while facing Nonoy and Efren, started shooting. He shot Efren first in the chest, then turned to Nonoy and shot three times. Nonoy was probably already dead from the first two bullets to the chest, he was not moving, yet he was shot again in the head.

Efren somehow, did not die.

Efren is not exactly sure how he escaped death. Surely a bullet to the chest is not a wound one normally walks away with, but he did, and he made the best of his lucky break by playing the next few hours smart.

Once hit, he stayed down, fully conscious but played dead. His face was on the ground when he heard the shots that killed Nonoy, and he stayed there when he heard the gunshots coming from outside the house, those that killed his other three friends. Formilleza, the policeman that attempted to kill him, walked off, and Efren stayed down.

Efren could hear the policeman’s instructions to the others, “maglagay ng shabu sa bahay, at sabihin sa iba na nanlaban.

As he is telling this story, you can almost hear the disbelief in his voice, even Efren finds it remarkable that he survived the next few hours. He was shot in the chest at 2:30pm. He did not get medical attention until 1am the next day.

Face-down in the dirt, Efren waited for over an hour before starting his escape. He wanted to make sure the attackers had gone, he still hears them inside the house, but knowing that he is losing blood and feeling the intense pain of his injury he made a run for it. Rushing to the back of the house, Efren pushed himself off the cliff and rolled down the ravine, when he reached the bottom he walked another half hour to find the road.

People were passing him, bloodied and clearly injured, nobody was offering help. Instead people avoided him, afraid of a man bleeding and attempting only to survive.

He kept walking until he spotted a friend in a gas station, his friend drives a jeepney. Efren was driven all the way to a clinic in Montalban Rizal, closer to his home and his parents, arriving there at around 5pm. There was no doctor on duty at the clinic, only nurses who could only clean and dress the open wound. Efren was fighting to stay conscious and tried to find a way to reach his parents, he went to the neighboring police station in Montalban, where he knew some people, and asked them to inform his parents.

Meanwhile his mother and father had heard that Efren was shot in Payatas, they went there, not knowing that their son had survived and had already made his way in Montalban. The family wasn’t reunited until 10pm, Efren was still bleeding, and had still not been seen by a doctor.

While waiting to get proper medical attention, his mother and father found him, and before anything could be done about the gaping bullet wound in his chest, the Montalban police insisted on taking him first to the Quezon City Police Station 6.  At Station 6, still bleeding and now barely coherent or conscious, he was interrogated, charged with possession of drugs, and made to wait for close to an hour. Meanwhile Efren’s mother, afraid that her son could die of his injuries at any moment, had finally convinced the police to take him to the hospital.

Efren was taken to the —- hospital; by the time he had gotten there he had lost enough blood to have made him almost unconscious. The doctors that operated on him told him what he already knew, he was lucky to be alive. The bullet had entered his chest on an angle, in between the bones of his left ribcage, and only a couple of centimeters away from his heart, exited through the front as well. He must have started turning away from the gunman to run away even before the shot was fired. The bullet hit him sideways, sparing his life.

Efren was in the hospital for over a month, handcuffed to the bed. By the end of this stay, his bill was 60,000 pesos, and his bail 15,000 pesos. Where would a vegetable vendor get money to pay that amount? They sold their home. The home that he lived in with his children and his parents was a grant to urban poor families given by the government during the administration of President Estrada. They sold it for 100,000. After paying what they owed, they were only left with 15,000.

The buyer could also only pay 90,000 and still owed Efren’s family 10,000. Efren was not in a rush to collect on the balance because it is the only thing keeping his children and parents from being evicted out of their house. For as long as they are owed that 10,000, they could postpone being out in the streets.

It has been seven months since Efren has seen his children. Since August 21, he has found a group of committed young lawyers to help him and the parents and kin of his friends who were murdered that day. They have secured a protection order from the court of appeals and filed murder charges against the police officers and their companions.

For every Efren, there must be hundreds of men and women who are killed, whose stories we will never hear, and whose deaths have no witnesses.

Efren doesn’t look like a man who escaped death. He is no hardened criminal. He is a single father of 2 small children working to put food on the table. Efren could have been anybody, but he isn’t just anybody, he is a man whose life was spared by fate presumably for some greater purpose. That purpose as he understands it now, is to bring his friends’ murderers to justice, whatever justice means these days.

One day, maybe in the near future, he can see his children and his parents again. One day, maybe he can go back to selling vegetables, struggle to make ends meet, send his children to school and watch them grow up. It is a humble dream but it is the best imaginable in the midst of his new life spent in courthouses, lawyer’s offices, and safehouses constantly in fear for his life.

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