On January 8, 2020, Diego Bello’s parents, brother and friends received the devastating news of his death in the Philippines in A Coruña as if they were hearing about a stranger. They were informed that Bello had been killed in a shootout with the police. They were assured that he was a drug lord on the island of Siargao, where he had resided since 2017. Nobody around this 32-year-old Galician businessman, surfer and owner of several businesses in the Asian country, gave credit to that story. The conclusions of a new investigation, forced by the mobilization of the family and diplomatic pressures, give them reason for the moment. The three officers who shot him have been charged with murder, perjury and falsification of evidence.
Diego Bello is one of 12,000 people who, according to Human Rights Watch, have died in the Philippines at the hands of police in alleged anti-drug operations since the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, declared a violent war against drug trafficking in 2016. His case is also one of 52 in which indications of extrajudicial executions have already been detected, after years of protests by human rights organizations. The Philippine government, which faces elections soon, has promised to analyze another 6,000 homicides. The official report on the murder of Bello, carried out by the National Investigation Office, equivalent to the Prosecutor’s Office, dismantles the first version thanks to the testimonies of witnesses, the analysis of the police files and the review of the crime scene.
Bello was shot to death at the door of his house. It was 1.35 in the morning and I had just arrived from working in the hotel business that I ran. Both the neighbors and his girlfriend, who was inside the home, heard the shots. It was Captain Wise Vicente Panuelos, a police chief now charged with murder, perjury and falsification of evidence, who assured that it was an anti-drug operation. According to this first version, that night he was in command of a device to arrest the Galician businessman by setting him up. One of his men, the also investigated Sergeant Ronel Pazo, met with Bello at the entrance of his home to buy drugs from him. The plan was for the third defendant, Sergeant Nido Boy Cortes, to arrest him as soon as the sale took place, but they alleged that “they were forced to defend themselves” by repeatedly pulling the trigger because the alleged criminal, upon discovering that he had been discovered, he shot first and tried to escape.
The new investigation shows that the shooting never happened and that it was “a made-up scenario.” Bello did not remove a weapon from a fanny pack, as the police claimed, nor did he fire two shots while fleeing. At the crime scene, casings of two different calibers were found: those of the pistols carried by the police officers and those of the weapon that the victim allegedly used. But, according to the report, it follows from their placement that the shooters were so close to each other that investigators consider it unlikely that Bello would be the only one injured if he had also pulled the trigger.
There are several pieces of evidence collected by the investigators who dismantle the first official version of the crime. The trace of the bullets from the pistol originally assigned to the victim does not coincide with the flight movement attributed to him by the now accused policemen. The bloodstains and the damage found at the scene also belie that version. The last shot, for example, does not correspond to the weapon that Bello supposedly wielded but to that of the police chief, and it is believed that he fired it when the young man was practically fallen on the ground.
For the Philippine Prosecutor’s Office it is “evident” that the accusation that Bello was carrying a weapon is “part of the great plan to justify an illegal homicide.” The investigations discovered that the pistol that the accused police officers awarded to the young man was in the name of a company based in Manila that denied having it registered in its inventory. It was impossible, the investigators emphasize, to establish a link between the victim and this company, taking into account that Bello had been in the Asian country for three years and the firm had registered the weapon for more than two decades.
Nor was the name of the young man found in the official lists of drug traffickers since 2016. Despite the fact that the police chief now accused assured that Bello was a regional drug lord, no reference to him appears in the files of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Philippine drugs. This body has also certified that it did not participate in the operation led by Captain Panuelos. The autopsy that was carried out in Madrid concluded that Bello had not taken any drugs in the last six months before his death.
At the crime scene that is now considered a farce, not only a pistol that did not belong to Bello appeared, but also 15 grams of cocaine and a fanny pack in which it was said that he kept the weapon and that he was not wearing it when he left his restaurant to go home, as recorded by the local cameras. The investigation accuses the defendants that they ended up shooting a defenseless person despite the three armed men and being supported by other agents scattered throughout the area. An autopsy carried out in the Philippines revealed that Bello was shot six times, the last one in the right ear. The report concludes that the three Filipino agents shared “a joint purpose, a unity of action and a community of interests: to kill Diego.”
Questions still unanswered
The turn that the case has taken has taken Diego Bello’s family by surprise, who have been fighting from A Coruña for almost two years to obtain justice in the Philippines. The difficulties have been enormous, but they have finally found a Philippine law firm to associate with and have appeared in the case, reserving the power to go to the National Court or the International Criminal Court if a process with guarantees is not held. Now they are fighting to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them pay for expensive legal aid. “We did not expect anything from there and, suddenly, we saw the light,” says the lawyer from A Coruña Guillermo Mosquera, who is handling the case in collaboration with Manuel Ollé Sesé, an expert in international criminal law and experienced in issues such as the defense of the computer engineer Hervé Falciani or the Saharawi leader Brahim Gali.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs assures that they have carried out a “close follow-up” of the murder and promise to “continue paying special attention” to the case that has been opened against the policemen. One of them, Captain Panuelos, came to meet with the Spanish consul days after the crime to assure him that he had “solid evidence” against Bello, according to the Philippine press. Subsequently, representatives of Spain held meetings with the Ministers of Justice and the Interior of the Asian country to urge a review of the case that has ended up uncovering the police set-up.
The prosecutor’s report does not point to any motive. “My opinion is that the campaign against drug trafficking was used to settle something personal against him and that is why the drug and the weapon were placed there. But the only one who could tell us what that ‘something personal’ was is Diego ”, explains the family’s lawyer. “I don’t know what it was and I don’t know if we’ll ever find out. What we want is to clear his name and show that it was all a set up to assassinate him ”.
The Philippine Human Rights Commission, the first entity to question the police version, has found a link between Bello and one of his alleged murderers. Captain Panuelos comes from the province of Camarines del Sur, of which Migz Villafuerte is governor, a member of a powerful line of Filipino politicians. According to the report published by the commission before Panuelos was charged, Villafuerte went to one of Bello’s businesses just five months before the murder to protest the noise and threatened his partner: “You don’t know who I am? I can shoot you and make you disappear by throwing you into the mangrove! ”.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.