Unilever Concert Deaths Test Philippine President Duterte’s Drug War

Within hours of taking his oath as the 16th president of the Philippines on June 30, Rodrigo Duterte stood in front of a group of Manila’s slum dwellers and thundered profanity-laden vows to kill all drug traffickers.

It’s nothing the tough-talking former Davao mayor hasn’t said before, and Ariel Radovan is hoping that the president’s promised war on drugs would lend urgency to the case he has on hand – a potential negligence suit against consumer goods giant Unilever over the deaths of five spectators at a music concert that Unilever hosted in May.

“With Duterte’s pronouncements of how much he hates drugs, we hope this would serve as a test case against a big corporation,” says the lawyer representing the families of three of the five fatalities at the electronic dance music concert, organized by Unilever’s toothpaste brand Closeup.

Over the past month, the lawyer has been coordinating closely with the National Bureau of Investigation’s Death Investigation Division (NBI-DID), which has been probing how five of the thousands of people who attended the Closeup Forever Summer concert ended up dead in the wee hours of May 22.

The families of Bianca Fontejon and Ken Miyagawa – both 18 and both confirmed to have died from the devastating effects on their internal organs of ingested synthetic drugs – want to hold the event’s organizers accountable for not doing enough to prevent what happened to the two.

The family of Ariel Leal, 22, refused an autopsy, but has agreed to join the two families in pursuing negligence charges against Unilever and the two companies it hired to organize the concert, Eventscape and Activations Advertising.

Toxicology reports also found traces of synthetic drugs in the two other victims – Lance Garcia, 36, co-founder of tech startup Partyphile and a married father of two, and an American citizen, Eric Anthony Miller, 33 – but their families have declined to participate in the suit.

“We are looking at Article 365 (of the Revised Criminal Code) on negligence. Did they foresee that drugs would be peddled inside given that most of the attendees are youth? In the Philippines if you hold a party like this, you must expect something like that,” Radovan explains.

“But their security briefing did not mention drugs, so they failed to anticipate it. Lack of foresight is negligence. Want of care, want of caution is negligence.”


Arrests came relatively quickly in the case, with the NBI rounding up within two weeks six drug peddlers believed to have links to the drugs sold at the venue.

But that’s the easy part, since, as many say, euphoria-inducing narcotics are a staple of such events. For a rave party with more than 12,000 attendees, perhaps it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of the known ecstasy peddlers in metropolitan Manila would have likely been there.

The harder part is figuring out exactly who should be held accountable, actually making them accountable, and instituting reforms that would prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.

“This is why we want to see what the plan was and how it was implemented. We want to find out whether laws and ordinances implemented,” NBI-DID chief Daniel Lalusis says.

Unilever has claimed it hired professional event organizers – Eventscape and Activations Advertising – to take care of the preparations, including security, because that’s not its specialty. But Lalusis, who’s also a lawyer, says that isn’t an acceptable excuse.

“If you're the organizer, even if you employed service providers, you have to see to it that they follow what you discussed,” he says.

What’s clear, according to law enforcers, is that the event organizers did not anticipate illegal drugs.

“They didn't even coordinate with PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency). If they really wanted to prevent the entry of drugs, why didn't they involve PDEA? That's simple common sense,” he says.

Organizers told the NBI they hired more than 200 bouncers to police the gates and maintain security, but Lalusis says these bouncers had no training, nor were they required to have any.

While the organizers coordinated with the police, according to the National Capital Region Police Office’s spokesperson, Chief Inspector Kimberly Molitas, they were only asked to guard the perimeter and allowed 10 plainclothes policemen inside.

Synthetic illegal drugs are notoriously hard to detect, but Molitas says she believes that the presence of uniformed officers would have helped.

“I'm not saying we could have prevented everything, but I do believe the presence of uniformed police officers would have had an effect on the attendees,” she says.

But the realities of the excruciatingly slow justice system in the Philippines means it could be years before trial even starts, and this is where Radovan hopes Duterte’s war on drugs will play a role. “I’ve asked the new justice minister to meet with the families of the victims, and hopefully he can help prioritize the case,” he says.

Limited oversight

Lack of foresight aside, investigators recognize that weak laws and regulations played a role in what happened.

So far, the only law or regulation the event violated appears to be a little known Pasay City ordinance imposing a 10pm to 4am curfew on anyone below 18 years old. Other than that, the event had the required permits.

In the affidavit submitted by Eventscape to the NBI, the organizer says they were issued a permit by the Pasay mayor’s office after presenting their plans, security measures, policies for the sale of alcohol, and other logistical details.

There are no regulations or guidelines requiring trained bouncers for such events, coordinating with PDEA for massive youth concerts, or having uniformed police officers.

“There wasn’t enough regulatory oversight. This should be a wake-up call to the state, to the local governments. They should be more strict,” says a source close to the investigation.

This is why beyond pursuing negligence charges against the event’s organizers, Lalusis says he hopes the new administration will take the results of their probe and use it for regulatory and legal reforms.

“There are a lot of lessons to learn from this,” he says.

Weak laws

Weaknesses in the country’s drug laws also contributed to the problem. The first of the six suspects arrested by the NBI, Joshua Habalo, was easily found because he already had a record. Two years ago, the NBI caught him selling synthetic illegal drugs.

“But when those drugs were examined by our forensic chemistry division, they contained synthetic cathinones, which are not listed in the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002,” NBI Anti-Illegal Drugs Division chief Joel Tovera says.

“So he was released, and no case was filed.”

Law enforcers have long been struggling with this weakness in the 14-year-old law, but no serious efforts to amend it have so far been done. In other countries, drugs don’t have to be specifically identified as banned in the law in order to be deemed illegal. They only have to mimic the effects of banned substances, Tovera explains.

“We were lucky that among the substances confiscated from Habalo when he was arrested this time was cocaine, so we have a basis for charges,” he says.

Lawmakers, he says, have promised that the next Congress will prioritize this amendment. But when asked how many times he has heard this, he laughed and said: “I’m getting tired of hearing it.”

It’s been said that it takes a village to fight drugs, and though the investigation is focused on the potential liability of the event’s organizers, law enforcers realize there’s enough blame to go around.

“What happened was a failure of the event organizers, the local government, the police, the parents,” Molitas says. “It's a lot of things.”