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The peace of the cemetery on the order of a death squad

OLONGAPO (SE): “We are disturbed at the increasing number of reports that suspected drug-peddlers, pushers and others… have been shot, supposedly because they resisted arrest,” an appeal from the bishops of The Philippines for an end to vigilantism, signed on June 20 by Archbishop Socrates Villegas, reads.

Around 50 extrajudicial executions have been reported in recent weeks, but as much as anything else it reflects that with the election period over, it is back to business as usual, as in fact, the liquidation of suspected criminals was also a feature of the administration of outgoing president, Noynoy Aquino.

While much media hype surrounded the May 9 presidential election in which the big-talking mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, came out on top, little of it was related to election violence.

It is difficult to believe that the customary violence that surrounds Philippine elections suddenly evaporated, as reports came in regularly from Zamboanga del Sur of bodies with their hands tied behind their backs floating down rivers or dumped on the side of the road.

No investigations took place leaving local residents to surmise that they were, in all probability, politically related.

But far more damning are the revelations of a consolidated report released by the PREDA Foundation in Olongapo City, which reveals that between 1998 and 2015 the infamous Davao Death Squads claimed 1,424 victims, 57 of whom were women and 132 children (under 17), including six girls.

The youngest was a 12-year-old, with the exception of a nine-year-old who fell victim to a stray bullet—he was not the intended target.

A further 476 were under the age of 25 making more than 40 per cent of the victims young people. Most killings occurred in the urban poor areas of Buhangin, Agdao, Bangkerohan, Boulevard, Matina and Toril.

While the report admits that the majority were involved in drugs, either as users or small time delivery scouts, others were petty criminals or mobile phone snatchers.

Fourteen were the victims of mistaken identity and some had fled the area only to return some years later to find their names still on the hit list.

The documentation shows that among the 1,424 victims there was not one drug baron or big time criminal, but there were two journalists, Jun Pala, whom Duterte recently described as a “son of a bitch who deserved to die” and boasted that he knows who killed him, and the other, Ferdie Limtungan.

Both had publicly linked Duterte with the death squads and with abnormalities in the accounts for the construction of the People’s Park. Both were shot at close range by men on motorcycles, the favoured method of the Davao Death Squads.

Some victims were former members of death squads who were suspected of knowing too much or likely to spill the beans.

However, it should be no surprise to the bishops that reports of vigilante killings have suddenly returned to the media, as the death squads usually go on holidays during electoral campaign periods, maybe to make way for the political assassins.

The years 2011 to 2015 have witnessed 385 deaths, none of which, as with the previous ones, have been investigated by police and no action has ever been taken by either local or city governments.

In 2012, the Commission on Human Rights travelled to Davao and held a public hearing on the death squads. Witnesses were met in secret and the families of victims, as well as former members of the death squads, were interviewed.

The commission recommended that certain people be prosecuted, but even those who had signed submissions to the commission could not be persuaded to appear in court, as they understood where the next round of bullets would find a home.

A report released by Human Rights Watch in 2009 titled, You Can Die Anytime: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao, quotes insiders as saying that most of the death squads are made up of former members of the New People’s Army, who surrendered to the government, or those who had been on the hit list and joined up to avoid being killed.

They told Human Rights Watch that their handlers would obtain information about targets from the police or barangay officials, who compile and manage the lists.

The hit men are usually only provided with the name of the target, but sometimes get a photograph or an address.

Police stations are then notified to keep their personnel away from the areas so that there is plenty of time to fire and escape. They operate in twos or threes and pay scant attention to eyewitnesses.

They are paid by private business or from the city coffers and, as one former hitman testified, usually about 5,000 pesos ($858).

The intelligence is good, as victims include those who had been released from prison for less than five minutes—shot on the side of the road as they were waiting for a bus.

Who tells the assassins the time and place?

While Duterte has always denied involvement with the squads, he once read out on television a list of names of those whom he described as deserving to die.

Most were dead within a couple of weeks.

The death squads are the pride and joy of the new president, who has boasted that the more than 1,000 victims to date will become 100,000 and that will be the end of crime in the country.

This is the culture that the mayor has effectively sold to the vast majority of residents in Davao City, as there has been little outcry over the mass killings.

Archbishop Fernando Capalla, whose brother fell victim to the assassin’s gun, was one of the few to speak out against the killing sprees. He wrote a pastoral letter entitled, Thou Shalt Not Kill, and with a brave few became a small voice whose cry in the wilderness was drowned by the applause of the many.

The philosophy of vigilantism is straightforward. Fighting crime is simple; just kill, with no need to arrest, investigate or find out if people are guilty or not.

Human Rights Watch described the attitude as a conscious rejection of the presumption of innocence, replacing it with the deliberate presumption that all criminals deserve to die, be they petty thieves or pickpockets—guilty or not.

But by practice, the death squads have shown that if you are a big time drug baron or embezzler, you deserve to live happily ever after.

The Human Rights Watch report says, “Official tolerance and support of targeted killing of suspected criminals promotes rather than curbs the culture of violence that has long plagued Davao City and other places where such killings have occurred.”

The Total Index of Crimes shows that of 15 charter cities (with their own governance charter), Davao rates fourth for overall crime, number one for murder and two for rape.

These occur in the streets that Duterte touts as orderly and peaceful, but it is the peace of the cemetery on the order of a death squad.

But with a mayor who revels in extrajudicial murder and makes crass comments about rape, it seems these two values have also  been absorbed into the local culture during Duterte’s 16 years in City Hall.

This is state-approved murder, which logically sanctions the formation of private groups, whereby anyone can be judge, jury and executioner.

Politically it appears that criminality is being addressed, but the death squads also serve as a protective shield to mask the activities of the big time criminals from the public eye.

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