Although the staggering number shocks the conscience, the issue had received little national media attention until the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) began a three-day public hearing in Davao City on March 30, 2009 on the 814 “extra-judicial killings” that have taken place in this Mindanao city between August 19, 1998 to February 1, 2009.
In his April 10, 2009 column, which appeared in the Manila Times and other international publications, Fr. Shay Cullen wrote: “The courageous chairperson of the commission, Leila De Lima, who led the public enquiry last week, said the majority of victims are very young, mostly youth, terribly poor, semi-illiterate street children. Few if any had been arrested, charged and found guilty of any crime. Their living presence is the embarrassing evidence of gross social inequality and injustice.”
De Lima called the killings "selective vigilantism" noting that “no big-time criminals, like drug lords or rich drug pushers and drug users, appear among the victims of the so-called "Davao Death Squad".
Witnesses who testified before the commission attributed the killings to the DDS which officially stands for the “Davao Death Squad” but is unofficially referred to by local citizens as the “Duterte Death Squad” pointing to the 6-term mayor of the city, Rodrigo Duterte, as the leader of the nefarious group.
In an article which appeared in Time Asia on June 24, 2002 (“The Punisher”), Mayor Duterte acknowledged “jokingly” to correspondent Phil Zabriskie that the first D in DDS does indeed refer to him.
Zabriskie wrote: “Duterte is unapologetic about his willingness to venture beyond what legal niceties might permit. Criminals and rebels, he says menacingly from his perch at the bar, "do not have a monopoly on evil." A long, hard stare leaves little doubt that this is not idle talk. One day his methods might be unnecessary, he says. But for now, he insists on what most people from this town have also come to believe: "The only reason there is peace and order in Davao is because of me."
In a speech before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines in February of 2009, Mayor Duterte explained his perspective: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”
If you don’t count the summary executions (“salvagings”), you may agree with Duterte that Davao is “the most peaceful city in Asia”. In his Time Asia piece, Zabriskie wrote: “Duterte has achieved his results at a grim price, disregarding due process and anointing himself legislator, judge, jury and possibly executioner all at once.”
Beyond Davao City, CHR Chair De Lima expressed deep concern about “the growing culture or mentality of public acceptance of the executions. This is worse than apathy and indifference.”
Indeed, Manila Mayor Fred Lim told Zabriskie in 2002 that "if we had 20 more mayors like Duterte, the peace and order situation in the Philippines would improve."
But at what price?
In its April 2009 issue, Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org) documented the summary killings in a paper entitled “You Can Die Any Time, Death Squad Killings in Mindanao”. The group interviewed Clarita Alia, whose four sons were murdered. Alia said that back in 2001, a senior police officer came to her home to arrest her oldest son but Clarita Alia demanded to see an arrest warrant before handing him over. The officer warned Alia “Ok, you don’t want to give your child to me, then watch out because your sons will be killed, one by one!”
Shortly after that threat, 18-year old Richard Alia was stabbed to death in July of 2001, followed by 17-year old Christopher Alia in October of 2001, Bobby Alia, 14, in November 2003, and Fernando Alia, 15, in April 2007. When the police officer made the threat in 2001, Clarita Alia said, “I was really shocked he mentioned the other sons as they were just little kids then, but he was very angry because I was pushing him out.”
Human Rights Watch also reported on the case of 20-year-old Jaypee Larosa who was walking to a nearby Internet Café a block from his home when he was shot by three men in dark jackets who were riding a motorcycle. Witnesses reported that after they shot him, one of the men removed the baseball cap Larosa was wearing and said, “Son of a bitch, this is not the one,” before leaving the scene.
“Dozens of family members have described to Human Rights Watch the murder of their loved ones, all killed in similar fashion. Most victims are alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children, some of whom are members of street gangs. Impunity for such crimes is nearly total—few such cases have been seriously investigated by the police, let alone prosecuted.”
When it resumes its hearing on April 17, 2009, the CHR will reportedly also investigate the recent murder of Rebelyn Pitao, the 21-year-old daughter of Leoncio Pitao alias “Commander Parago,” a leader of the communist New People’s Army.
Witnesses reported that armed men abducted Rebelyn, a private school teacher in Davao City, while she was going home aboard a tricycle on March 4, 2009. The next day, her body was found in a creek in the neighboring town of Carmen with an autopsy finding that she was raped and tortured before she was killed.
Before the CHR conducted its investigation, Human Rights Watch, an international organization based in New York, charged that “the administration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has largely turned a blind eye to the killing spree in Davao City and elsewhere. The Philippine National Police has not sought to confront the problem. And the inaction of the national institutions responsible for accountability, namely the Department of Justice, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights, has fueled widespread impunity.”
Where is the outrage?