Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte declares that his "war on drugs" will continue to gain momentum during a press briefing at NAIA Terminal 2 in Pasay City, prior to his departure to Japan for a state visit on October 25, 2016. (Toto Lozano/Presidential Photo)

About extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in Davao city there have been rumors for over a decade. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) looked into them in 2003 and found that the killing of dozens of people, most of them male, and under both Philippine and international standards, children — some of the victims were as young as 14 — apparently had to do with Davao’s reputation as a low-crime city. The implication was that the killing of who were then described as mostly petty criminals was the chosen strategy of the administration of then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to rid the city of crime.

Although doubts have since been raised over its reputation as a relatively crime-free city, most observers then agreed that Davao was a safe place for both residents and visitors — that one could walk its streets even way past midnight without fear of being robbed or murdered, that its taxi drivers were the epitome of courtesy and honesty, and that the petty crimes as well as the illegal drug trade that plagued other cities were almost non-existent.

If all these were due to the killings, the extrajudicial execution of anyone is nevertheless still illegal, and if the city administration was behind them, its officials would be legally accountable for hundreds of murders. The arrest of the killers and their successful prosecution would have established whether this was indeed the case or not. But the police were at best lukewarm in looking for the perpetrators, while most Davao residents didn’t seen to care, apparently because they were appreciative of the peace and order situation in their city despite its cost in human lives.

In a by now familiar refrain, then Mayor Duterte denied ordering the killings, but declared during his usually profanity-laced interviews with the media that he approved of the killings and wasn’t sorry for them, and that those killed, especially suspected drug dealers, deserved to die.

Nothing came of the media reports that heavily implied Duterte’s involvement. The police, which were under his control, wrote off the murders as unsolved without really investigating them. While the rumors continued to fly, the perpetrators as well as the masterminds enjoyed the same impunity, or exemption from punishment, that has taken such deep roots in this country it has become “normal” for wrong-doers to routinely and literally get away with murder.

And then there’s politics. National politics is paradoxically always local, with candidates for national office being dependent on the support of local politicians to deliver the votes in their domains during presidential and senatorial elections. Duterte was an ally of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who, in appreciation of, and apparently to continue enjoying his backing in Davao (Presidential elections were forthcoming in 2004), had made him her anti-crime adviser.

Not only because of the limited attention span of much of the citizenry, but also because of the indifference of the Arroyo administration and initially that of her successor Benigno Aquino III’s, all these would have passed into the netherworld of Philippine history and politics where such questions as who ordered the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the truth behind Ferdinand Marcos’ wartime record, and, further back in history, who murdered Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna have been consigned to eternal forgetfulness.

Apparently it wasn’t yet time for that to happen to Duterte and the Davao EJKs. His decision to run for the Presidency in 2016 reopened interest in the killings as well as the rumored Davao Death Squad that supposedly carried them out, thanks to the Liberal Party, particularly to then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who was running for the Senate.

De Lima, who several times declared that Duterte should be prosecuted for the Davao EJKs, is today being prosecuted herself, which looks suspiciously like Duterte’s payback for her audacity in suggesting his possible guilt so she could earn voter brownie points while grossly underestimating Duterte’s chances of winning the Presidency.

President or not, however, because of a combination of factors, among them the possibility that it’s part of a long-term plan to erode his public support prior to either impeaching or ousting him from office through a coup, the Davao EJKs issue is continuing to haunt him, this time through retired Senior Police Officer 3 (SPO3) Arturo Lascanas.

Lascanas claims to have been a close and trusted operative of then Mayor Duterte, who, he told the Senate last Monday, ordered him and his fellow officers to murder, for money, machismo and bragging rights, between 200 to 300 individuals during the former’s reign as Davao City chief executive.

Lascanas’ statements have been challenged for their alleged inconsistencies. His supposed “spiritual renewal,” which he claimed led him to come clean about the Davao killings, has been assailed by the Bible- thumping Manny Pacquiao, who by the grace of his fists and billions and nothing else is now a senator of this unfortunate Republic.

Pacquiao’s slippery command of both the English language and reason makes him the least likely Filipino politician to be a candidate for membership in Mensa. But he apparently thinks of himself a theologian of sorts. He thus proceeded to grill Lascanas on how authentic his “spiritual renewal” was, and even on his (Lascanas’) knowledge of passages in the Bible. Not to be outdone, Alan Peter Cayetano, who ran for Vice President with Duterte in 2016, mocked Lascanas’ rediscovery of his Christian faith, and through a line-by-line review of his statements both past and current demonstrated how riddled they were with inconsistencies.

Although one can raise all sorts of questions about Lascanas’ motives, two important points have to be made. Pacquiao and Cayetano are sorely mistaken if they think themselves above Lascanas and his fellow thugs in the police because of their wealth and the fact that they can be in barong Tagalog or a suit whenever they want. The utter callousness, the insouciance and the inhumanity with which Lascanas and company took human lives meshes with this tandem’s mindless support for State-sponsored murder through the restoration of the death penalty, the bill for which their fellows in the appropriately-named Lower House have passed on third and final reading — incidentally without the inclusion in it of that public sector cottage industry, plunder, as a capital crime.

Duterte may or may not be behind the Davao murders. Lascanas may be lying and acting under the direction of local would-be putschists and their foreign patrons. All the effort media spent documenting the Davao EJKs may have been a waste of ink and newsprint and airtime. But what is certain is that Duterte is behind the drive by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and his fellow death-dealers in both the House and the Senate to restore the death penalty. Duterte, who has openly approved of, and in effect encouraged, the police’s physical elimination of illegal drug suspects, is equally accountable for that abomination called “Operation Tokhang,” the first phase of which claimed 7,000 lives without benefit of any trial, and that’s likely to kill more as the police re-start it with his blessings.

Murder, he said. They did — and they will.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PIA.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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