“TOTAL system failure at all levels of government to protect Filipino lives” was how Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), described the situation in Tagum City, Davao del Norte last Wednesday, May 20.

Kine was presenting to the media HRW’s report, “One Shot to the Head: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines,” which details the killing of 298 people, including children, by a “death squad” in the maintenance and operations of which local officials including police officers were and probably are still involved.

HRW claims that former Mayor Rey Chiong Uy “helped organize and finance” the death squad which the international human rights organizations says is responsible for “the extra-judicial killings of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, street children and others” over the last ten years. No one has been prosecuted for the killings—an indication, said Kline, of “total system failure.”

Former Mayor Uy has denied any such involvement, and has told interviewers that his political opponents had paid off the witnesses HRW interviewed who had accused the mayor of supporting the death squads. Uy is reportedly planning to run for mayor of Tagum again in 2016.

That possibility aside, Tagum is not the only city where death squads supposedly operate. Rumors on the existence of death squads organized by local officials “to deter crime” have been rife in certain Philippine cities for decades, with Davao City being prominently in the list.

During the incumbency of former police general Alfredo Lim as mayor of the City of Manila, who was widely referred to in the media as the country’s version of “Dirty Harry” (a Clint Eastwood onscreen character who shot bad guys first and asked questions later), the work of a similar death squad was in evidence in the bodies of alleged drug dealers and petty criminals that were turning up in garbage dumps and in the Pasig River.

Cebu City, say some journalists in the police and local government beats, has at one time or another also been rumored to have its own version, as have some cities in the Bicol region.

If the existence and persistence of death squads is already an outrage—since, as Kine pointed out, they function as judge, jury and executioner, undermining in the process any claim to this country’s being under the rule of law—the indifference of the communities where they operate, or are rumored to operate, is even more outrageous.

Hardly anyone expressed any alarm over the extra-judicial killings in Manila, for example. While HRW interviews with Tagum residents, said Kine, revealed a climate of fear in that city, the latter seems to have been a development driven by some death squad members’ “free-lancing” as guns for hire.

According to Kine, these “free-lancers” at some point began hiring themselves out to kill people other than the drug dealers and users, street children and petty criminals initially targeted by, if HRW is correct, the law and order local government of Tagum. Among the free-lance operators’ victims were business people, a judge, and a journalist. The killings demonstrated to hitherto indifferent Tagum residents that no one is safe from the death squads.

What’s of special interest is Kline’s specifically mentioning the killing of radio block-timer Rogelio Butalid only last Deember 11, 2013—an indication that the death squads are still active, despite Mayor Uy’s leaving office that year, and raising the possibility that the operations of these groups could be linked to the killing of journalists for their work (27 so far during the Aquino III administration).

Some of the death squad members’ branching out into free-lance work, however, is hardly surprising. Because no one has been prosecuted for the 298 killings HRW has documented, anyone, not only death squad killers, can be so emboldened as to go into the lucrative gun-for-hire business (death squad members, says the HRW report, are paid P5,000 per person killed in addition to other emoluments). Impunity—exemption from punishment for wrong doing— drives not only the continuing killing of journalists but also that of nuns and priests, lawyers and judges, human rights and political activists, environmentalists and even reformist local officials.

Kine reiterated what media advocacy, journalists’ and human rights groups have been saying during the last four years of the Aquino III administration: to close “the gap between Aquino administration rhetoric and practice,” said Kine, Mr. Aquino “must speak out against the killings.” His doing so could help discourage the killers by indicating that the government is taking the killings seriously as a mockery of the justice system and as an offense against the rule of law. What’s more, he could also declare that the government will do everything necessary to prosecute the killers, and follow that up with the arrest and prosecution of those responsible.

Unfortunately, said Kine, the Aquino administration is “in a state of denial.” He cited as proof the invitation HRW sent to such government agencies as the Department of Justice, the Commission on Human Rights, the Philippine National Police, the Department of Interior and Local Governments, and the Office of the Ombudsman for Mindanao, in addition to invitations to former Mayor Uy, the current mayor of Tagum, Allan Rellon, and the Chief of Police of Tagum.

All the invitations were unheeded. As a result, Kine told the media that he was not optimistic that anything will be done soon to address what Kine described as “an indictment of local government and police professionalism.”

The refusal of this and past administrations to address extra-judicial killings—some administrations’ even adopting the killing of political and human rights activists as part of their counter-insurgency policy—is in fact more than that. It is also an indication of how these administrations themselves have been contributing not only to “total system failure” but to total State failure.

The key element in the sustainability and strength of the State is its capacity to enforce its own laws. By ignoring and even brazenly violating the Constitution through such subterfuges as the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” and turning a blind eye on such fundamental failings as the persistence of impunity, the government is actually contributing to the erosion of State power.

Expecting the Aquino administration to do something about extra-judicial and journalists’ killings is thus akin to expecting the miraculous transformation of Mr. Aquino from a petulant, self-righteous captive of his US and military bosses into the modest, libertarian, and reform-minded statesman many Filipinos thought he would be during the 2010 campaign for President. After all, simply to expect him to stop attacking the media at every opportunity and hoping that he will understand that doing so encourages people to kill journalists is already a bit too much.


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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