DEATH SQUADS IN THE PHILIPPINES: DUTERTE'S WAR ON DRUGS

WRITTEN BY JIBRIL ALI AND ZANAB J.S.

Rodrigo Duterte's Rule in the Philippines

President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, won the 2016 election in May by a popular vote of 39%. His campaign was designed to capitulate the response to the sharp increase in the illegal drug trade, which has turned the nation into an international transit hub for cartels.

His campaign, based mostly on an anti-drug and anti-crime platform, aimed to completely eradicate these problems. The Philippine Star reported the activities of the 9 separate Chinese cartels operating in Manila, the country’s capital. The U.S. State Department found the Chinese syndicates in question were responsible for the trade of methamphetamine (meth), as well as marijuana on a smaller scale, in the country. Some confirmed reports from the country’s national police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) verify that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel operates in the country as well. 

Davao Death Squad

For three separate terms, prior to his presidency, Duterte was mayor of Davao City in the Mindanao region. Aligned with the culture instilled by Duterte of a "zero tolerance policy" to crime, a vigilante group named the Davao Death Squad (DDS) substantiated itself as the first, notable vigilante justice group in the Philippines since the Maoist insurgency. 

DDS became responsible for a wave of extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals, repeat-offenders, petty criminals, and has maintained an active campaign of executions since 1998. From 1998 to 2008, the DDS is reportedly responsible for the execution of over 1000 Philippine nationals. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported victims were selected because they were suspected of being murderers, child rapists, drug dealers, and other repeat offenders of various crimes. Duterte expressed his approval of DDS several timed during his tenure as mayor, creating a culture of acceptance for vigilante justice that has inevitably led to other death squads acting in the same manner in other cities in the Philippines. The public opinion of these groups, surprisingly, had a sizeable fraction of approval, provided this sentiment is relative to the general discontent towards the “ineffectiveness of the judicial system”. 

Though Duterte has never officially confirmed the state sponsorship of any death squad in the Philippines, he has expressed support and approval for DDS and similar groups on multiple occasions prior to, and during his presidency. 

"Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs."
President Duterte speaking in regards to DDS in Manila in 2005
"If you are doing an illegal activity in my city [Davao], 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."
Duterte speaking to reporters in 2009

Human rights groups have condemned Duterte for supporting extrajudicial execution devoid of any due process in a court of law. 

"The mayor’s positioning is frankly untenable: He dominates the city so thoroughly as to stamp out whole genres of crime, yet he remains powerless in the face of hundreds of murders committed by men without masks in view of witnesses."
Philip Alston, U.N. Investigator of summary executions, gratuitous extrajudicial executions speaking to the senate of HR in 2008

As of October, 2016, his presidency continues to reflect his penchant for swift, permanent, and unregulated vigilante justice and his support for extrajudicial killings. The focus, this time, is specifically on drug trafficking.

The Killing of Eric Sison

Several death squads like DDS have arisen across the nation, removing due process in a legal framework altogether as they carry out routine executions. However, it is not only death squads carrying out swift, seemingly unregulated acts of violence since the commencement of Duterte's war on drugs. Armed forces in the Philippines have been reported to use excessive force that is often fatal on drug users and sellers as well. 

Eric Sison, a 22-year old pedicab driver, was killed last month in the country’s capital by city police in the Pasay township of Manila. The officers were allegedly on assignment looking for drug pushers when Sison was killed by police. 

The circumstances surrounding Sison's death remain foggy; authorities claim Sison engaged in a firefight with the officers, but his family members state Sison surrendered after attempting to flee. In a circulating cell phone video that captures unclear footage of the incident, one can hear a voice in the video screaming, “Don’t do it, I’ll surrender!”, preceding a gunshot that can be heard before the video ends. Near Sison’s coffin, a poster reads “JUSTICE FOR ERIC QUINTINITA SISON” and “OVERKILL - JUSTICE 4 ERIC” on a hand painted sign not too far from the coffin. The signs made by Eric Sison’s family are only one of the very few protests challenging Détente’s practices on alleged police brutality. 

The current atmosphere of state-sponsored killings in the Philippines has produced a climate of fear among citizens. The list of fatal casualties has reached 2,400, 900 of which died in police assignments. Duterte’s administration labeled the rest as “under investigation”, human rights watchdogs state that’s most likely code for extrajudicial killings led by vigilante death squads. 

There is no widespread dissent, no rallies, and barely any participation in the vigils held by the families. Unfortunately, the main victims are mostly small time drug dealers and addicts. Reflective of the history of death squads, often times, innocent people are killed purely out of suspicion. Duterte avoids addressing these incidents in an effort to uphold the war against drug trafficking. These death squads have acted as a limb for Duterte’s influence during his tenure as mayor and now as president. 

International Opinion

Contrary to his continuous denial in any involvement with the vigilante justice groups, the U.S. state departments claims to have confirmed Duterte’s role in sponsoring the death squads. In documents released by Wikileaks, the state department indicates sufficient evidence to assume Duterte's role in orchestrating the DDS. 

 

State department memorandum discussing Duterte's role in DDS released by WIKILEAKS//CRDTOpenSource

 

State department memorandum discussing Duterter's role in DDS released by WIKILEAKS//CRDTOpenSource

On the international stage, Duterte asserted that the U.N., and specifically Washington, are more concerned with “the bones of criminals piling up”, over their own mandates. He continued to argue that the U.N. hasn’t done enough for Syria and Iraq, then moved on to suggest the Philippines would withdraw from the organization, and invite China and a number of other African countries, to form another union of nations. His foreign minister later formally withdrew that statement.

With this kind of hyperbole, Duterte is seen by most world leaders as abrasive and short sighted. Having a nickname like “the Trump of the East”, Duterte’s temperament towards issues is described to be similar to Donald Trump. With the comment “I’ll eat you alive, just give me salt and vinegar” towards Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS linked terror group operating in the southern Philippines, one can easily determine the brashness of Duterte’s disposition.

Exaggeration in his rhetoric is where the comparison between the two ends. Unlike Trump, who has not yet been given the opportunity to follow through with his mandates, Duterte has become notorious for enacting his promises without wavering on his stance. Should Duterte promise the end of drug cartel activity in a city like Manila, the extreme, and fatal measures employed by his administration would be reflective of his history as a municipal--now national--leader. 

Testimony of Hitman Edgar Matobato

Among the many elements in this story, none come at a more convenient time than the recent testimony from hitman Edgar Matobato. Not much is known about the hired gun, aside from his willingness to volunteer a confession, and his history of being enlisted in a paramilitary group that was created to combat the Maoist insurgency--the same insurgents responsible for the murder of his father when he was young.

In the televised hearing, Matobato confessed that he directly overheard Duterte order killings during his first term as Mayor of Davao City, along with a surprising allegation of Duterte’s involvement in a killing of a government agent. Matobato disclosed the then-mayor unloaded an uzi submachine gun twice into the target. Matobato was denied protection following the hearing. 

As one would guess, Duterte’s political allies immediately dismissed the entire testimony, even attempting to point out inconsistencies in Matobato’s statement due to his illiteracy. Duterte finally addressed the allegations, suggesting perjury among anyone that would validate the confession. As it stands now, it’s unlikely for this testimony to contribute to an alteration in the status quo by itself. It is, however, very probable for a series of statements similar to Matobato’s be revealed over the course of Duterte’s term.

 

Edgar Matobato, self-proclaimed assassin for the DDS//CRDT

While suspected criminals can be targeted for any number of crimes, the vast majority of victims in the Philippines have been killed almost exclusively for selling or using drugs. The lack of due process in these cases suggest there will not be a halt to the extrajudicial killings.

Acquired knowledge, and historical perspective, reminds us that death squads are not a novel or surprising phenomenon. From the Middle East, to South America, death squads like the DDS have existed in bursts of time ranging from months to decades depending on the atmosphere. It is this same acquired knowledge that elucidates the resulting culture of fear, lawlessness and corruption that follows the presence of death squads. The distortion of power, justice, and opportunity can make for an environment that sees the unwarranted killing of dissidents, journalists, and alleged criminals not yet proven to be guilty.  In consideration of the 2400 deaths reported so far, an overwhelming majority thought to be committed by death squads, the primary target of these executions (low-level drug sellers, and people suffering from drug addiction), and Duterte's promise of support for vigilante justice, and punishment of those who oppose him, indicate that the Philippines are steadily approaching such an environment.

The direction of political power employed by the president is likely lined with more bodies as Duterte proves to be ruthless in his effort to eradicate drug trafficking in the country. And with the population immersed in fear--firstly, of summary executions carried out by death squads, and secondly, of the punishment promised by their president to those who speak against him--Duterte's crusade meets very little resistance. 

For further inquiry regarding the content of this article, contact Jibril Ali @jibrilalpha and Zanab J.S. @zanabism.