Davao's safety comes at a high cost

MANILA — Davao City is one of the most orderly cities in the Philippines. Located about 600 miles south of Manila, in the island region called Mindanao, it prides itself on its durian (the spiky, pungent fruit), its tuna, its pristine beaches, and the fact that, in terms of land area, it is one of the biggest cities in the world. One Asian newsweekly has included it several times in its list of the "most livable cities in the world."

Unlike in most cities in the Philippines, a visitor can stroll the streets of Davao at 2 a.m. and not feel the least bit worried. Indeed, many tourists swear by the safety of the city, run by Rodrigo Duterte, a mayor Time magazine once called "The Punisher." It's a label that Duterte and many Davaoenos are proud of — but the security comes at a high cost to those who live in the city’s slums.

Like many cities, Davao — with a population of more than a million — has its own filthy, inner streets with a parallel universe. Gang members, drug dealers and street children fill the streets of these slums, much to the consternation of local officials, who consider them a blot on the city's beauty, and utterly expendable as well.

In these slums, the Davao Death Squad has murdered nearly 1,000 residents since the late 1990s. In January, assassins murdered an average of one person each day.

There had been much debate over the years about whether the Davao Death Squad really exists. Duterte once said the vigilantes were nothing but a figment of the imagination of journalists and his critics.

But a report released this month by the Human Rights Watch says otherwise. In the report "You Can Die Anytime," the group said the Davao Death Squad exists and represents a trend now being copied by many other Philippines cities — to deal with crime the “Dirty Harry” way.

In its study conducted in the Philippines last year, Human Rights Watch determined that vigilante killings in Davao City have increased from only two victims in 1998 to 124 in 2008, and that the police and the courts have failed to investigate, let alone prosecute, most of these cases. Most of these killings took place in broad daylight and in public places.

According to Human Rights Watch, which interviewed gang members and former members of the Davao Death Squad, there actually exists a group in Davao, led by a man called amo (boss), who determines who gets killed. The amo assigns a particular hit based on a list of targets acquired from village officials or the police. He hands out the weapon, and sometimes even a photograph of the target. Before the murder is carried out, the group coordinates with the nearest police station to ensure that policemen will arrive late to the crime scene to allow the gunman to get away.

The weapon of choice has been a .45 caliber pistol. But lately, the killers have been using knives, perhaps, according to Human Rights Watch, to buttress the police's claim that these deaths were the result of gang wars. According to families of victims I spoke with in 2002, some of the killers used a butcher's knife called a kolonyal: they would stab a victim in the left shoulder, the better for the kolonyal to pierce the heart and other vital organs.

"The continued death squad operation reflects an official mindset in which the ends are seen as justifying the means," the report said. "The motive appears to be simple expedience: courts are viewed as slow or inept. The murder of criminal suspects is seen as easier and faster than proper law enforcement."

It also found that the Davao Death Squad has been copied in several Philippine cities and that there has not been any outrage from the public, except from activists and human rights groups.

"Duterte and other local officials continue to deny the existence of any death squad. But in recent years, mayors and officials of other cities have made statements attempting to justify similar killings in their own cities," the report said. "Sadly, Davao City is seen by some as a model for fighting crime."

Indeed, Duterte has repeatedly won reelection by promising to eliminate crime. Residents support him when he threatens criminals with death, usually on his television program.

"I will not hesitate to kill them. I don't care about minors," Duterte once told reporters, referring to members of teenage gangs, several of whom, some as young as 14, have been killed over the years. "If you are a criminal," Duterte said publicly in February, "you are a legitimate target of assassination."

But as can be expected in an environment where extrajudicial means are accepted, even encouraged, the inevitable happens. On the evening of July 17 last year, 20-year-old Jaypee Larosa was shot dead by three gunmen near his home in Davao City. According to eyewitnesses, one of the men approached the body, took off Larosa's baseball cap and muttered: “Son of a bitch. This is not the one.”

Like most cases, Larosa's case remains unsolved.

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