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Davao's safety comes at a high cost

Human Rights Watch report says the city's vigilante-style justice is being copied.

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.