DAVAO – Rodrigo Duterte has kept his word.
“Forget the laws on human rights,” he declared in May at his final presidential campaign rally in Manila. “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just as I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because, I’d kill you.”
More than seven months after winning the presidency, Duterte is rolling out on a national scale the model of government he honed over 22 years and seven terms as mayor of this city on the southern island of Mindanao. Just as in Davao, blood is now flowing in the capital Manila and surrounding areas as the police and vigilantes, inspired by the president, conduct a wave of killings.
A Davao-based human rights group, the Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE), has compiled figures showing that death squads in the city were responsible for at least 1,400 documented killings between 1998 and 2015. Scaled up, Duterte’s war on drugs is now well under way across the nation, and the body count is setting records.
Police have killed more than 2,000 people since he was inaugurated on June 30, and are investigating about 3,000 more deaths. Human rights monitors believe many of these were carried out by vigilantes with official sanction, a charge the government denies.
In Davao, Duterte built a personality cult around his crackdown on crime. Part Mao, part Castro, part gun-toting Filipino warlord, the avowedly socialist mayor ruled his city as a lethal enemy of wrongdoers and a champion of the poor. His salute was a clenched fist — a symbol now emblazoned on souvenir mugs and other Duterte memorabilia.
But there is another ingredient in Duterte’s appeal that makes him a more complex leader, and a potentially more potent one, than is appreciated abroad: The people of Davao say he gets things done. Residents laud his handling of city services. Businesses praise his pro-growth policy. A top official at the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines applauds his team of economic advisers.
Samuel R. Matunog, a Davao lawyer, businessman and human rights worker, strongly rejects Duterte’s support for violence and killing. But he acknowledges there are elements of his administration worthy of support. “There are so many things that he does that I like,” he says. “Most important to him is the basic welfare of working people.”
With the national levers of power in his grasp, Duterte is trying to apply to the Philippines, a nation of 101 million people, the same recipe of fear and populism that he employed in his efforts to tame Davao, a city of 1.6 million.
‘A bigger Davao City’
To advance the drug war, his political allies have introduced legislation to bring back the death penalty — and to lower the age at which people can be prosecuted for crimes to just 9. Meanwhile, he is promising a raft of measures certain to please wage earners and the poor — including free tuition at state universities and colleges, and free irrigation for rice farmers. He also wants to replicate features of the Cuban health system.
The task of managing the more than $300 billion national economy dwarfs any challenge Duterte faced in Davao, to be sure. While his war on drugs is well advanced, his promised economic reforms have barely started.
“He wants to make the Philippines a bigger Davao City,” Jesus Dureza, one of Duterte’s closest advisers, said in an interview on the president’s plan to boost the economy by eliminating crime and drugs. “But the work is much tougher as corruption and crime are well-entrenched in Manila, at the national level.”
As president, Duterte is continuing his take-no-prisoners approach.
In Davao, he shamed civil servants on a weekly radio and television program. In Manila, he has publicly humiliated his most outspoken critic, a senator who led an investigation into extrajudicial killings and now faces criminal charges. And he recently demanded the immediate resignation of the heads of the country’s top energy regulatory body after reports of corruption at the agency.
In his crackdown on drugs and crime as mayor, most victims were drug users, petty criminals and street children. Most were either shot or stabbed to death in vigilante-style killings, CASE said.
In a 2009 report, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified a consistent failure by police to seriously investigate these killings. Police in Davao, helped by neighborhood leaders, drew up lists that were used by death squads to target their victims, HRW alleged. The rights group also reported that acting and retired police officers worked as “handlers” for death-squad gunmen in Davao, giving them names and photos of targets, an allegation denied by Davao police.
Duterte denies playing any part in the activities of the so-called death squads in Davao.
The president has faced probes into the killings in Davao and since he took office in July, and none has proven he was responsible, a spokesman for Duterte said in response to questions from Reuters. The president’s critics “keep on picking on allegations of human rights violations,” he said. “If anyone is eroding democracy, it must be the rabid opponents who up to now cannot accept defeat and respect the results of elections.”
Shock and disapproval
But a similar pattern of violence is re-emerging nationally. In October, Reuters revealed the key role that neighborhood “captains” across the nation are playing in the drugs war. Many of the victims killed by law enforcement officers or vigilantes appeared on police “watch lists” that these low-level officials are helping to compile. A later Reuters investigation amassed evidence that suggested officers were summarily gunning down drug suspects and performing perfunctory crime-scene investigations and autopsies.
“When will these killings stop?” said Congressman Gary Alejano, a former military officer and strong critic of Duterte’s methods. “The purpose of the war on drugs is to stifle opposition and castrate dissent. It is working.”
A growing chorus of shock and disapproval has included warnings from senators that there are grounds for impeachment over what Duterte’s critics say are extrajudicial killings. But the president is pressing ahead.
Right now, an impeachment motion seems unlikely. Duterte’s supporters control both houses of Congress, and his popularity remains high. An opinion poll published by the Social Weather Stations research agency in December showed 77 percent of Filipinos were satisfied with Duterte’s performance.
It was his promise to spread his city’s anti-corruption and law-and-order policies across the country, political analysts here say, that endeared him to millions of Filipino voters. He tapped into disgust with the nation’s political elite and the failure of successive governments to tackle poverty and inequality despite years of robust economic growth, they say.
The 71-year-old former prosecutor revels in reminding his countrymen that he is a man to be feared. As mayor, Duterte declared on December 16, he even shot three criminals himself during a police operation. “I said I killed about three of them,” he said. “I didn’t really know how many bullets from my gun went through inside their bodies.”
In Congress, his allies are determined to push through the bill that would lower the age of criminality from 15 to 9. The legislation is necessary, they say, because young children are involved in the drug trade.
It wouldn’t be the first time children have been caught in a Duterte crackdown. In Davao, CASE said it documented 132 incidents of children aged 17 and younger who it says died in vigilante-style killings between 1998 and 2015.
Checks and balances
As president, Duterte has continued to target official corruption. While at an economic summit in Peru in November, he issued an order: Launch an immediate investigation into the Energy Regulatory Commission. He had just been briefed on the suicide of a top commission official, who was allegedly under pressure to authorize improper deals. On the spot, Duterte demanded the wholesale resignations of the commission’s senior management.
“I am telling you, I am just a small town province boy, I really don’t like corruption,” Duterte told reporters in Lima. If the commissioners refuse to quit, the president “will ask Congress to abolish their positions,” a Duterte spokesman told Reuters.
He has also brought his populist economics to the capital. Congress has approved a budget of 8.3 billion pesos ($167 million) for 2017 to provide free tuition at all state colleges and universities. He sent his health minister to Cuba in August to study its national health system. And in recent speeches, Duterte said he had released 2 billion pesos from the regulatory agency that operates most of the country’s casinos. This would be split evenly between drug rehabilitation and subsidies for poor families unable to afford prescription drugs.
Duterte inherited a strong economy. To boost growth further he pledges to bolster infrastructure spending and lift caps on foreign ownership. He has also vowed to increase competition in markets dominated by monopolies and duopolies, signaling a willingness to take on the business elite.
Still, there are signs it might be difficult to impose his vision on a far-flung nation where checks and balances on executive power are well established.
The management of the Energy Regulatory Commission is still in office. They refuse to resign, instead calling for an impartial inquiry into the suicide. The commission is a quasi-judicial body established by law, so legislation would be required for Duterte to scrap it.
Back home in Davao, bureaucrats rarely defied a mayor known as “the Punisher.” Duterte’s power remains grounded in this city, where his word virtually became law. His daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is now mayor. His son, Paolo, is vice mayor.
Even after moving in to Malacanang, the presidential palace in Manila, Duterte and his entourage fly to Davao every week. “We are now the Malacanang of the south,” says Davao businesswoman and Duterte supporter Belinda Laya-Torres. “He feels at home here.”
Duterte became mayor in 1988, two years after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos. The coastal city was at the center of a communist insurgency that had erupted against the Marcos regime. New People’s Army rebels were using the city as a testing ground for urban guerrilla warfare; assassinations, bombings and disappearances were common. In a vicious war of attrition, the rebels targeted police, the military and local officials, while the authorities hit back at suspected communist sympathizers.
Some locals say when Duterte came to power, he proved to be more effective in the use of violence than the rebels or criminals. In its 2009 report, Human Rights Watch discerned a pattern in the vigilante-style killings during his rule.
“The assailants usually arrive in twos or threes on a motorcycle without a license plate,” the monitoring group wrote. “They wear baseball caps and buttoned shirts or jackets, apparently to conceal their weapons underneath. They shoot or, increasingly, stab their victim without warning…as quickly as they arrive, they ride off — but almost always before the police appear.”
Alongside the crime crackdown, Duterte built support with his man-of-the-people persona. He is perceived as frugal and plain-living. The home where he still lives when in Davao is an unassuming two-story property behind a green metal gate. He eats at unpretentious restaurants and is fond of the strong-smelling fruit durian.
As mayor, he also slashed red tape. Applications for most permits and approvals must be decided within three days, local officials say. In the city tax office, fans rattle in the brightly lit public areas where many of the service windows are open through the lunch hour. The schedule is meant to minimize waiting time. Duterte says he hates seeing citizens queuing.
Rules and regulations were strictly enforced. Firecrackers, dangerous but very popular in the Philippines, are outlawed, a policy Duterte promises to enforce nationwide next year. Smoking in public is banned. Jaywalkers face $4 fines and orders to perform community service. Bars and restaurants must stop serving alcohol at 1 a.m. There is a 10 p.m. curfew on unaccompanied minors.
Despite the strictness of these restrictions, Duterte is no prude. Prostitution is tolerated with registered sex workers required to undergo regular health checks, according to a city official. The authorities check to ensure they are not working under coercion or threat. And the city holds a Christmas party for sex workers, the official said.
The mayor enhanced his image with a weekly radio-and-television talk show, “Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa” — From the Masses, For the Masses. Here, Duterte would take complaints from residents and issue peremptory corrective orders. It became a must for city officials, including the local police, to listen and watch his Sunday program: They would not want to miss his on-the-spot instructions, usually delivered with curses and rebukes.
Everywhere in the city there is evidence of the personality cult he fostered. At one of the more popular restaurants, Marina Tuna, which specializes in the fish for which the city is known, a Duterte cut-out greets guests on the entry stair. The markets are full of Duterte memorabilia and T-shirts.
With echoes of Maoist China, a national “learn from Davao” movement is under way. Delegations of visitors from around the country fly in to study the city’s blueprint for order, growth and development, local officials say. Overwhelmed with up to 22 groups visiting a day, a U.S.-style 911 emergency response center built by Duterte was forced to restrict access, according to operators at the center.
Poverty levels in the Davao region, which includes the city, are down, and in 2014 the region grew 9.3 percent — a statistic Duterte often cites when he boasts of his hometown. He usually follows this with a reminder that it is safe to walk the streets at night. This security, he says, created the conditions for investment and growth.
The city hosts a thriving business process outsourcing industry providing call centers, telemarketing and online language tutoring for local and foreign companies. Local outsourcing-business owners give Duterte credit for providing the environment for growth. They say the city is safe for their mostly young employees to commute to work at all hours.
“We need parents to be comfortable that young people can go out at 10 p.m. and come home early in the morning,” says Michael Bian, chief executive officer of a growing outsourced service provider, Six Eleven Global Teleservices.
Davao business people and officials also credit Duterte with having the confidence to delegate to experts. He has adopted the same approach as president, business leaders say, appointing experienced economic managers.
“He has surrounded himself with a very good team. They are doers,” says Ebb Hinchliffe, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines. “Thank God, he leaves them alone.”
Local business leaders and officials acknowledge that the city of Davao still has a long way to go.
Apart from a few gleaming modern malls, most of the commercial areas and residential neighborhoods are full of ramshackle buildings packed along narrow, bumpy roads. Tin shacks on stilts line fetid waterways. Public transport is limited and the drainage system is widely acknowledged to be inadequate, according to local business people and international development agencies.
Public security inside the city limits is dramatically improved compared with the 1980s. But Davao still ranks first among 15 Philippine cities for murder and second for rape, according to police crime data from 2010 to 2015. And a dire security climate across most of the rest of Mindanao, where separatist and terrorist groups remain active, poses a serious threat to efforts for further development.
A bomb detonated in a crowded night market in Davao on September 2, killing 15 people and injuring dozens. Authorities say the suspects arrested for the bombing belonged to a radical faction of a Muslim rebel group.
In an interview with Reuters during the election campaign, Duterte explained his vision for how law and order are essential to prosperity.
He arrived in his trademark jeans, open-necked shirt and shoes without socks. Unlike many politicians, he didn’t ask for questions in advance. When he wasn’t able to answer queries about taxes or the budget, he said so. He took no offense when asked about reports of his rumored romances: The government’s “bible” is the constitution, he said, and it says nothing about womanizing.
Enhanced security, he said, was the only way to build a stable economy. When asked why people should vote for him, he pointed to his achievements in Davao as “exhibit A.”
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” he said. “If you are a president and you are afraid of criminals, or you are afraid to kill criminals, then you have no business being a president.”