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Teenagers perish in Davao's killing fields

December 6, 2002 ·  By Carlos H. Conde

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DAVAO CITY – In one of the many hovels crammed inside Bankerohan, this city’ s largest public market, Christmas is about to come and go unnoticed once more. While the Alia family is no stranger to a joyless Christmas, this year ‘s yuletide has been exceptionally sad. The family is still mourning the death of yet another Alia child, who last month was added to a growing list of teenagers sacrificed in a brutal war against crime.

Clarita Alia, who hauls vegetables in a tiny cart for a living, used to have eight children. Now she has only five. She lost her second child Richard in July 2001. Three months later, it was Christopher’s turn. Next was Bobby, who died just this November.

Richard was only 18 when he was killed, while Christopher was 16, and Bobby, 14. All three were knifed to death, and while authorities have done little to investigate their cases, practically everyone assumes their deaths were part of the extra-judicial killings that have been plaguing Davao City in the last few years.

A significant number of those killed have been minors who had been in conflict with the law – just like the Alia brothers. Tambayan, a local child-rights group, estimates that at least 104 people, most of them male, have been victims of such extra-judicial killings since August 1998.

Of the 41 cases documented by the group from March 1999 to November this year, 20 involved boys who were18 years old and below. Not one of these cases has been solved, even if the killers said to range from gang members, to ex-rebels, to policemen are known in the local community.

For a city touted to be the country’s largest, Davao in the last several years has been able to keep an enviable peace-and-order record. Unlike in other urban centers, one can walk Davao’s streets even at 2 a.m. with few worries about being mugged. Police visibility is good, and Davaoeños take pride in the fact that there has not been any gang wars in their city for quite a while now. For this reason, Davao has become the envy of other cities, which now want to follow in its footsteps.

That, however, may mean taking a very bloody path. Clarita Alia is not alone in believing her three young sons and others like them have been killed as part of what is popularly seen as a successful, if unorthodox, strategy for battling crime.

The public’s tacit support for the killings is one reason local authorities, including the police, do not appear interested in finding the killers. Many Davaoeños believe that the executions are helping keep their city safe and do not seem to care that minors are among those being killed as part of a campaign against youth offenders, many of whom are petty thieves.

This is why Davaoeños support Rodrigo Duterte, their tough-talking mayor, who has made it well known that he will stop at nothing to fight criminals.

”I tell the people during elections: If you want a mayor that doesn’t kill criminals, look for another mayor,” Duterte told the PCIJ in a recent interview. “I was elected in 1988, reelected in 1992, reelected in 1995, reelected in 2001. That’s my gauge of people’s acceptance.”

Still, the mayor, who is also President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s anti-crime consultant, denied having any direct connections with the killings. “I would like to give you this assurance that I have never ordered the killing of anyone,” he said. “If I (ever) suggested that I’m abetting it, well, I will have to live with that.”

In late September last year, Duterte described the series of killings of suspected criminals as unlawful. But he also made it clear he was hardly sorry that they were happening. “I do not have any tears for you if you die, you idiots!” he said, referring to drug pushers. “You all deserved to die.”

Last March, Duterte once again declared war against teenage gangs, which the local police say are responsible for most of the crimes committed in the city. “If they offer resistance,” the mayor told reporters here, “I will not hesitate to kill them. I don’t care about minors.”

Such declarations have upset child-rights advocates, including Councilor Angela Librado. The chair of the City Council’s committee on women and children, Librado notes that while the mayor “hasn’t really violated any law,” his statements “send the wrong signal to the public. The signal is that, it’s okay for these people to die because they are useless anyway.”

If anything, Duterte’s contempt for teenage gangs and his encouragement of extra-judicial methods to deal with them have made children in conflict with the law fair game. Two weekends ago, three minors who had had brushes with the police were killed in separate incidents by unknown assailants.

One of the casualties was Alexander Buenaventura, a 19-year old toughie who was gunned down on Dec. 15. Duterte had singled him out in his TV program in March. “Dodong,” the mayor called out to Buenaventura on the air, “I’m warning you, our paths will cross one day.”

But child-rights advocates say the most daring display of contempt toward “useless” children happened in October last year. As activists prepared to march around the city to condemn yet another rash of killings of juveniles that month, gunmen shot dead two minors right in one of the streets the demonstrators had planned to take in the downtown area. The boys had been suspected snatchers. Said Ariel Balofinos, advocacy officer of the Kabiba Alliance for Children’s Concerns: “We are really angry. It’s as if the killings were staged in time for our rally.”

A few days later, Sr. Insp. Leonardo Felonia, chief of the San Pedro Police Station, declared that the extra-judicial killings targeting children in conflict with the law were a “practical” way to deal with crime. At least 18 extra-judicial killings have taken place within the jurisdiction of the San Pedro Police Station, which also covers Bankerohan, where most of the city’s teenage gangs come from.

Like Duterte, the police have washed their hands of the killings. But this has not stopped many people from speculating that local authorities are behind all these, even if the media keep on pushing the idea of the existence of a Davao Death Squad or DDS.

“The DDS has no face,” observes Tambayan program officer Pilgrim Guasa. “But when you ask gang members and their families, they can pinpoint who are the ones doing all these killings. Usually, these killers have a connection one way or the other to policemen, ex-policemen, assets, civilian law enforcers. There are those who say some of the killers are former New People’s Army rebels. One thing is certain: the killers are known in the community.”

Why none of these self-styled executioners has been caught is explained by Bernie Mondragon, executive director of the Kabataan Consortium, a group of child-rights NGOs: “Of course no one would want to come out and testify. Who would? This is the usual line by the police: no witness, no case. But I think that, deep inside, the police think the killings are valid and justified, hence the inaction.”

Guasa says child-rights advocates are frustrated by the Davaoeños reaction to the killings. Most of the callers in phone-in surveys conducted by local TV stations invariably say they are for the killings. Alice, an office clerk, echoes the sentiment of many here when she says the targeting of suspected criminals “somehow makes me feel safe. I know that anybody who does something bad to me in the street will someday meet his comeuppance.”

Guasa theorizes that such an attitude could be traced in part to the city’s “history of being used as a laboratory for violence.” By that, she is referring to the 1980s, when vigilante groups were roaming the city, summarily executing suspected communist rebels who in turn were killing policemen. The incidents prompted some people to call the Agdao district, where most of the killings were then occurring, as “Nicaragdao.”

In a way, says Guasa, “the public has been desensitized by the summary executions. Most worrisome of all is that they perceive extra-judicial killings as a practical solution, especially when it is a means to maintain peace and order.”

Councilor Librado, for her part, says her committee had asked the Davao City Police Office to submit a report to on the killings. All they got, she says, was a table containing a summary of the killings, which can be obtained from the police blotter. “No in-depth investigation, no determination of culpability,” says Librado. “There was nothing new in it.”

Most of the agencies approached by her committee to investigate the matter also said they could not do anything because there weren’t any complainants. She says even the National Bureau of Investigation only “took for granted” the committee’s resolution requesting for an investigation into the child killings.

Librado recounts, “I told them, We are talking here of specific killings targeting minors. There could be a trend here. We expect agencies to initiate all the moves so facts could be drawn.”

“The funny thing is,” she adds, “I was invited to a forum once where mothers and relatives told us that they were willing to file charges.”

Gang members interviewed by the PCIJ said that criminal syndicates are behind some of the killings. In others, the hits are ordered by rival gangs. But the gang members also say many of the murders are contract killings. Says one gang member: “There was a time when the killers in the community would bid for the contract those who bid the lowest gets to kill the prey.”

Sometimes, the assassin is handpicked. Gani (not his real name), a member of one of the most notorious gangs in this city, was only 17 years old when he was given P500 to kill an alleged drug pusher. A few months later, he was asked again to kill another pusher. He was paid P350 for that one. He was approached a third time for another hit. But the victim survived, and those who contracted Gani refused to pay him the P350 they had promised him. Gani is now in hiding, after receiving death threats.

A former gang member who wants to be called “Bing” says that in a number of instances, the preferred killers are the butchers at Bankerohan, and their weapon of choice is the kolonyal, the butcher’s knife.

In the Tambayan’s tally of killings since March 1999, however, 30 or 73 percent of the total were done with a gun, usually a .45 caliber pistol, the same weapon issued to the police force. In such hits, the victim is usually shot in the head and at close range. Some child-rights advocates say it would not be a stretch to claim that these killings were done not by gang members, who like to use makeshift arrows and knives, but by people with considerable experience in handling firearms.

Gang members say that more often than not, the targets are first given a warning. Bing, for one, says that in 1998, a policeman living in their community approached him and said, “If you don’t mend your ways, you’re dead.” Bing wasted no time in reforming himself. He now goes to school and hardly goes out with his gangmates anymore.

Clarita Alia also says, “I had been told not just once that I should tell my children to stop what they’re doing or else they’d be dead.” She readily admits that her late sons had figured in snatchings, drugs and all sorts of petty crime in Bankerohan. She adds that their names eventually landed on the OB (order of battle) of the police.

Before Richard’s death on July 17 last year, police went to the Alia home to arrest the teenager for rape. Nanay Clarita asked them for evidence but when the police said they did not have any yet, she refused to turn over her child to them.

“They told me I was stupid for protecting my son,” Nanay Clarita says. Richard had also been warned by unidentified men that his name was third on their list. It soon became common knowledge in Bankerohan that the Alia brothers were marked for liquidation. More than two weeks before Richard was killed, his siblings were already hearing that he was in danger.

Tambayan’s Guasa confirms that other victims were told beforehand of being in some list. “Before each killing, there were deliberate warnings to would-be victims that their names were on the list. They should stop or they would be killed,” she says.

Many believe these “lists” are lists of drug pushers and users in the community that are oftentimes prepared by the Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Council (Badac). It was then President Joseph Estrada who had created the Badac through an executive order, which also says that anyone in the barangay can report to the Council who the users or pushers are in the community.

These same lists end up in the hands of the Regional Anti-Narcotics Office, the police and local officials. But Guasa says that the problem with the Badac lists is that anybody can just point a finger on someone without presenting proof. “If the police have a case against somebody on the list, why not file a case against that person?” she asks. “Why supplant due process with these lists?”

Nanay Clarita herself asks between sobs, “My sons may have committed crimes, but why are they being butchered? The people who do this why do they think the lives of my sons are not worth anything? Is it because we’re dirt poor? Is this why due process does not apply to us?

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