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The Punisher

June 24, 2002 ·  By EDWIN TUYAY FOR TIME


Hard-riding, tough-talking Mayor Rodrigo Duterte keeps the peace in what was once the Philippines’ most lawless city. But his brand of order comes at a price

BY PHIL ZABRISKIE/DAVAO CITY,13673,501020701-265480,00.html

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte cruises the streets of Davao on his beloved Yamaha motorcycle

Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City, is sitting in his favorite bar, After Dark, a glass of brandy in front of him, a .38 pistol tucked in his waistband. He’s wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt loudly adorned with wine bottles and bunches of red and green grapes—the same outfit he wore to work. While other guests take turns singing along with the piano player, Duterte tells a strange and disturbing story. In 1993, Davao’s San Pedro Cathedral was hit with three grenades during an evening Mass. Six parishioners were killed. The attackers were Muslim militants, the sort easily found in Davao, a time-honored haven for kidnappers, bandits, communist rebels and roaming private armies. Four of the attackers were quickly arrested. Just as quickly, Duterte relates, “They went missing.” Disappeared. Dead. “Then,” the mayor says flatly, “it got ugly.” Further killings? “More like assassinations,” he says. The targets—other militants—didn’t receive the courtesy of arrest, much less a trial. Were they dispatched on his orders? “Oh no,” he responds. “I don’t believe in state-sponsored killing.” A pause. “I can’t say any more, but I taught them a lesson.”

The island of Mindanao remains troubled. A Muslim separatist rebellion has raged there for decades. Al-Qaeda members have roamed the island. Foreign businessmen and missionaries must constantly be on guard there against kidnappers. But Davao, a sprawling port city on the southern coast, has emerged as the exception—an oasis of peace in the middle of the Philippines’ lush center of chaos.

Residents have a simple explanation: the mayor. First elected in 1987, Duterte was returned to office twice until term limits made him to move to Manila as a Congressman. Last year he returned, running for the Davao mayoralty on his eternal platform: to bring peace and order the Duterte way. The city’s 1.3 million residents swept him back into office, and no wonder. On his watch, Davao’s per capita crime rate has sunk to the nation’s lowest. The local tourism board calls it “the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia.” People once fled the place in fear; now they flee other trouble spots in the Philippines—for Davao.

“If we had 20 more mayors like Duterte,” says Fred Lim, an ex-mayor of Manila who is no stranger to tough tactics, “the peace and order situation in the Philippines would improve.” That’s one way of looking at it. Others say Duterte has achieved his results at a grim price, disregarding due process and anointing himself legislator, judge, jury—and possibly executioner—all at once. Justice in Davao, says Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a highly decorated former armed forces chief, is “not about following the law; it’s about who’s willing to go further.”

Duterte is unapologetic about his willingness to venture beyond what legal niceties might permit. Criminals and rebels, he says menacingly from his perch at the bar, “do not have a monopoly on evil.” A long, hard stare leaves little doubt that this is not idle talk. One day his methods might be unnecessary, he says. But for now, he insists on what most people from this town have also come to believe: “The only reason there is peace and order in Davao is because of me.”

The convoy rolls down San Pedro Street, with Duterte in the lead on one of his beloved motorcycles. He is followed by two other bikes and a pickup bearing M16 toting bodyguards. Now and again, he lets loose a siren, in part to clear traffic, in part to signal that the mayor is on the prowl. Some people stare. Others wave. A few duck swiftly into the shadows. Duterte says he “patrols” twice a week, usually late at night, stopping at precinct houses to see who’s in the holding cells and why, and to make sure his police are doing their job. He has made a policy of doling out groceries to cops as a way of curbing their temptation to elicit bribes, but that doesn’t mean he’s always in a benevolent mood. When he finds a cop drunk on duty, Duterte admits, he personally doles out a thrashing.

Duterte suffers from none of the charges that dog most Philippine politicians: that he is beholden to vested interests, obsessed with retaining power, or bent on accumulating its spoils. He is accepted and welcomed because he has delivered Davao from the bloody days of the 1970s and 1980s when the city was known as the murder capital of the Philippines. During the 21-year rule of strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the military spared neither the rod nor the gun to battle a spate of insurgencies, including one by the communist New People’s Army (NPA). By the end of Marcos’ reign, many in Mindanao were sick of the government and sided with the NPA—even when it sent hit squads, called “Sparrow Units,” to assassinate policemen and soldiers in Davao. But the Sparrows got cocky and started bumping off suspected informants and civilians. As a counter, a vigilante group called Alsa Masa emerged in the mid-’80s, armed in part by the military and set on wiping out local communists. The vigilantes were popular until they too ran amok. A mini civil war erupted. One notably violent area called Agdao was rechristened “Nicar-agdao.”

Duterte, who graduated as a lawyer in 1972—the year Marcos proclaimed martial law—rose to prominence against this backdrop of vicious mayhem. As a city prosecutor he made his reputation by targeting military and rebel abuses with equal fervor. The son of a former provincial governor, Duterte says his father taught him that elected officials must serve the greater good no matter what it takes, like a father protecting and disciplining his family. And Duterte was fearless: even as a teenager, he refused to back down from fights—or whippings from his mother—despite being a self-confessed skinny weakling.

In his first term, Duterte’s challenge was to rehabilitate Davao’s reviled police department, which was running scared after years of NPA attacks. Shortly after Duterte took office, he heard that some kidnappers were trying to skip town with their just-collected ransom. Duterte led the pursuit, beating the cops to the scene and stationing his car on a bridge at the city line. When the kidnappers arrived, they started shooting. Duterte and his security detail returned fire, killing three of the four suspects. It was like a scene from the Philippine movies, which are replete with Dirty Harry loner-heroes. Here, it seemed, was a man who did what he promised, a man willing to die—and kill—for Davao. Has he, in fact, killed people? Duterte says he doesn’t know, noting blithely “I didn’t use tracer bullets.” At 57, he remains the swaggering new-sheriff-in-town. He wants outlaws to know, he says, “that if I’m going out, I’m going out with my guns blazing.”

Guided by his temperament, not the constitution, Duterte gave his cops license to shoot anyone who resisted arrest. He drove into the hills, into the camps of the NPA and other rebel groups ravaging Mindanao and told them he understood their grievances and respected men who fought for their beliefs. But, he added, “Don’t f___ with my city.” If they did, he warned, “they should be prepared to die.”

By the early 1990s, the threat within Davao from communist rebels and Muslim guerrillas had faded. Duterte’s vigilance had not. Urchins caught picking pockets have got beatings with a belt or a cow’s tail from the mayor himself, often in City Hall. Rich kids who hot-rodded down the city streets were warned that they’d be paraded naked around town. And throughout, he let it be known that he would never relent in his fight against rapists, petty thieves and particularly drug pushers. “If you sell drugs to destroy other people’s lives,” he threatened, “I can be brutal.”

On Sept. 20, Ryan Martinito, 18, and P.J. Taporco, 19, were walking down Ponciano Reyes Street, one of Davao’s main thoroughfares. Both were known cell- phone thieves who had been arrested several times and were out on bail. As several witnesses looked on, two men riding a motorcycle drove up, killed Martinito and Taporco with bullets to the head, then sped away. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.

Suspicions immediately focused on the so-called Davao Death Squad, a vigilante outfit the city has come to know well over the past decade. According to press and police reports, more than 100 thieves and drug pushers—some convicted, some charged, others not even formally arrested—have been killed in the city during that time, almost always with the same modus operandi: two men on a motorcycle with a .45 or a 9-mm firing at close range. Such killings were heavy in 1996 and 1997, then sporadic during Duterte’s time in Congress. The pace picked up during and after his mayoral campaign last June, spiking last fall after Duterte ordered all drug dealers to leave town by Nov. 30, or else.

The DDS is commonly referred to as the “Duterte Death Squad”—even, jokingly, by Duterte himself. The mayor formally denies any involvement, saying the killings may be gang related. But, characteristically, he points out that most of the victims were repeat offenders who got what they deserved. “From day one,” he says, “I told people there are consequences for not abiding by the law.” A task force appointed by the mayor to investigate the roughly 40 suspected vigilante killings in the past two years alone has not made a single arrest: no witnesses would come forward.

At the very least, the mayor has created an atmosphere in which the death squads feel free to operate with impunity. Last October, Duterte went on television and read out a list of suspects wanted for drug offenses, including policemen. Two of those named were killed within a week. Jun Pala, a former Alsa Masa spokesman and now one of Duterte’s fiercest critics, was ambushed last July and shot four times. Pala has suspicions—but no evidence—about who ordered the attack. (Duterte denies involvement.) Pala argues that Duterte deserves no credit for Davao’s rebirth. “How can he say Davao is safer when children”—that’s to say teenagers—”are being killed indiscriminately?” It is, he adds, “a reign of terror.”

Yet part of the fascination of Duterte’s personality is that he also has an incongruously soft and liberal streak. He lives in a modest house on a quiet street. He sends food to Muslim communities during Ramadan and to Catholic communities at Christmas. Almost every day in his office he receives constituents seeking assistance. In one 10-minute span, he gives a mother the bus fare to her home village, counsels a woman seeking a job and tenderly tells a young, badly scarred burn victim that he will pay for her operation and follow-up treatment. (Duterte is known to deliver on such promises.) He is politically correct in other ways too: his party slate during the past election included a Christian, a Muslim, a gay man and a disabled candidate.

But it’s Duterte’s zero tolerance—for both crime and the judicial system—that resonates. “They can’t rely on the justice system, so they rely on Duterte,” says former Misamis Oriental Governor Homobono Adaza. Looking to exploit Duterte’s appeal, former Presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada both asked him to take national posts. And Duterte’s way is spreading. Presidential adviser Jesus Dureza, who has known him since high school, says voters in other cities also crave Duterte-type security. Copycat vigilante killings have cropped up in Digos City to the south and Cagayan de Oro to the north. Locally, criticism from Muslim leaders, the Catholic church, and libertarian groups has been muted. Only child welfare and human-rights bodies have complained about the deaths of too many teens. The locals’ views are all too clear. Duterte has never lost an election. Everyone in Davao seems content—if a little scared.

Duterte leaves his brother’s birthday party after midnight. He sends his security home and leads a walking tour of Davao’s shadier streets. It’s late but the mayor wants to prove that Davao is safe, anywhere, any time. He ambles past small shops, vendors, restaurants and street corners favored by local hookers. Some of the girls greet him with handshakes and hugs, which he returns with jokes, kisses on the cheek, and some pocket money. “I wanted to end prostitution,” he says, “but I had no jobs to give them.”

But some of the young working girls react more nervously. Today he’s going after drug addicts and pickpockets. Tomorrow, they fear, it could be them. Who, after all, has the power or will to stop him if he chooses to broaden his list of undesirables? The city may be more secure for some, but for the girls peering nervously from across the street, life in Duterte’s Davao seems more perilous than ever. END


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