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Davao death squads

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Title: Davao death squads  
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Subject: Vigilante, Rodrigo Duterte, Extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in the Philippines
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Davao death squads

The Davao Death Squads or DDS, is a vigilante group active in Davao City in the Philippines. The group is allegedly responsible for summary executions of individuals suspected of petty crimes and dealing in drugs in Davao. It has been estimated that the group is responsible for the murder or disappearance of between 1,020 and 1,040 people between 1998 and 2008.[1][2]

A team from Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance, a human rights group, and investigators from the Commission on Human Rights discovered killing fields where skeletal remains of victims of the death squads were dumped.[3] Human Rights Commissioner Dominador Calamba II has indicated that local executives and the police knew the criminals but were "seemingly tolerating" them.[4] Human rights groups said the killings have become an unwritten government policy to deal with crime due to an ill-functioning criminal justice system and lack of due process in the way authorities administered justice.[5]


According to Amnesty International and local human rights groups, there were over 300 people killed in Davao City by death squads between 1998 and 2005. The rate of killing accelerated after this so that between 2005 and 2008 death squads were responsible for between 700 and 720 murders.[5][6] According to a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch the victims were selected because they were suspected of being drug dealers, petty criminals and street children aged as young as 14.[7][8] Amnesty International states, killings and extrajudicial executions continued throughout the year, particularly of criminal suspects. In Mindanao many such killings, including those of minors, were attributed to the so-called “Davao Death Squad” vigilante group. It was reported that local officials in some areas advocated a “shoot to kill” policy with respect to criminal suspects resisting arrest.[9] According to local human rights activists, the death squads later began to offer 'guns for hire' services targeting individuals for reasons unrelated to crime.[10] In 2004, thousands of people protested the killings in a "walk for peace" and ecumenical prayer service.[11]


An investigation by Human Rights Watch found that the killings began in the mid-1990s during the second term of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. One group claiming to be responsible for the killings called themselves "Suluguon sa Katawhan" ("Servants of the People") but was soon called the Davao Death Squad (DDS) by local media. By mid-1997 were deemed responsible for more than 60 unsolved murders in the city.[7] It is believed that the original members of the death squad were former members of the New People's Army (NPA). Initially the death squad had around ten members but this had increased to around 500 by 2009.[10]

Vigilante Methods

Members of the death squad were managed by either currently serving or ex-police officers, according to Human Rights Watch.[7] These officers provided the assailants with training, weapons and ammunition, motorcycles, and information on the targets. Lists of targets were drawn up by police or barangay (village or district) officials. Information might include a name, address and a photograph and local police stations were allegedly pre-warned to facilitate the murders and escape of the assailants.[7] Witnesses reported that police officers took a surprisingly long time to respond to incidents even where these occurred in the vicinity of police stations and officers neglected to follow basic investigative procedures, such as collecting bullet casings from the street.[7] Human Rights Watch reported that the standard tactics of the killers was to arrive in small groups of two or three on unlicensed motorbikes. Victims would be stabbed or shot without warning during daytime in public areas such as bars, cafes, markets, shopping areas, jeepneys or tricycles and in the presence of numerous witnesses.[10] Assailants were generally paid between 5,000 and 50,000 pesos (US$114 - US$1,147) for an assassination, depending on individual involved.

Public opinion

There appears to have been a certain degree of public approval among citizens of Davao City for the actions of the death squad, primarily fuelled by public discontent at “the arduous and ineffective judicial system” that created an environment where extra-judicial executions seemed to be a “practical resort” to suppress crime in the city.[10] Subsequently there were reports of death squads operating in other cities, including General Santos City, Digos City, and Tagum City in Mindanao as well as in Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines.[10]

Impact on crime

Crime figures reported by the mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, alleged that crime in the city was significantly reduced during this period. These suggested a decrease in crime from a triple-digit crime rate per 1,000 people in 1985 to 8.0 cases per 1000 inhabitants in the period 1999 to 2005. According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of the earlier crimes related to petty offences, whose fall coincided with a sharp rise in murders. Furthermore, according to police statistics the population in Davao City grew from 1.12 million to 1.44 million between 1999 and 2008 (29 per cent). In the corresponding period the incidence of crime rose from 975 to 3,391 (248 per cent). Human Rights Watch argues that the harsh anti-crime campaign failed to tackle crime rates and moreover, the rise in murders appeared to have exacerbated crime rates in the city.[10]

Official complicity

In its 2009 report Human Rights Watch criticised authorities for failing to act against the death squads. It condemned the then president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for tolerating the lawlessness, saying that she had, "largely turned a blind eye to the killing spree in Davao City and elsewhere."[10] In 2004 Arroyo had announced Rodrigo Duterte as her special adviser on crime, an appointment which was viewed as signifying her approval of extra-judicial killings.[5] Human Rights Watch also highlighted the inaction of the Philippine National Police and national institutions such as the Department of Justice, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights. This official tolerance of vigilantism had created, they said, an environment of "widespread impunity".[10] From 2009 Philippines government institutions periodically stated their intention to investigate the death squads. On one such occasion the National Commission on Human Rights created an inter-agency task force to look into the matter. However, no real action was forthcoming.[12] In 2005 Bernie Mondragon, of Coalition Against Summary Executions (CASE), an NGO, said extrajudicial killings "are now the unwritten state policy in dealing with crime".[5] Later, in 2008 the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, pointed out that the fact that the killers made no effort to hide their identity and threatened parents with the murder of their children, suggested a belief by the killers that they were immune from police action.[10]

In 2005, the deputy ombudsman for the Military and Other Law Enforcement Offices suspended four senior police officials for six months without pay because of their failure to solve a number of vigilante killings in their area.[10] In an official statement the deputy ombudsman said:[10] "The inability of the respondent police officers to prevent the summary killing in Davao City is an indication of gross neglect of duty and inefficiency and incompetence in the performance of official functions."

When the four officers were suspended the mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte directed the four officials to file a petition for certiorari, on the basis that the penalty would demoralize the police, reportedly saying, "I have pledged to help [the police] especially when they are prosecuted for simply performing their duties,"[10] The suspension order was subsequently reversed by the Court of Appeals after the police officers filed a petition.

In 2012 the Office of the Ombudsman charged 21 police officers with a charge of simple neglect of duty over the vigilante killings.[6] The charge provided for penalties of 1 month suspension or a fine of 1 month's salary. Investigators from the Ombudsman's office found that there was an “unusually high number of unsolved killings” from 2005 to 2008 in the areas of jurisdiction of the officers’ precincts.[6] The officers ranged in seniority from police chief inspector to police senior superintendent.

Alleged involvement of Rodrigo Duterte

Davao Mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, has been heavily criticised by numerous organizations for condoning and even inciting murders to take place during his leadership. In the April 2009 UN General Assembly of the Human Rights Council, the UN report (Eleventh Session Agenda item 3, par 21) said, "The Mayor of Davao City has done nothing to prevent these killings, and his public comments suggest that he is, in fact, supportive."[13] Human Rights Watch reported that in 2001-2002, Duterte appeared on local television and radio and announced the names of “criminals”, some of whom were later executed.[7] In July 2005 at a crime summit in the Manila Hotel the politician said, "Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs".[14] In 2009 Duterte said: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination."[2]

Duterte responding to the reported arrest and subsequent release of a notorious drug lord in Manila is quoted as saying: "Here in Davao, you can’t go out alive. You can go out, but inside a coffin. Is that what you call extra-judicial killing? Then I will just bring a drug lord to a judge and kill him there, that will no longer be extra-judicial." [15]

Referring to the arrest of a suspected rice smuggler, Duterte spoke out in the state senate saying, "If this guy would go to Davao and starts to unload (smuggled rice)… I will gladly kill him." For these comments Duterte was attacked in an editorial in The Manila Times, which condemned "the mentality of lawlessness and vigilantism."[16] The newspaper argued that this culture of impunity enabled those in power, including officials, "private warlords and businessmen vigilantes" to take retribution against those they felt had acted against their interests: "They kill journalists exposing corruption and human rights activists exposing abusive police and military men."[17] Following Duterte's comments in relation to killing a person suspected of smuggling rice, the office of the President of the Philippines issued a statement saying, “Killing a person is against the law. The President has been firm in the belief that no one is above the law. We must not resort to extralegal methods."[17]

Commenting on Duterte, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions said in 2008, "The mayor’s positioning is frankly untenable: He dominates the city so thoroughly as to stamp out whole genres of crime, yet he remains powerless in the face of hundreds of murders committed by men without masks in view of witnesses."[10]

Portrayal on film

A film depicting vigilante killings in the Philippines Engkwentro ("Square Off"), premiered in July 2009 at the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, where it received strong reactions. The film was later selected for the 66th Venice International Film Festival where it won the Best Picture award in the Orizzonti (New Horizons) program. At the same festival director, Pepe Diokno won the Luigi de Laurentiis Venice Award for a Debut Film, also known as the “Lion of the Future" prize.[18][19]

See also


  1. ^ "Philippine death squads extend their reach". New York Times. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "The Philippines’ real-life Punisher, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, urged to run for president". Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  3. ^ Preda Foundation, Inc. NEWS/ARTICLES: "Killing Fields Found in Davao, Children Shot"
  4. ^ Preda Foundation, Inc. Deaths Squads: Summary of Davao Death Squad Reports
  5. ^ a b c d New York Times
  6. ^ a b c "Ombudsman suspends cops for Davao death squad killings". Rappler. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f You Can Die Any Time" Death Squad Killings in Mindanao""". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  8. ^ AsiaMedia :: PHILIPPINES: Filipino journalists face brutal death squads
  9. ^ Amnesty International
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Human Rights Watch
  11. ^ PIA Information Services - Philippine Information Agency
  12. ^ "UN committee urged to monitor killings by Davao death squads". Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ Cullen, Fr. Shay (May 7, 2006). "We must stand against the death squads". The Manila Times. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  15. ^ [2]
  16. ^ "Duterte and the Law Enforcers’ Code of Ethics". Manila Times. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  17. ^ a b "Duterte and the Law Enforcers’ Code of Ethics". Manila Times. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ "Pepe Diokno’s Engkwentro goes to Hollywood, picks Shoreline as global agent". GMA Network. Retrieved 6 September 2014. 
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