25 March 2019
Crooks in the Philippines, beware! There's a new sheriff in town, and he means business. Photo:
Crooks in the Philippines, beware! There's a new sheriff in town, and he means business. Photo:

‘Killing fields’ part of success model of new Philippine leader

For cab driver Eddie Laran, who grew up in the most violent slum in Davao City, it’s not hard to see why Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is the right person to run the Philippines.

“Duterte made Davao a peaceful place,’’ Laran, 46, told Bloomberg.

“He really got rid of crimes and dealt with all the hard-headed criminals.”

It’s the campaign story of Duterte, the 71-year-old mayor of the Philippines’ fourth-most populous city, who won this month’s presidential election by promising to clean up the country in the way he crushed crime in Davao.

But Duterte may find it much harder to impose his anti-crime measures across the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, not least because Davao was an extreme case, the Bloomberg report said.

By the 1980s, shootings were a daily occurrence, especially in areas where army-backed militias battled police and communist guerrillas.

Robberies and kidnappings were rampant.

“On average, six to seven people would be found dead each day. Often these would be members of the police and the military,” said incoming police chief Ronald dela Rosa, who was a junior officer in Davao in the late 1980s.

At a briefing this month, Duterte said he wants to implement the kind of policies he used in Davao — such as curfews for minors and bans on public drinking and late-night karaoke sessions — on a nationwide scale to ensure peace and order.

To make good on his campaign promise to fight crime, he said he intends to issue shoot-to-kill orders against criminals, or to execute them by hanging.

“Robbery with homicide with rape: double the hanging,” Duterte said.

“Hang first, then there will be another ceremony for the second time so that the head will be completely severed from the body. I would like that.”

Still, “doing what he did in Davao to fight crime will be very difficult to do on a national scale,”, said Prospero de Vera, a professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City.

“In Davao, he tells criminals to get out of the city. Will he tell criminals to get out of the country?’’

While Duterte’s approach may raise concerns over human rights and police powers, for many in a country that has been held back for years by corruption and crime, his reputation and hardline rhetoric are appealing.

Part of Duterte’s support is from people like Laran, who joined the infamous Alsa Masa militia in the 1980s to fight communist rebels in Davao’s Agdao district, a once impoverished slum that was a recruitment zone for left-wing insurgents.

Davao City administrator Melchor Quitain says some people used to call the area the “killing fields”.

Within the narrow streets along the coast where at least one execution took place every day, Laran now lives peacefully with his family of five, earning a living as a taxi driver.

Agdao’s streets are still mostly lined with ramshackle low-rise buildings, packed together, but the roads are now paved, people can walk them at night, and commercial buildings are springing up along the main thoroughfares.

That stability has brought investment and migrants from elsewhere in the country, another pillar of Duterte’s voter appeal.

His focus on security turned the city from a “laboratory for urban warfare” to an investment destination, said Ivan Cortez, head of Davao’s Investment Promotion Center.

Davao, a two-hour flight south of Manila, gained US$8.5 million in investment in 1988 when Duterte began the first of seven terms as mayor.

Last year, the city attracted US$845 million.

“The government provides the basics for business to flourish,’’ Cortez told Bloomberg.

“If he can provide the basics, including peace and order, infrastructure and policies, businesses will come.”

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