Sunday, April 2, 2017

Kate Lamb - Thousands dead: the Philippine president, the death squad allegations and a brutal drugs war

NB: Shameless criminality has been let loose in the Philippines from the apex of the state. That secret and not-so-secret criminal cohorts function with impunity from the heart of many state structures is an open scandal, but many ruling classes make some kind of effort to hide their criminal behaviour with masks of civility and law. At times this breaks down completely, as in India during state-enabled communal massacres and hate-speeches, when police look the other way and after them, when courts choose to delay cases or ignore crucial evidence. 

Leaving aside totalitarian polities and ideocratic states (discussing which would detract from the intent of this note) never has the so-called free world - the world purporting to uphold democratic values and constitutions - seen such a blatant avowal of terror and lawlessness from the senior-most elected executive authority in the state. A man who orders outright murder, including of children & pregnant women (see below) in case they act as witnesses later, is a man of Hitlerite qualities. Those who uphold basic human values and respect for life should (regardless of their political inclinations) oppose this upsurge of tyranny in the Philippines in every way possible. So help us God: DS

“Throw them in the ocean or the quarry. Make it clean. Make sure there are no traces of the bodies.”
The words are shocking. That they allegedly came from the man who is now president of the Philippines makes them explosive. It is claimed that Rodrigo Duterte gave the orders to his first death squad in Davao, in the southern island of Mindanao, in 1989 when he was ‘“mayor Rudy”.

Arturo Lascanas, a retired police officer, made the accusations of Duterte’s campaign of extrajudicial killings under oath to the country’s senate last month, and he repeats them to the Observer with an air of uneasy calm, with the resolve of a man who has carried these secrets for decades. “We were the first hit squad during his reign,” claims Lascanas, from the safe house in Manila where he is hiding from his own president.

Inside the house, with curtains drawn and the military men guarding the door, there is a sense the ordeal could turn ugly at any moment, that Lascanas expects to die for what he has divulged.
After more than 20 years as mayor of Davao, Duterte won the presidential election last May with promises to rid the country of drugs and crime, to kill every drug dealer and user, and to feed their corpses to the fish in Manila Bay.

On the back of his claims of having established law and order in Davao, Duterte, 72, was seen as a strong man, a saviour and an antidote to the “narco” state the Philippines had apparently spiralled into. But behind the bluster the statistics don’t lie: Davao still has the highest murder rate in the country and the second highest number of rapes, according to national police data for 2010-15. Yet the drug threat has become so deeply entrenched in the Philippine psyche that the normalisation of the mass murder of traffickers and dealers appears to be setting in.

The death toll of the president’s drug war in the nine months since he took office at the end of June has topped more than 2,500 killings by police and 3,600 by vigilantes. Agencies including Amnesty quote a total figure of more than 7,000 dead. But many Filipinos gloss over the killings and Duterte’s poll ratings remain high. “The streets are much safer now,” many in the capital will tell you. “Here in the Philippines we need a ruler with an iron fist.”

Some, in confidence, express a sense of hopelessness over the deaths and the way Filipinos, even their own family members, have suddenly become so bloodthirsty. But for those who don’t live in or have any connection to the poor areas – where overwhelming numbers of the killings have occurred – it is easy enough to adopt a begrudging acceptance. After a while, the dead are just a growing number. Allegations of a Davao death squad (DDS) have for years been dismissed. Last September a confessed former hitman, Edgar Matobato, testified to the senate, implicating Duterte and his son in the killings of alleged drug traffickers, dealers and criminals but there has never been indisputable evidence, or a paper trail, much less any purported leaders willing to testify.

That is until Lascanas came along. The 56-year-old retired officer initially went on the record to deny the existence of the DDS but after undergoing kidney surgery (allegedly paid for by Duterte) in 2015, he says he experienced a spiritual awakening. He started consulting the nuns of Davao and then decided, regardless of the consequences, to tell the story of his president’s deeds.

“The only way out of this evil environment is to tell the truth,” Lascanas tells the Observer from his sparsely furnished room. “I want to make sure there will be no more condemnation for my generations to come, for what I did – what we did – for my children and their children, and their children.” Last month he recanted earlier testimony, telling the Philippine senate in a six-hour televised hearing that the DDS was indeed real – formed at the behest of mayor Duterte with the express purpose of carrying out state-sanctioned murder. The retired officer says he lied at first because he feared for his life, and the safety of his family, but later realised he could not take his “evil side” to the grave.

Lascanas, who claims he was a former DDS leader and personally killed “about 200 people”, told the senate the squad was formed under the guise of an anti-crime unit within the Davao police. The team was, he says, given the task of eliminating hardened criminals, and later political opponents and journalists critical of Duterte’s rule. The DDS, he alleged, regularly took direct orders from mayor Duterte about who to kill and how to dispose of the bodies. Lascanas claims those shocking words – “Throw them in the ocean or in the quarry. Bury them. Make sure there are no traces of the bodies” – were spoken by Duterte at one of dozens of alleged meetings with the DDS. The police hit squad was paid based on the “value” of the targets, he says.

For the most part, in his more than three decades of service, Lascanas admits, he was “blindly loyal” to the cause, and saw his work as a “noble” form of public service. “We were risking our lives for the welfare of the majority of the people,” he says. “I felt that I was serving the country for the greater good.” Lascanas joined the Davao police when he was 21. Eight years later, he says, he became one of the youngest members of the DDS. He is the kind of person who remembers details – when asked how long he has been a policeman he answered precisely: “For 34 years and eight months.”

He tells of one particular incident that has given him nightmares for years: in 1996 Lascanas and his team were ordered to kill an alleged criminal, his pregnant wife and his four-year-old son, who were all in the same vehicle at the time. 'I attempted to rescue the four-year-old boy,' claims Lascanas, grimacing. 'But according to our team leader since the boy had seen our faces, he could recognise 
us in years from now and identify us.' 

It was on the personal order of Duterte, he claims, that they disposed of the family. 'Mayor Rudy approved the recommendation of our task force commander, in front of us. To erase - meaning to kill - everyone,' he says with uneasy calm. 'That was his specific order. That he’s OK [with it] provided it would be clean.'.. read more: