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PHILIPPINES: Government Must Stop Davao Death Squad

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Apr 7 2009 (IPS) - Alleged “death squads” are responsible for hundreds of targeted killings in Davao City and other cities on the Philippine island of Mindanao, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Tuesday.

The 103-page report, “You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,” released at a news conference in Manila with HRW executive director, Kenneth Roth, includes descriptions by persons with insider knowledge of the make-up, structure and operation of the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS).

“The hundreds of targeted killings in Davao City in recent years are clearly not random events but the result of planned hits by a ‘death squad’ that involves police officers and local officials,” said Roth. “The police consistently fail to bring the perpetrators to justice, while the local government cheers from the sidelines.”

In July 2008 HRW investigated 28 cases of apparently targeted killings. It conducted more than 50 interviews with victims’ families, witnesses, lawyers, journalists, human rights advocates, and government officials in Davao City, General Santos City, and Digos City.

Dozens of family members have described to HRW the murder of their loved ones, all killed in similar fashion. Most victims are alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children – some of whom are members of street gangs. The victims include children as young as 14.

The number of victims of these targeted killings in Davao City has steadily increased in the past decade. From two reported cases in 1998, the number rose to 98 in 2003 and 124 in 2008. In 2009, 33 targeted killings were reported in January alone.

According to DDS “insiders,” most members are either former communist New People’s Army (NAP) insurgents or young men who themselves were death squad targets – who have joined the group to avoid harm.

One “insider” spoke to HRW about his four friends who are members of the DDS, “Neither of [my friends in the death squad] has education, so there aren’t that many choices for them out there. They prefer this job to being involved in ordinary crime because this is the safest illegal activity that also pays well. They are not afraid, because the person who would be the one to arrest them is usually their boss, and the rest is coordinated with the police.”

Usually policemen or former law enforcement handlers provide DDS members with training, weapons and ammunition, motorcycles, and information about the targets. Death squad members often use .45-caliber handguns, a weapon commonly used by the police, but normally prohibitively expensive for gang members and common criminals.

The “insiders” told HRW that the handlers obtain information about targets from police, village or city district officials who compile lists of targets. The handler provides members of a death squad team with as little as the name of the target, and sometimes an address and a photograph.

HRW found a pattern to the killings: The assailants usually arrive in twos or threes on a motorcycle without a license plate; they wear baseball caps and buttoned shirts or jackets, apparently to conceal their weapons; and they shoot or stab their victim without warning, often in broad daylight with little regard for those witnessing the crime.

Police stations are notified by handlers to ensure that police officers are slow to respond, enabling the death squad members to escape the crime scene, even when they commit killings near a police station.

“As quickly as the assassins arrive to kill their targets, they ride off – but almost always before the police appear,” said Roth. “And the police rarely seem interested in collecting evidence to hold perpetrators accountable.”

Families that provided information to the police, such as names of potential suspects and witnesses, said the police either failed to follow-up on such leads or have not informed the family if they have done so. In many cases, witnesses are also afraid to come forward with information, as they believe they could become targets by doing so.

The long-time mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, has made numerous statements attempting to justify the killing of suspected criminals, believing that such killings have a deterrent effect on crime and have made the city a safer place. In 2001-2002, Duterte announced the names of “criminals” on local television and radio – and some of those he named would later become victims of death squad killings.

In February 2009, Duterte told reporters, “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.”

Duterte claims that Davao City has achieved peace and order under his rule. HRW points out, however, that with killers roaming the streets with impunity, the city remains a very unsafe place.

According to statistics provided by the Philippines National Police, the number of annual crime incidents has increased some 219 percent in the last decade, while the city’s population rose only by 29 percent. An increasing number of death squad killings appear to have made crime rates worse in Davao, said the report.

HRW called on President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to publicly denounce extrajudicial killings and local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage the unlawful use of force, and to also take all necessary action to end the extrajudicial killing of suspected criminals and street children, beginning in Davao City.

“The Arroyo government should send a clear message to local officials and the police that the killings of petty criminals, drug users, and street children will not be tolerated,” said Roth.

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