Human Rights Watch says Davao killings tolerated, supported by local authorities

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/07 April) – An independent international human rights monitor launched at 10 a.m. in Quezon City, its 103-page report on the death squad killings in Davao City and neighboring areas which “found evidence of complicity and at times direct involvement of government officials and members of the police in killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS).”

The report, titled “You can die anytime: Death squad killings in Mindanao” was launched by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (report now downloadable from HRW website)  at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ortigas Center, Quezon City a week after HRW Deputy Director for Asia, Elaine Pearson gave the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) public inquiry on extralegal killings, a preview of the report, that the killings may be state-sanctioned.

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said there are no state-sponsored killings in the city. Police officials at the public inquiry also denied involvement of is personnel in the killings.

But the Human Rights Watch report said “there is an almost complete lack of political will by the government at both local and national levels to address targeted killings and take action against the perpetrators” and that  based on “consistent, detailed, and compelling accounts from families and friends of victims, eyewitnesses of targeted killings, barangay officials, journalists, community activists, and the ‘insiders,’ Human Rights Watch has concluded that a death squad and lists of people targeted for killings exist in Davao City.”

“We also conclude that at least some police officers and barangay officials are either involved or complicit in death squad killings. Human Rights Watch believes that such killings continue and the perpetrators enjoy impunity largely because of the tolerance of, and in some cases, outright support from local authorities,” it said. 

But Human Rights Watch said the  “failure to dismantle the Davao Death Squad and other similar groups, prosecute those responsible, and bring justice to the families of victims lies not only with local authorities.” It said the Arroyo administration “has largely turned a blind eye to the killing spree in Davao City and elsewhere.” 

“The Philippine National Police have not sought to confront the problem. And the inaction of the national institutions responsible for accountability, namely the Department of Justice, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights, has fueled widespread impunity,” it said.

Human Rights Watch said it obtained “detailed and consistent information on the DDS from relatives and friends of death squad members with direct knowledge of death squad operations, as well as journalists, community activists, and government officials who provided detailed corroborating evidence” and that according to these ‘insiders,’ most members of the DDS are “either former communist New People’s Army insurgents who surrendered to the government or young men who themselves were death squad targets and joined the group to avoid being killed.”

“Most can make far more money with the DDS than in other available occupations,” the report said. One source cited the figures from P5,000 to P50,000 or even as high as P100,000.

The report added that the killers’ “handlers,” called “amo” (boss) are “usually police officers or ex-police officers” who provide them with “training, weapons and ammunition, motorcycles, and information on 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 report said firearms issued to DDS members were mostly .45-caliber handguns.

The report quoted Ramon, as having explained “that the use of .45-caliber guns makes it easy to
distinguish the killings committed by the DDS from the ones perpetrated in the course of gang wars.”

< p style=”margin-bottom: 0.0001pt” class=”MsoNormal”>Majority of gang members cannot afford .45-caliber guns, which cost about 30,000 pesos each, the Human Rights Watch was told.

The report also quoted Ramon as saying “my friend’s amo once said that the guns they received were purchased by the city government for the police and then distributed among the [handlers]” but Human Rights Watch said this is “an assertion Human Rights Watch could not verify.”

“The insiders told Human Rights Watch that the amo obtain information about targets from police or barangay (village or city district) officials, who compile lists of targets. The amo provides members of a death squad team with as little as the name of the target, and sometimes an address and a photograph. Police stations are then notified 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,” the report said. 

The report also noted the “consistent failure of the Philippine National Police to seriously investigate apparent targeted killings is striking.”

“Witnesses to killings told Human Rights Watch that the police routinely arrive at the scene long after the assailants leave, even if the nearest police station is minutes away. Police often fail to collect obvious evidence such as spent bullet casings, or question witnesses or suspects, but instead pressure the families of victims to identify the killers,” it said.

Chief Supt. Pedro Tango, Philippine National Police regional director, said he would like to read the HRW report first “before I make my comment.”

Mayor Duterte has yet to issue a statement on the HRW report.

Human Rights Watch noted the profile of the victims — young men known in their neighborhood for involvement in small-scale drug dealing or minor crimes such as petty theft and drug use; gang members and street children; persons whose names were on a “list” of people to be killed unless they stopped engaging in criminal activities and also “seemingly unintended targets – victims of mistaken identity, unfortunate bystanders, and relatives and friends of the apparent target;” death squad members themselves purportedly because “they knew so much” or failed to perform their tasks or became too exposed. “

Human Rights Watch also said the “words and actions” of  Mayor Duterte,  “indicate his support for targeted killings of criminal suspects. Over the years, he has made numerous statements attempting to justify the killing of suspected criminals.”

Human Rights Watch says that Duterte’s claims of a peaceful city are negated because “with killers roaming the streets with the comfort of state-protected impunity, the city remains a very

unsafe place.”

“Duterte and other local officials continue to deny the existence of any death squad. But in recent years, mayors and officials of other cities have made statements attempting to justify similar killings in their own cities. Sadly, Davao City is seen by some as a model for fighting crime,” it said.

“The continued death squad operation reflects an official mindset in which the ends are seen as justifying the means. The motive appears to be simple expedience: courts are viewed as slow or inept. The murder of criminal suspects is seen as easier and faster than proper law enforcement. Official tolerance and support of targeted killing of suspected criminals promotes rather than curbs the culture of violence that has long plagued Davao City and other places where such killings occur,” the report noted.

A team from the Human Rights Watch visited Davao, General Santos and Digos cities in July last year.

The Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE) handed over to CHR chair Leila de Lima last week a documentation of at least 890 cases of alleged summary killings in the city, from August 19, 1998 to March 27, 2009.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)