[A previous version of this article first appeared as “Bayanihan Justice (Part 2): Bangon! Killing kids (and adults) in Davao didn’t stop crime” in Jeremy Simons Pagdaro sa Kalinaw blog at
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/28 July) — In president Duterte’s state of the nation address (SONA) on Monday, he painted a picture of the resilient Filipino, facing the darkness of the drug menace, a darkness so deep, because it is the dark just before the dawn of a new day. He vowed, like Batman, to continue his current approach to eradicate 3 million drug users and pushers, since the number of users and pushers that had surrendered (as of the SONA) amounted to only 120,000. But the real Batman Duterte, aka the Punisher, is better than the movie version, because he is also the pride of Mindanao, a Bisaya Bruce Wayne, inviting militants into Malacanang, living, not in a distant imperial Manila mansion, but in an ordinary home sleeping under a moskitero.
But before we continue, we should ask ourselves, do we have any evidence to show that the Gotham city approach will work, from past experience? Batman Duterte made repeated referrals during his SONA to “come to Davao” and see how the city is a model of the success of his efforts in governance, and there is the widespread misperception that Gotham city is a safe, clean and drug-free city. Let us therefore go and examine the evidence.
Former Davao City Judge and founder of the Transformative Justice Institute, Attorney Adoracion Avisado noted in early 2016:
“Despite the allegation by some people that Davao City is drugs-free, statistics show otherwise. The number of drug cases pending before the two drug courts are close to four thousand as of the end of 2015. The number of cases filed each week are definitely more than the number of cases which the two branches of the trial court can dispose.”
She further states that an average of 70 cases were scheduled each day in Davao, despite the fact that only five can realistically be handled, and that across the nation, it is common to have 30 cases scheduled in the daily docket. The Davao City jail in Ma-a has over 2,500 inmates, thought it wa s built to handle at most 800. Inmates literally sleep in shifts because there are not enough beds for everyone to lie down on.
This data is from the end of 2015, after more than a decade of the Dark Knight’s iron-fisted crackdown on crime that left over 1,000 pushers, users and petty criminals dead, according to the Coalition Against Summary Executions. Thus, kung gamitin natin ang ating utak, we can deduce that the iron fist approach to crime does not work, because if it did, then the joker and his minions surely would have been wiped out, there would be no new drug cases filed in court, and the jail would be nearly empty. However, rather than reducing crime, after a decade of summary killings, there were still 4,000 cases pending in the court and over 2,500 inmates, most of them with drug charges, in the city jail. In other words the Joker is having the last laugh.
Having lived in Gotham City since 2008, I can also attest to the fact that crime is still a problem. In 2012, I remember smelling the marijuana drift into our living room window from the house next door and hearing the male resident abuse his female partner through the window screen at night. We illuminated the bat-signal to report both the domestic violence and the drug use, but Batman never raided the drug den. When the police finally arrived, they interviewed the abused woman in front of the abuser in the open street, breaking basic protocols regarding how to treat situations of violence against women. My neighbors were victims of akyat bahay multiple times, as well as my parents in a different subdivision, yet Robin “Bato” Probinsyano never collared the criminals. I am not saying that living here in Gotham city is worse than in any other city, but neither is it much better.
What, then, is the purpose of the extrajudicial killings promoted by Batman Duterte, if they are not helping reduce crime? What the extrajudicial killings of Gotham city justify is not effective governance, but the reputation and narrative woven by that crafty, master storyteller and communicator. Thus, the current “War on Drugs” is told like a classic epic that places Digong himself as the center of a salvation story, where he rescues us from that crazy, shabu-cooking Joker. In return, we repay Batman Duterte with elected office, as well as the entrenchment of his family and the Bruce Wayne Barkada in political power.
Why? Because we believe that he somehow represents all of us, the urban poor, fisher folk and farmers, the conflict-affected and crime-weary kapwa, the resurgent Mindanawons, finally overcoming all obstacles to ascend to the summit of success. We make sense of our lives by situating ourselves in a story with meaning, and until we find a more compelling narrative offering a more profound explanation of events, we refuse to take ourselves out of the current one.
One of the interesting aspects of this is that Batman Duterte fans consciously and subconsciously choose what people, events and episodes (data) to include in the story, and how to value and interpret those inclusions. “Data” (people and events) that does not fit into the storyline is edited (ignored, re-worked or reinterpreted) and human life is re-valued according to the priorities of the storyteller. Thus in the “Gotham War on Drugs – Philippines Episode,” certain people are re-labeled as “criminal”, “user” and “drug pusher.” This allows the storyteller to re-interpret their value in the storyline as unfortunate, but necessary casualties, or better yet (wink-wink), as merciless and sub-human villains. Since their role in the collective story is to justify and validate the virtue and actions of the superhero, their value lies precisely in their expendability, and to keep the story alive, we must continually create and kill the villains, “editing” their deaths as sub-plots necessary for our survival – and another episode.
And what this all tells us is the war on drugs is not actually about drugs, but about the power to create a narrative that gives meaning to our collective identity.
Oras na, bangon ta, ug gamita ang atong huna-huna! Pwede man ta maghimayhimay kung unsa ang plot line, unsa ang cause, ug unsa ang epek. Kay dili matarong ang pagsaysay sa sugilanong “war on drugs” para sa atong kalamboan. Kung ipadayon ni lahos sa tumoy, sa kinataposan, madamay kitang tanan.
It’s time for us in Gotham to be realistic, because we are touted as the model “city on a hill” that the nation will follow. The “successes” of the city need to be put in their proper context, so that what is good can be emulated, and what is bad can be eliminated. We have to stop comparing the Davao of 2016 to the “NicarAgdao” of the 1980s. The killing of petty thieves did not solve the problem of sparrow units and Alsa Masa gun battles. Rather, it was shrewd political wrangling and quid-pro-quo alliances with the shadow players behind the gunslingers that reigned them in.
The killing of men and women in the sex trade (see my previous article, “Death stalks the streets”) did not make us start following the speed limit in 2014, rather, consistent use of “speed guns” made people slow down.
The killing of low-level criminals has nothing to do with the effective implementation of the women, children and gender code in the city, nor does it make the 911 Rescue program better.
The killing of kids sniffing glue does not prevent bombings and terror attacks, because rugby boys are not the ones planning to bomb airports, ports and van terminals.
We cannot use the justification that death squad killings are necessary for effective governance, which is the underlying message of the current administration of Bisaya Bruce Wayne.
The conclusions to be drawn are simple:
First, most of the positive aspects of Gotham City’s governance were successful in spite of the Davao Death Squad (DDS), not because of the DDS. Let’s keep it real, Davao is not paradise, but we DO have successes to be proud of here in Gotham, we just rationalize them with the wrong reasons.
Second, since the data indicates that Batman Duterte could not eliminate crime in his own city, a relatively small city where he could exercise greater control of the mechanisms of government, we cannot expect him to succeed as president of a nation with over 100 million people, though we may see a temporary reduction.
And third, we now understand the illogic of the unstated “logic model” of the Drug War epic. It is a (false) storyline where killing criminals motivates those criminals left alive to stop their criminal activities, which tricks us into a plot that values their deaths as necessary for our salvation. But such is not the case, and our kababayan are paying a dear price for us to continue reading, and writing, that story.
We therefore need to write a new, transformative story together, carefully editing-in, rather than cutting out, what actually works to build a just society. But as far as the hard data and lived experience shows, the summary execution of petty criminals does not help end criminality, nor does it improve governance. Batman Duterte said he will lead us out of the darkness and into the light, but I’m afraid his story will have a different ending. Let us therefore begin writing a new story together, the story of Bayanihan Justice.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jeremy Simons was born and raised in the Philippines and has been a resident of Davao City since 2008 working as a peace and reconciliation advocate. He teaches conflict transformation at a variety of institutions and NGOs. He spends the majority of time in restorative justice and peace accompaniment with Lumad First Nations and Muslim communities in Mindanao. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of any institution or group.)