DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/21 May) – A New York-based human rights group has asked the Philippine government to investigate an alleged “death squad” in neighboring Tagum City implicated in 298 killings between January 2007 and March 2013 and allegedly involving the former city mayor.
In the 71-page report titled “’One Shot to the Head’: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines,” Human Rights Watch detailed the involvement of local government officials, allegedly including then Tagum City Mayor Rey “Chiong” Uy, as well as police officers “in the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, street children, and others over the past decade.”
Uy denied the allegations.
Phelim Kine, HRW’s Deputy Asia director said Uy “helped organize and finance a death squad linked to the murder of hundreds of residents.”
“Rey Uy called these citizens ‘weeds.’ He and other city officials and police officers underwrote targeted killings as a perverse form of crime control,” Kine said.
Uy said he has yet to read the HRW report but he told MindaNews in a telephone interview Wednesday noon that the accusations against him are not new and had been heaped on him every election campaign, especially in 2013 when his son ran but lost the mayoralty post.
“Dili ko nila gusto pabalikon” (they do not want me to return as (mayor), he said, adding protectors of the multi-million peso illegal drugs business in the city as well as recipients of payola from the operators of the multi-million peso illegal gambling do not want him to return as mayor and are behind those who accused him of death squad killings.
Uy was mayor from 1998 to 2001 and 2004 to 2013.
His vice mayor from 2004 to 2013, Allan Rellon, now the city mayor, welcomed the HRW report and the investigation.
“I am happy for this,” Rellon MindaNews in a telephone interview from Bacolod City, where he is presently attending a conference of the Boy Scouts of the Philipines.
Rellon said he had long hoped that the issue on extrajudicial killings in his city during the period cited by HRW would be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted. He said he had been praying “sana maging national pero ngayon international na (that it will be a national issue, now it’s international). Thank God.”
The HRW report draws heavily on interviews and affidavits from three self-proclaimed members of the death squad in Tagum City “who took part in its killing operations” and looks into the “failure of the Philippine government to seriously investigate the death squad and bring those responsible to justice.”
The hitmen said they were paid PhP 5,000 (USD110) for every killing, which the members would divide among themselves, and that on at least two occasions, “Uy personally paid the death squad members for two killings,” the report said.
Uy told MindaNews, “anyone can claim the mayor paid them.”
The report said that since 1998, Uy, along with close aides and city police officers, “hired, equipped, and paid for an operation that at its height consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices. Many were on the city government payroll with the Civil Security Unit, a City Hall bureau tasked with traffic management and providing security in markets and schools.”
HRW interviewed more than three dozen sources, among them surviving victims and their families, witnesses to killings, police officers, and former death squad members.
“The former death squad members described how those who refused to carry out orders, sought to quit, or otherwise fell into disfavor were themselves likely to become death squad victims,” HRW said.
Kine said there is “compelling evidence” of the involvement of Uy and the police “in a death squad that operated during Uy’s 1998-2013 tenure as mayor.”
“The Tagum death squad’s activities imposed a fear-enforced silence in Tagum City that allowed the killers and their bosses to literally get away with murder,” Kine added.
In the course of HRW’s documentation of 12 killings, it noted that the hitmen usually wore baseball caps and sunglasses, were armed with .45 caliber handguns, and were transported to and out of the crime scene on government-issued motorcycles.
HRW said the former hitmen told them they would “routinely inform local police via text message of an impending targeted killing, so the police would not interfere” and that after the killing, the police would notify the hitmen if any witnesses had identified them.
Targeted for liquidation were, according to HRW sources, were what Uy referred to as ‘weeds’ of Tagum society – suspected petty criminals, drug dealrers, streetchildren.
The HRW report said the death squad drew its targets from the “order of battle” or OB, a list of names coming from various sources, including local community leaders, neighborhood watchmen, and police intelligence officers.
It added that names of drug suspects were provided by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
“The Tagum Death Squad also apparently carried out ‘guns-for-hire’ operations that Uy was either unaware of or did not specifically commission, such as the killing of a journalist, a judge, at least two police officers, and a tribal leader as well as local politicians and businessmen. In several cases, the death squad’s handlers would fabricate drug allegations against the target of a contract killing to justify to Uy their murder,” HRW said.
“Patterned after DDS”
The report said the Tagum Death Squad was initially a crime-fighting group “patterned after the death squad in nearby Davao City, which propelled that city’s mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, to national fame.”
Duterte and the Davao City police were also the subject of an HRW report in 2009 titled “You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao” and were investigated by the Commission on Human Rights.
Duterte, a former prosecutor who was appointed OIC Vice Mayor in 1987 and mayor from 1988 to 1998, 2001 to 2010 and since 2013, had repeatedly denied there were state-sponsored killings in the city.
Sr. Supt. Ramon Apolinario, Davao City chief of police at the time of the release of the HRW report in April 2009 said that if the HRW report that police officers were among the handlers of the Davao Death Squad were true, “then they should be naming names para imbestigahan na natin, di ba?” (so we can investigate, right?).
HRW in May 2013 talked to a police intelligence officer who was investigating the Tagum Death Squad and was told that they could not disobey the mayor’s order.
“His power is higher than the chief of police. If the mayor gives his order, it gets implemented…. My colleagues would tell me, when I was new, to keep quiet. ‘These officers are the mayor’s men.’… So we just kept quiet. We couldn’t arrest them. We couldn’t do anything when they’re in front of us. But we knew what they were doing,” the intelligence officer was quoted by HRW as saying.
Romnick Minta, a former member of the Tagum Death Squad also told HRW in May 2013 that the police “fully knew beforehand of the execution of such killing and that in every summary killing investigation they always appeared at the scene of the killing to see if we are positively identified by witnesses or not.”
Uy said mayors are usually blamed for all sorts of issues such as “killings, floods, etc..”
He said “certain individuals” he declined to name but who, he said, were protectors of the illegal drugs business and were in the illegal gambling payola, were behind the alleged hitmen and witnesses.
He said the HRW merely reported what the alleged sources told them.
“Can’t hide the truth”
The HRW report said “targeted killings have continued but with less frequency since Uy stepped down as mayor in June 2013.”
Rellon said that during his third and last term as vice mayor (2010 – 2013), the City Council where he was presiding officer, passed a resolution condemning the summary killings.
He said the City Peace and Order Council, which then mayor Uy tasked him to preside, also passed a resolution condemning the killings.
He said there were rumors then that the killings were done by a death squad but the “culture of fear” gripped residents of Tagum City.
Rellon said that as vice mayor, he asked the Philippine National Police for a report on the number of suspected summary killings in the city and was sent a matrix containing the list of about 50 to 60 victims of extrajudicial killings a year from 2009 to 2011.
He reiterated he welcomes the HRW report and the probe so that the perpetrators would be punished. “You can’t hide the truth,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)