Published on May 24, 2016.
ON NOV. 16, 1999, President Joseph Estrada appointed his then-favorite policeman, Director Panfilo Lacson, as the new chief of the Philippine National Police. The next day, the special operations group that Lacson led before his appointment, the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, killed eight men in Fairview, Quezon City, in what some witnesses called a “rubout.” Seven of the dead were later identified as suspected robbers; the eighth, a civilian bystander, was later reported to be the alleged mastermind of the robbery gang.
It was an arresting start to a controversial (and, as it turned out, abbreviated) term. For many, the spectacular violence was seen as precisely a violent spectacle, staged to strike fear among criminals.
Three renowned lawyers immediately raised the alarm. (I quote from an Inquirer editorial written some 10 years after the event.)
“Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. called on the PNP to disclose the true circumstances of the killings. ‘Otherwise, the apprehension will continue that extrajudicial killing or vigilante justice is now taking place all over the country.’
“Rep. Joker Arroyo sketched a disturbing profile of Lacson’s brand of law enforcement. There is an emerging ‘pattern’ in the way Lacson and his unit conduct their operations, he said: ‘All the suspects are killed.’ He also noted that, in the Fairview killings as in the Kuratong Baleleng case of 1995, ‘the victims were relatively small-time’.”
When Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial mayor of Davao City famous for his iron-fist approach to peace and order issues, takes his oath of office as the next president of the Philippines on June 30, only one of these three historical personalities will still be around to serve as a conscience of the people. Will Nene Pimentel, the founder of the PDP-Laban party which now serves as Duterte’s political vehicle, sound the alarm when the new president inaugurates his term with the spectacles of violence he promised during the long campaign?
I say “when,” not “if,” because it is clear to both those who voted for Duterte and those who did not that he intends to “suppress” crime within “three to six months” after he takes office.
Those who voted for him and those who did not may agree that the only way Duterte can come close to making good on that ambitious promise is by doing what he did (or, if one prefers to accept that the Davao Death Squad is not connected to him, what he failed to stop) in Davao City: to identify the criminal suspects, and then to see them dead. But because by noon of June 30 he will be running a national government, he will need to scale up. Hence his statement, repeated many times, about filling Manila Bay (chosen for its symbolic national value) with the corpses of a hundred thousand suspected criminals.
In a television interview a year before the elections, for instance, he teased out once again his reputation as the man behind the Davao Death Squad, the vigilante group that is estimated to have killed over a thousand people in his city.
“If by chance, God will place me there [in the presidential palace], the 1,000 will become 100,000,” he said. “Diyan mo makita na tataba ang isda sa Manila Bay. Diyan ko kayo itatapon (That’s where you will see the fish getting fat in Manila Bay; that’s where I will dump you).”
Surely this is hyperbole? And that plural “you” at the end—this must be just another example of Duterte’s gift for stirring controversy and courting media coverage with outrageous statements, right? Perhaps; at least that is what one should hope for, if we want true justice, not the false peace of the funeral parlor.
But the killing of 100,000 Filipinos will be the worst outbreak of violence in the country since World War II, when about a million people died. The total of 100,000 that Duterte seeks to feed the fish of Manila Bay with is about twice the number of Filipino soldiers killed by the Japanese, and five times the number of Filipino revolutionaries killed by the Americans during the Philippine-American War.
If we say, “OK, perhaps he really did not mean 100,000 killings,” we will find ourselves sucked into a dangerous exercise, a dubious moral calculus. Are 10,000 extrajudicial killings “OK” for a country with a population of almost 110 million? That’s less than 1 percent of 1 percent. How about 1,000 killings—but not spread between 1998 and 2015, as in Davao City, according to documentation by human rights groups, but between July and December this year? Is that “acceptable”? How about “only” 100 killings, but all on the afternoon of June 30, after Duterte takes his oath? Would that be “fitting”?
Or perhaps we can accept the figure of 100,000, after all; these are suspected criminals, not soldiers or revolutionaries.
These damning calculations should chill our blood. Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro used his preelection pastoral letter to remind us: “The victims [of the Davao Death Squad] include 132 children (17 years and below).” Let us take a deep breath and ask ourselves: How many of Duterte’s 100,000 will be innocent or underage?
We may see a spree of extrajudicial killings at the exact same time the privileged party-hopping animals of Congress debate a death penalty law—a law that, in practice, will affect only those Filipinos without privilege. Like others, I am filled with foreboding.