The Long View
As I was texting, the taxi driver said, “Ah, you know, here in Davao you can text anywhere, no one will snatch your phone. Not like in Manila where – a recent passenger told me – you can lose your life at the hands of snatchers and kidnappers.” I said, Is that so? And the driver continued, warming up to his topic: “The policies of the mayor are OK. Thing is, many people get killed. The maldito. Drug pushers, snatchers, bam! Watch out.â€ He chuckled, and went on. “You know, what the mayor did was hire people who used to be maldito, too. He gave them jobs as bodyguards and informers. With his network, he knows everything that’s going on.”
That was my reintroduction to Davao City, which is, of course, Rodrigo Duterte country. By all accounts the Harley-Davidson-riding hizzoner remains as popular – or feared, maybe both – as he was when he rose to prominence as the no-nonsense tough-fisted, even ruthless, top man in the nation’s largest city (in terms of territory). A feature of the mayor’s administration has been the summary liquidation of criminal elements in the city, undertaken by what has come to be known as the Davao Death Squad.
The Davao Death Squad’s supposed to be a vigilante group, and the mayor himself has denied having anything to do with it, saying (as far back as 2002) he was amenable to investigations and prosecutions of those engaged in summary killings. Even the cab driver never said that the mayor was connected to the killings, only that he knew everything going on in his city and that the fate of thieves and drug pushers was, inevitably, the fatal kind.
Nonetheless, what can be said is that the liquidation of criminals seems to be a popular phenomenon and that whether implicitly or explicitly, the liquidations redound to the political benefit of Duterte. By all accounts, his political machine remains as formidable as ever, and his daughter is widely expected to be a shoo-in to succeed him.
In contrast, his perennial rival, Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles Jr., regularly gets attacked by the mayor, who, most recently, has been blasting the Speaker for being implicated in the Legacy scam; one city resident told me that a large swathe of Davao City’s professional class – doctors, engineers and even a judge – suffered heavy losses at the hands of Legacy. And Nograles, to add to his woes, is on his last term, and his own son, in contrast to Duterte’s daughter, is widely expected to be a flop if he tries to succeed his father.
This, then, is the political context, a minor politico I met told me, by way of background to goings-on in Davao. I’d inquired about the murder of Rebelyn Pitao, the 20-year-old teacher recently raped and brutally murdered. The official – venturing his own opinion, and not speaking for his higher-ups – said that as far as he’d observed, the local PNP and AFP had been exonerated, “since no one does anything here without the mayor knowing about it.”
This raised the possibility, the minor official suggested, of a vendetta killing by enemies of the murder victim’s father, Leoncio Pitao, alias Commander Parago of the NPA. Which is not to say the military or military people didn’t do it. There’s the possibility, the official pointed out, that military “outsiders” did it. To be sure, while in retreat or contained elsewhere, the New People’s Army boasts of impressive gains in northeastern Mindanao, where most of its military activity is taking place. Historian Patricio Abinales believes the relative vitality of the NPA in Mindanao is due to their having been spared the “bloody internal executions of the 1980s,” although the Mindanao NPA jefe Romulo Kintanar was purged from the party and eliminated through a “Mafia-style execution” allegedly by former partymates.
And then he ventured a shocking theory. “This murder was calculated to embarrass the mayor,” he said, and added that retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan had once been a consultant to Speaker Nograles.
Now the Speaker of the House has had to face this accusation before, not once, but twice. In 2007, the murder of Fernando Lintuan, a radio commentator, had Mayor Duterte facing accusations that the killing was done Davao Death Squad style, while Duterte charged then-congressman Nograles with complicity in the murder and first ventured the possibility Nograles had Palparan as a consultant. In February 2008, Duterte made the allegation that Nograles had hired Palparan and NDF representatives in Congress had complained about it; the Speaker vigorously denied he’d entered into any such arrangement with the controversial general.
In other words, if people connect Duterte to vigilante killings without any real proof, then Nograles can only be implicated by innuendo as well. Then again, there is much that is well known, unofficially, by voters about their leaders that would never stand up in court or go beyond passing he-said, he-denied coverage in the media. The public assumes that there is a kernel of truth to most political allegations, and there lies the problem: this reduces the allegations from being very serious ones, to mere mudslinging.
An interesting tidbit I was told was that previously perennially unsuccessful in his political pursuits, Nograles ended up successfully being elected to Congress because of a kind of “pity vote” by an electorate that had begun to find his candidacy pathetic. I’m sure that’s a purely partisan charge; that may have been true the first time around but a five-term congressman, anywhere, is a politically competent person. Nograles, however, faces the same challenge his nemesis Duterte does: how to pass on the political baton and maintain the carefully nurtured network and power he currently enjoys.
I heard these things over lunch; a day later, news came that a former NPA who’d become a Duterte leader, Loloy Clerigo, and who’d clashed (verbally) with the military, had been gunned down. For those who believe the battle to dislodge the mayor now has an ideological and conspiratorial element to it, the latest killing can only increase their sense of certainty.