The Punisher

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Duterte suffers from none of the charges that dog most Philippine politicians: that he is beholden to vested interests, obsessed with retaining power, or bent on accumulating its spoils. He is accepted and welcomed because he has delivered Davao from the bloody days of the 1970s and 1980s when the city was known as the murder capital of the Philippines. During the 21-year rule of strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the military spared neither the rod nor the gun to battle a spate of insurgencies, including one by the communist New People's Army (NPA). By the end of Marcos' reign, many in Mindanao were sick of the government and sided with the NPA — even when it sent hit squads, called "Sparrow Units," to assassinate policemen and soldiers in Davao. But the Sparrows got cocky and started bumping off suspected informants and civilians. As a counter, a vigilante group called Alsa Masa emerged in the mid-'80s, armed in part by the military and set on wiping out local communists. The vigilantes were popular until they too ran amok. A mini civil war erupted. One notably violent area called Agdao was rechristened "Nicar-agdao."

Duterte, who graduated as a lawyer in 1972 — the year Marcos proclaimed martial law — rose to prominence against this backdrop of vicious mayhem. As a city prosecutor he made his reputation by targeting military and rebel abuses with equal fervor. The son of a former provincial governor, Duterte says his father taught him that elected officials must serve the greater good no matter what it takes, like a father protecting and disciplining his family. And Duterte was fearless: even as a teenager, he refused to back down from fights — or whippings from his mother — despite being a self-confessed skinny weakling.

In his first term, Duterte's challenge was to rehabilitate Davao's reviled police department, which was running scared after years of NPA attacks. Shortly after Duterte took office, he heard that some kidnappers were trying to skip town with their just-collected ransom. Duterte led the pursuit, beating the cops to the scene and stationing his car on a bridge at the city line. When the kidnappers arrived, they started shooting. Duterte and his security detail returned fire, killing three of the four suspects. It was like a scene from the Philippine movies, which are replete with Dirty Harry loner-heroes. Here, it seemed, was a man who did what he promised, a man willing to die — and kill — for Davao. Has he, in fact, killed people? Duterte says he doesn't know, noting blithely "I didn't use tracer bullets." At 57, he remains the swaggering new-sheriff-in-town. He wants outlaws to know, he says, "that if I'm going out, I'm going out with my guns blazing."

Guided by his temperament, not the constitution, Duterte gave his cops license to shoot anyone who resisted arrest. He drove into the hills, into the camps of the NPA and other rebel groups ravaging Mindanao and told them he understood their grievances and respected men who fought for their beliefs. But, he added, "Don't f___ with my city." If they did, he warned, "they should be prepared to die."

By the early 1990s, the threat within Davao from communist rebels and Muslim guerrillas had faded. Duterte's vigilance had not. Urchins caught picking pockets have got beatings with a belt or a cow's tail from the mayor himself, often in City Hall. Rich kids who hot-rodded down the city streets were warned that they'd be paraded naked around town. And throughout, he let it be known that he would never relent in his fight against rapists, petty thieves and particularly drug pushers. "If you sell drugs to destroy other people's lives," he threatened, "I can be brutal."

On Sept. 20, Ryan Martinito, 18, and P.J. Taporco, 19, were walking down Ponciano Reyes Street, one of Davao's main thoroughfares. Both were known cell- phone thieves who had been arrested several times and were out on bail. As several witnesses looked on, two men riding a motorcycle drove up, killed Martinito and Taporco with bullets to the head, then sped away. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.

Suspicions immediately focused on the so-called Davao Death Squad, a vigilante outfit the city has come to know well over the past decade. According to press and police reports, more than 100 thieves and drug pushers — some convicted, some charged, others not even formally arrested — have been killed in the city during that time, almost always with the same modus operandi: two men on a motorcycle with a .45 or a 9-mm firing at close range. Such killings were heavy in 1996 and 1997, then sporadic during Duterte's time in Congress. The pace picked up during and after his mayoral campaign last June, spiking last fall after Duterte ordered all drug dealers to leave town by Nov. 30, or else.

The DDS is commonly referred to as the "Duterte Death Squad" — even, jokingly, by Duterte himself. The mayor formally denies any involvement, saying the killings may be gang related. But, characteristically, he points out that most of the victims were repeat offenders who got what they deserved. "From day one," he says, "I told people there are consequences for not abiding by the law." A task force appointed by the mayor to investigate the roughly 40 suspected vigilante killings in the past two years alone has not made a single arrest: no witnesses would come forward.

At the very least, the mayor has created an atmosphere in which the death squads feel free to operate with impunity. Last October, Duterte went on television and read out a list of suspects wanted for drug offenses, including policemen. Two of those named were killed within a week. Jun Pala, a former Alsa Masa spokesman and now one of Duterte's fiercest critics, was ambushed last July and shot four times. Pala has suspicions — but no evidence — about who ordered the attack. (Duterte denies involvement.) Pala argues that Duterte deserves no credit for Davao's rebirth. "How can he say Davao is safer when children" — that's to say teenagers — "are being killed indiscriminately?" It is, he adds, "a reign of terror."

Yet part of the fascination of Duterte's personality is that he also has an incongruously soft and liberal streak. He lives in a modest house on a quiet street. He sends food to Muslim communities during Ramadan and to Catholic communities at Christmas. Almost every day in his office he receives constituents seeking assistance. In one 10-minute span, he gives a mother the bus fare to her home village, counsels a woman seeking a job and tenderly tells a young, badly scarred burn victim that he will pay for her operation and follow-up treatment. (Duterte is known to deliver on such promises.) He is politically correct in other ways too: his party slate during the past election included a Christian, a Muslim, a gay man and a disabled candidate.

But it's Duterte's zero tolerance — for both crime and the judicial system — that resonates. "They can't rely on the justice system, so they rely on Duterte," says former Misamis Oriental Governor Homobono Adaza. Looking to exploit Duterte's appeal, former Presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada both asked him to take national posts. And Duterte's way is spreading. Presidential adviser Jesus Dureza, who has known him since high school, says voters in other cities also crave Duterte-type security. Copycat vigilante killings have cropped up in Digos City to the south and Cagayan de Oro to the north. Locally, criticism from Muslim leaders, the Catholic church, and libertarian groups has been muted. Only child welfare and human-rights bodies have complained about the deaths of too many teens. The locals' views are all too clear. Duterte has never lost an election. Everyone in Davao seems content — if a little scared.

Duterte leaves his brother's birthday party after midnight. He sends his security home and leads a walking tour of Davao's shadier streets. It's late but the mayor wants to prove that Davao is safe, anywhere, any time. He ambles past small shops, vendors, restaurants and street corners favored by local hookers. Some of the girls greet him with handshakes and hugs, which he returns with jokes, kisses on the cheek, and some pocket money. "I wanted to end prostitution," he says, "but I had no jobs to give them."

But some of the young working girls react more nervously. Today he's going after drug addicts and pickpockets. Tomorrow, they fear, it could be them. Who, after all, has the power or will to stop him if he chooses to broaden his list of undesirables? The city may be more secure for some, but for the girls peering nervously from across the street, life in Duterte's Davao seems more perilous than ever.

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