“Impunity” does not lend itself to exact translation in Filipino, but those who would like to know what human rights advocates and good governance activists mean when they talk of a “culture of impunity” can simply scour YouTube for Davao City Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s latest outrage, and they can get right up to speed.
Last Friday, Duterte, the city’s once and future mayor, placed a bounty (with money that would come from his campaign funds, he said) to encourage the arrest, death or decapitation of Ryan Yu alias “Baktin,” the suspected leader of a carjacking syndicate in Mindanao.
“Two million ako kapag buhay si Ryan. Kapag pinatay ninyo, four million ‘yan. ‘Pag dinala ninyo ang ulo, balutin lang niyo sa dry ice, dagdagan ko ng one million sa campaign funds … so it’s five million,” Duterte said at a news conference. His words lose little in translation: “I will give two million [pesos] if Ryan is captured alive. If you kill him, that’s four million [pesos]. If you bring the head, just wrap it in dry ice, I will add one million [pesos] from the campaign funds.”
There was enough in Duterte’s remarks to give the semblance of regularity. Offering a reward that would lead to the arrest of a criminal suspect is legal in the Philippines; this may have been what prompted the Davao City police chief, Sr. Supt. Ronald de la Rosa, to speculate aloud that “if Yu resists, his death could be justified,” as the Associated Press reported.
But there was also enough in the remarks to give even experienced professionals like De la Rosa pause. As the AP again reported, his initial reply when asked about Duterte’s invitation to a beheading was, “I have no comment about that.”
Why was that? Wasn’t Duterte’s remarks an illegal incitement to both murder and decapitation?
De la Rosa later recovered from the initial shock and offered a much more reasonable opinion. “If they kill Ryan Yu and they are arrested, there really is a crime of murder. Because even though Ryan Yu is a wanted man, killing him is murder because we have laws that must be followed,” he told ANC in Filipino.
But of course De la Rosa knows that Duterte’s remarkable career as the sprawling city’s undisputed political kingpin—his stint as vice mayor is only a spell in political purgatory, forced on him by term limits—is stained by the city’s sorry history of extrajudicial killings, many of them by the so-called Davao death squads.
In 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston included the hundreds of deaths at the hand of the Davao death squads in his comprehensive report on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. He noted the sleight of hand Duterte used to disclaim any responsibility for the killings. “The mayor’s positioning is frankly untenable: He dominates the city so thoroughly as to stamp out whole genres of crime, yet he [says he] remains powerless in the face of hundreds of murders committed by men without masks in view of witnesses.”
In 2009, a conscience-stricken city began a prayer campaign to stop the killings. A special prayer prepared by Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla plumbed the depths of the crisis: “Heavenly Father, our city is wounded in its soul. Our people’s wounds are deep and wide. These wounds are the hatred and dislike of drug addicts and drug pushers, the senseless disregard of due process of law, the violent killing of mere suspects, the taking of the law into one’s hands, the lustful greed in the hooded killers on motor bike[s,] the baseless claim that there are no witnesses….”
Duterte’s latest antic reminds the rest of the nation, as well as the good citizens of Davao, that the kind of vigilante justice long associated with Duterte’s reputation is the exorbitantly high price the city pays for its “peace and order.”
The tough-talking politician has long spoken of criminals as “legitimate targets of assassination.” What his P5-million bounty demonstrates is that the legitimacy of those targets can be determined by personal pique alone. Why did he announce the bounty in the first place? Because Interior Secretary Mar Roxas had confronted him about reports linking his son, a candidate for the very office Duterte now holds, with Yu.