MONDAY BROUGHT news of yet another apparent vigilante killing, this time with a twist. The extrajudicial murders that exploded with President Duterte taking office and the kicking into high gear of his avowed brutal war on crime and drugs has, until now, seen most victims dumped in outlying areas, usually bound, wrapped in packing tape and with a crude cardboard sign identifying the person as a “pusher” or “addict.” Monday’s corpse found at 1 a.m. was not in some remote grassy area or a scarcely populated corner of a village, but in front of Edsa Grand Central Terminal, one of the busiest points in the metropolis, with 24-hour establishments, call centers, restaurants, public transport terminals—and a large police presence. Only the hair protruded from the tightly trussed body, which bore the handwritten note “Huwag ako tularan, snatcher ako! Salot sa Edsa” (Don’t take after me, I am a snatcher, a lowlife on Edsa).
As symbolism went, the widely shared picture of the “salvage” victim dumped on a busy sidewalk on Edsa, with passersby caught on camera milling around the innocuous-looking bundle, was a jolting reminder of just how rapidly the open season for killing so-called criminals has become the new normal. In barely two weeks of the new administration, the wave of extrajudicial killings has moved away from the fringes and splashed defiantly into the center— onto the country’s most important artery—on the back of the robust encouragement of the tough-talking President and his handpicked chief of police, Ronald de la Rosa.
In January, five months before his departure from office, President Benigno Aquino III was scored by the global watchdog Human Rights Watch for his “disappointing” performance in defending human rights and investigating abuses during his administration. According to HRW’s tally, nearly 300 had died since Aquino assumed office in 2010, and the “killings implicating the military and paramilitary groups almost never result in prosecutions.”
Aquino’s bleak record comes down, on average, to about 50 deaths a year over a six-year period. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, with a longer term of nine years, racked up worse figures—200 cases of disappearances and some 305 extrajudicial killings, according to Amnesty International. Both these presidents’ political standing was heavily eroded by their administrations’ seeming inability to resolve these cases, bring the perpetrators to justice, and decisively end the culture of violence and death that operated with impunity.
What are the numbers under the newly installed administration? From June 30, the day of Mr. Duterte’s inauguration, to July 7, the killings as compiled by this paper have reached 72. Since May 9—Election Day, when it quickly became certain that Mr. Duterte had clinched the presidency —that number rises to 119. The explosion of murders—and the circumstances surrounding most of them, from broad-daylight executions to deaths in the dead of night to outright shooting of suspects already in custody (allegedly for reaching for the arresting officer’s gun) have sufficiently alarmed various sectors, including the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers. “The drug menace must stop… Yet the apparent serial summary executions of alleged street drug users or petty drug lords which appear sudden, too contrived and predictable must also stop,” said Edre Olalia, NUPL secretary general. “The two are not incompatible.”
Some administration partisans, unnerved as well, have begun to spin the development as the drug syndicates essentially imploding—rubbing out one another in an orgy of self-eradication to save themselves from the twin iron hands of the President and his police chief. That may well be—but the bloodbath is happening under Mr. Duterte’s watch: in fact, in too many suspicious instances, in the very hands of the police force executing his marching orders, in fulfillment of his own condition that cops could kill suspects who “resist arrest.”
Indifference to the issue is essentially abetting the killings—the same charge that Aquino, Arroyo and other presidents before them had to face. That the dead—for now—are mostly street knaves doesn’t matter; Mr. Duterte’s human rights record, and that of the country as well, will be worse than abysmal at the rate the campaign he has unleashed is going.
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