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12:26 AM June 09, 2015

NEW YORK CITY — He’s been called the Punisher and touted as a combination Wyatt Earp and Dirty Harry, fearless sheriff and tough-as-nails lawman who’s going to rid town of all the bad guys. They will make his day, so he can reclaim the streets for all of us, easing our sleep at night.

Because of him, Davao City is said to be one of the safest cities on the planet. Safe as a cemetery?

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He’s certainly not a man to mince words.

These are a few of his choicer public statements:

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In 2005: “Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs.”

In 2009: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, as long as I am mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”

In 2014, commenting on the arrest of a suspected rice smuggler elsewhere: “If this guy would go to Davao and starts to unload … I will gladly kill him.”

duterte121INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

This past May, according to a ABS-CBNews online posting, the garrulous politician, when asked if he were connected to the Davao death squads, responded: “True, that’s true,” and went on to state that he would have 100,000 criminals killed were he elected president. At the same time, putting on a hele-hele bago quiere act (saying no but meaning yes), he claims, “I do not want to be president. I do not want to kill people so do not elect me as president.”

And yet Rodrigo Duterte could very well become the next president of the Philippines. PDP-Laban has eyed him as its candidate should he enter the race, though party leaders have advised his staff to suggest that the man refrain from using words like “killing” and “death” in practically every sentence he utters. To say that the macho mayor is pro-death penalty is a masterpiece of understatement.

Human Rights Watch has denounced the more than 1,000 extrajudicial killings by Davao vigilantes since the late 1990s, with the targets being alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and even street children. Other critics in the media and in the national government say that his administration gives short shrift to civil liberties, encouraging death squads to rid society of any who might be deemed a criminal. These are extrajudicial killings, they say, where the target is presumed to be guilty and never given a chance to prove his or her innocence.

The office of President Aquino released a statement, saying, “Killing a person is against the law. The President has been firm in the belief that no one is above the law. We must not resort to extralegal methods.”

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Reading about Duterte’s possible presidential run, I remembered that in the early 1990s, I met him when I was in Davao, as part of my road trip through the country, from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi, gathering material for what was to become my memoir Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago. Duterte had by then already acquired a no-nonsense reputation and was credited with bringing down Davao’s homicide rate, which at one point had the unsavory reputation of being the murder capital of the country. He dealt with both the Alsa Masa, a notorious right-wing vigilante group and the NPA squads that were battling it out in an impoverished city district, Agdao, nicknamed Nicar-Agdao, in an obvious nod to the revolutionary strife in the Central American country.

He claimed to not care one way or the other as to how he was perceived, projecting an image as a man of the masa, attuned more to their needs than to politics, declaring at one point, “I’m Filipino, I love my country, I’ll die for it. I am mayor of all the people, Muslims, Christians, rightists, leftists.”

It was abundantly clear that he relished this Dirty Harry image, zooming up to the roadside restaurant where we were meeting, on his motorcycle, two bodyguards, each on a motorcycle as well, zooming in behind him. As I noted in my book, he had the persona of a righteous warrior for the city, “never mind that he may have violated the civil rights of a few people. … You couldn’t help but be charmed by him. After lunch, as he strides off to his mechanized steed that is gleaming in the afternoon light, I thought he would look even better in a ten-gallon hat. I can’t help but be reminded of how many Filipinos had endorsed the strong-arm tactics of Ferdinand Marcos at the outset of martial law, how attractive the idea that one person could prevent the slide towards anarchy had been. Public order was needed, as was rice on the table. Provide both and you would be forgiven a multitude of sins.”

The human-rights violations he is accused of should make voters careful about what they wish for. Still, as president, he could be of tremendous service to Philippine society. He just needs to set his sights much higher up, and forget about low-life, middling criminals. Since Duterte seems to regard the legal process as cumbersome and highly inefficient—very true—why not go after those suspected of high-level crimes, perpetrated by those occupying positions of power and privilege—crimes that always have dire consequences for a broad swath of society, even when charges against them have yet to be proven or, worse, have never been brought?

He could start with the perpetrators of the most heinous massacre in contemporary Philippine history: the November 2009 senseless slaughter in Maguindanao Province and in broad daylight of 58 unarmed civilians. The victims included the wife and two sisters of Esmael Mangudadatu, who, together with some aides and lawyers, were on their way to file a certificate of candidacy on Esmael’s behalf, for the upcoming gubernatorial race. He would be competing against Andal Ampatuan Jr., scion of the politically powerful Ampatuan clan. The killers also took the lives of 34 journalists accompanying the Mangudadatus, as well as luckless motorists who happened to be passing by.

Or how about those who have used pork barrel funds as personal banking accounts, robbing millions of constituents of much-needed services? (This would practically eliminate both houses of Congress.) Or tycoons who do not pay their just share of taxes, underpay their workers and view labor unions as the devil’s own work? How about army units that target community activists simply because they are thought to be Communists, which by the way, is not illegal? Or top military officials who bilk funds meant for the common soldier? Monopolists of various industries, be it coconut or tobacco, where the hard-working farmer gets shafted regularly? The list goes on. And on.

In this make-believe scenario, once an omnipotent Duterte eradicates all the deadly viruses that have inhabited our body politic since time immemorial, he would have compiled an impressive record and earned the gratitude of the people. And naturally, disdainful of legal niceties and constitutional rights, he would have been breaking the law in innumerable instances. And thus become a suspect.

By his own logic, he must disavow any judicial process, find himself guilty, and thus do unto himself as he would do unto others.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2015

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TAGS: Dirty Harry, Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, human rights violations, Human Rights Watch, Philippine presidential aspirant, Rodrigo Duterte, strongmen, Wyatt Earp
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