Here's why the 'Davao Death Squad' was included in the ICC 'drug war' probe

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Here's why the 'Davao Death Squad' was included in the ICC 'drug war' probe
File — Police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by an unidentified gunman in Manila.

MANILA, Philippines — In its request to launch an investigation into the situation in the Philippines, the Office of the Prosecutor - International Criminal Court seeks to go beyond President Rodrigo Duterte term and look into his years as mayor of Davao City — where, former prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said, the strategy for the "war on drugs" was honed.

Before she formally ended her term on June 15, Bensouda announced that she has asked the international tribunal to proceed with an investigation into alleged extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Her office started its preliminary examination — to determine whether to seek a fuller investigation — in February 2018 and said if found "a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed... in the context of the Government of the Philippines' 'war on drugs' campaign."

In her 57-page request, Bensouda also noted that the "war on drugs" killings "appear to have been committed pursuant to an official State policy of the Philippine government." She said that these "same types of actors" had allegedly been committing similar crimes in Davao City for decades.

"Given the similarities between those killings and the nationwide ["war on drugs"] killings from July 2016 and March 2019, and the overlap of individuals involved during both periods, the Prosecution requests that the 2011-2016 events in Davao be included within the requested investigation," she said.

Those killings fall within the period that the Philippines was a member of the ICC.

From Davao to the national government

The alleged extrajudicial killings linked to anti-narcotics operations "closely resemble" killings carried out in Davao City before the start of the Duterte presidency, Bensouda noted. 

Duterte, who had a reputation for his hardline approach to crime in Davao City, had promised during the presidential campaign that the "war on drugs" would be bloody.

Citing a Human Rights Watch report, Bensouda pointed out that more than 1,000 people from Davao City were killed from 1988 to 2018, and information showed that another 385 were killed from 2011 to 2015, 385.

"The majority of victims were young men suspected of involvement in small-scale drug dealing or minor crimes such as petty theft and drug use, while gang members and street children were also killed," she added.

Killings in Davao City were reportedly done by the "Davao Death Squad," a group composed of local cops and civilians. DDS, which now means "Diehard Duterte Supporter", used to refer to that vigilante group.

"Just as he had done as president, Mayor Duterte made statements publicly supporting and encouraging the killing of petty criminals and drug dealers in Davao, including, notably, during the 2011-2016 period. In 2015, Duterte announced that he maintained order in Davao by killing criminals," Bensouda also said.

Early in Duterte’s administration, the Senate launched a legislative inquiry into the rising number of drug-related killings in the "war on drugs". Discussions later went into the DDS, with Edgar Matobato — who said he was a former hitman — and retired police officer Arthur Lascañas attending the hearings.

Lascañas, in his first Senate appearance, denied his involvement in the killings but later told senators he lied. He said he had executed 200 people as a member of the DDS while Duterte was mayor there.

Duterte and his officials have long disputed the claims that he was involved in extrajudicial killings.

"Persons involved in pre-2016 killings in Davao in some cases appear to be the very same people that were later involved in the [war on drugs,]," Bensouda said, noting a Reuters report that documented the transfer of police officers from Davao to Quezon City after Duterte assumed office.

Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa is among the police officers transferred to a national post when Duterte became president. Dela Rosa became the country’s top cop and, under his rein, the Philippine National Police rolled out its Project "Double Barrel."  

The two-pronged approach to the "drug war" included Oplan HVT (High-Value Targets) and Oplan Tokhang.

Tuktok to tokhang

Bensouda also noted that the pattern of killings in Davao is virtually the same as in "war on drugs" deaths.

"Sources also indicate that members of law enforcement killed suspected drug personalities in the course of anti-drug operations, and conducted visits to houses of suspected drug pushers, in operations known as ‘tuktok,’ which appeared to follow the similar model to the Tokhang operations carried out during the [“war on drugs”] from 2016," she also said.

Tokhang is a combination of Bisaya words “tuktok” (to knock) and “hangyo” (to plead). Under the PNP anti-narcotics program, local government and barangay officials would visit the houses of alleged drug users and try to convince them to surrender for rehabilitation. 

But under Oplan Tokhang, thousands have instead been killed.

Bensouda stressed: “[T]he available information indicates that the similarities between the alleged crimes committed in Davao in 2011-2016 and the post-2016 WoD.”

She noted how the killings were justified as part of efforts to fight crime and the illegal drug trade. She also noted the president's public encouragement of killings.

"The modus operandi is also similar such as advance warning and coordination between police and barangay officials in targeting victims, and payment for killings and subsequent impunity," she said.

In the killings by DDS and under the “war on drugs,” the “perpetrators appear to be police and vigilantes; and the majority of victims appear to be drug users and petty criminals,” Bensouda noted.

“Indeed, some sources have described the WoD as ‘rolling out on a national scale’ the model which Duterte ‘honed’ in Davao. These similarities demonstrate that the 2011-2016 events are sufficiently linked to the 2016-2019 events and should be included in the investigation,” she added.





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