“The Philippines is in ‘a death squad denial.’ – Human Rights Watch
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – An international rights watchdog, the Human Rights Watch, released Wednesday a 71-page report that directly links the Philippine government to death squads and extra-judicial killings.
“Our allegation in this report breaks ground, because we provide a direct link between an elected official and a death squad,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. The report studies in detail some representative cases from nearly 300 killings reported in official police records in Tagum City from 2007 to 2013.The figures are conservative according to police sources interviewed by HRW, because other killings are likely to have been unreported.
Why Tagum? Kine told Bulatlat.com that they did not specifically single out this city among other cities for investigation, but the area easily has multiple sources and evidences, which they succeeded at verifying and cross verifying to come out with this report.
They found in Tagum City a former Mayor who, while in position, allegedly organized, equipped, financed and directed death squad killings of targets he regarded as “weeds” of society. It is an absolutely glaring example of a local government official actively involved in extra-judicial killings, Kine said. And it does not look like the death squad has stopped operating after this mayor, Rey “Chiong” Uy, stepped down in 2013.
“Here’s concrete evidence where a local government is involved, and therefore it increases the need for the national government to look into it,” Kine told Bulatlat.com.
HRW does not have similar in-depth studies of death squad killings in other Philippine cities. Kine said they do not know if the same operation is happening in other places. But, he added, their report demands government attention to find out if there are similar operations in other places in the Philippines. After all, he said, every day, every week there are reports of a killing.
Asked during the press conference if there is a connection between Executive Order 546, which directs local government units to create organizations in aid of counterinsurgency, and legitimizes use of paramilitary groups, Kine reiterated that what their findings reveal is that: “There is definitely a direct connection between civil security units of LGUs and death squads.”
The HRW report recommended that the government investigates the death squad killings so that it would not appear that the Philippine government is complicit or is even facilitating extra-judicial killings.
Order of battle
HRW’s report “‘One Shot to the Head’: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines,” details the involvement of local government officials – including Tagum City’s former mayor Rey “Chiong” Uy, a Liberal Party stalwart – and police officers in the extrajudicial killings over the past decade.
From HRW’s two years of research, dozens of interviews and gathering of testimonies, it found out that elements of Tagum City police are deeply embedded in the death squad. Some members of the death squad were officially employed with the city’s Civil Service Unit (CSU), which has the official function of keeping peace in public places such as markets, bus terminals and schools.
The HRW report draws heavily on interviews and affidavits from three self-proclaimed members of the death squad in Tagum City who took part in killing operations. Romnick Minta, one of these three former death squad members, gave forensic evidence on how death squads work. Minta was targeted for killing because he refused to kill a friend, a policeman. The policeman was targeted because he began investigating death squad killings, Kine said at the press launch of the HRW report. Minta survived an ambush, but his brother was killed. He then sought protection from the government in Davao.
“It is a deep indictment of Tagum police and local government,” said Kine.
Targeted for killing were people Mayor Uy had declared to be “weeds” of Tagum society, namely suspected petty criminals and drug dealers, as well as street children. The targets eventually included a local tribal leader, a journalist, a judge, local politicians, businessmen and former members of communist New People’s Army (NPA). Some were victims of guns-for-hire or hits by members of the death squad who were “freelancing.”
The death squad drew its targets from the “order of battle” or OB, a list of names coming from various sources, including local community leaders, neighborhood watchmen, and police intelligence officers. Names of drug suspects, meanwhile, were provided by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of the Interior and Local Government. Death squad members who refused to carry out orders, sought to quit or otherwise fell into disfavour were themselves likely to become death squad victims.
“[A] number would receive a lot of calls and texts identifying suspected criminals. Our task was to check out the names, whether these people actually were committing the crimes they were accused of committing. If we confirmed it, our leaders would then assign the job [to kill the alleged criminal],” Jomarie Abayon, a former Tagum Death Squad member, said in the report.
The 12 killings Human Rights Watch documented typically occurred outdoors, on the streets, and often in broad daylight. The hit men, wearing baseball caps and sunglasses and armed with .45 caliber handguns, would arrive and depart on government-issued motorcycles.
Hitting three heads a week, Mayor Uy himself allegedly gave the death squad additional P5,000 ($111) per head hit, Minta reportedly said.
At its peak, the death squad consisted of 14 people, according to its former members. Its killing operations have dropped since Uy stepped down as mayor in 2013, but the killings continue, said the HRW report. Many members of the Tagum death squad relocated to Compostela Valley, an adjacent province where Uy’s brother is governor. Sources also told HRW that some death squad members remained in Tagum allegedly operating on contract killing. As example, a witness to last December’s killing of journalist Rogelio Butalid told HRW that the gunman is a key member of the Tagum death squad.
There has been no arrest in Tagum city concerning these killings. “The Tagum death squad’s activities imposed a fear-enforced silence in Tagum City that allowed the killers and their bosses to literally get away with murder,” said Kine. He added that “eyewitnesses of Tagum killings are very often intimidated by the police into not complaining or filing reports.”
“[The police] fully knew beforehand of the execution of such killing and that in every summary killing investigation they always appeared at the scene of the killing to see if we were positively identified by witnesses or not,” Romnick Minta said in the report.
“You can’t disobey the mayor’s order. His power is higher than the chief of police. If the mayor gives his order, it gets implemented…. My colleagues would tell me, when I was new, to keep quiet. ‘These officers are the mayor’s men.’… So we just kept quiet. We couldn’t arrest them. We couldn’t do anything when they’re in front of us. But we knew what they were doing,” the report quoted a Police intelligence officer who started investigating the Tagum Death Squad.
Aquino ignoring extrajudicial killings
The death squad killings in Tagum have “profound implications in all of the Philippines, Kine told reporters. “Of 298 known killings, it is absolutely unacceptable that there are no arrests,” Kine said.
The unacceptable statistics of 298 dead by government-operated death squads, conservative that it is, “is a result of total system failure in many levels of government,” said Kine. With no one arrested and prosecuted for the killings, he said there is failure of city government and city police, of the Office of the Ombudsman, National Bureau of Investigation, and Commission on Human Rights, and there is abject failure of the central government and of President Aquino.
President Benigno Aquino III has largely ignored extrajudicial killings by death squads in Tagum City and other urban areas, Human Rights Watch said. At the press conference, Kine said Aquino’s silence reflects the central government’s very passive attitude on tough-talking local politicians, which creates deadly environments with death squads.
Aquino has to make it absolutely loud and clear that the government is recognizing the problem of extra-judicial killings by local government’s death squad, Kine said. “Message has to come from the top.”
There needs to be an investigation by all relevant agencies, the Ombudsman’s office, NBI, Philippine National Police, the Commission on Human Rights, Kine said. The HRW report criticized these national institutions including the Justice department for having been largely inactive in combatting death squads. “There has to be a top down probe of what went wrong in Tagum City, and how it can be fixed,” Kine told the media, noting that “every day, every week there are reports of a killing.”
Human Rights Watch has also previously published a 103-page report, “You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,” on a ‘death squad’ active in Davao City and the government’s failure to investigate the involvement of police and local government officials in targeted killings.
But, Kine said, there has been no follow up to pursue prosecutions in this case. He noted that affidavits were sent by Tagum victims, witnesses, and former death squad members after Uy stepped down from office, for example. But nothing came out of it in terms of investigations, arrests, or prosecution.
Kine said the number of extra-judicial killings under Aquino has gone down compared to that in the previous administration, but, he noted, Aquino entered his office with a strong platform against extra-judicial killings. “There’s a huge gap between policy and Implementation,” Kine said.
There are useful rhetoric early on (in Aquino’s administration), but, Kine said, Aquino has to show it is serious in tackling the problem of extra-judicial killings. HRW said President Aquino should recognize and speak out against death squad killings.
HRW said the Philippines is in “a death squad denial.”
A much-vaunted initiative by the Aquino administration to address impunity – the creation in 2012 of a so-called “superbody” to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases of extrajudicial killings – is “essentially inactive,” said Kine.