‘Killing Fields’ Become Success Model for New Philippine Leader

  • Duterte seeks to replicate Davao changes on national level
  • As mayor, Duterte clamped down on crime and brought investment

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For cab driver Eddie Laran, who grew up in the most violent slum in Davao City, it’s not hard to see why Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is the right person to run the Philippines.

“Duterte made Davao a peaceful place,’’ Laran, 46, said in a mish-mash of the national language and a local indigenous dialect. “He really got rid of crimes and dealt with all the hardheaded criminals.”

It’s the campaign story of Duterte, the 71-year-old mayor from the Philippines’ fourth-most populous city, who shot to prominence as the presidential frontrunner -- and then election victor -- by promising to clean up the country in the way he crushed crime in Davao.

Rodrigo Duterte

Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

But Duterte may find it much harder to impose his anti-crime measures across the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, not least because Davao was an extreme case. By the 1980s, shootings were a daily occurrence, especially in areas where army-backed militias battled police and communist guerrillas. Robberies and kidnappings were rampant.

“On average, six to seven people would be found dead each day, often these would be members of the police and the military,” incoming police chief Ronald dela Rosa, who was a junior officer in Davao in the late 1980s, said in an interview. “We were living in fear, not knowing when they would strike when you leave the house or if they will attack you in the comfort of your home.”

At a briefing this month, Duterte said he wants to implement the kind of policies he used in Davao -- such as curfews for minors and bans on public drinking and late-night karaoke sessions -- on a nationwide scale to ensure peace and order. To make good on his campaign promise to fight crime, he said he intends to issue shoot-to-kill orders against criminals, or to execute them by hanging.

"Robbery with homicide with rape: double the hanging,” Duterte said. “Hang first then there will be another ceremony for the second time so that the head will be completely severed from the body. I would like that."

Davao still recorded the most murders among the Philippines’ 15-biggest cities from 2010 to 2015, according to police data. There were 1,032 murders in Davao during the period, ten times more than Makati City.

“Doing what he did in Davao to fight crime will be very difficult to do on a national scale,’’ said Prospero de Vera, a professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City. “In Davao, he tells criminals to get out of the city. Will he tell criminals to get out of the country?’’

An Alsa Masa member guards a checkpoint in Davao in 1987.

Photographer: Sandro Tucci/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

While Duterte’s approach may raise concerns over human rights and police powers, for many in a country that has been held back for years by corruption and crime, his reputation and hardline rhetoric are appealing. Preliminary results show the firebrand politician won 39 percent of the vote in this month’s election, beating four rivals. In the Philippines, the candidate who wins the most votes becomes president for one six-year term, even if they don’t have a majority.

Part of Duterte’s support is from people like Laran, who joined the infamous “Alsa Masa” militia in the 1980s to fight communist rebels in Davao’s Agdao district, a once impoverished slum that was a recruitment zone for left-wing insurgents. Davao City administrator Melchor Quitain says some people used to call the area the “killing fields.”

Within the narrow streets along the coast that once saw executions at the rate of more than one a day, Laran now lives peacefully with his family of five, earning a living as a taxi driver. It’s a transformation he credits to Duterte.

Agdao’s streets are still mostly lined with ramshackle low-rise buildings, packed together, but the roads are now paved, people can walk them at night, and commercial buildings are springing up along the main thoroughfares.

That stability has brought investment and migrants from elsewhere in the country, another pillar of Duterte’s voter appeal. His focus on security turned the city from a “laboratory for urban warfare” to an investment destination, says Ivan Cortez, head of Davao’s Investment Promotion Center. Davao, a two-hour flight south of Manila, gained $8.5 million in investment in 1988 when Duterte began the first of seven stints as mayor. Last year, the city attracted $845 million.

“The government provides the basics for business to flourish,’’ Cortez said in an interview. “If he can provide the basics, including peace and order, infrastructure and policies, businesses will come.”

Attracting foreign investors and making it easier to do business are part of Duterte’s national economic agenda, incoming Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said at a briefing in Davao earlier this month. Duterte plans to continue the macroeconomic policies of outgoing President Benigno Aquino and spend the equivalent of 5 percent of gross domestic product on infrastructure, he said.

Like Aquino before him, Duterte has promised to rein in corruption. As mayor, he would ask potential investors to tell him if there were any irregularities in securing permits and licenses and warn them not to try bribes to speed things up because permits could legally be secured in 72 hours, Cortez said.

That’s not always the case. A few meters from Duterte’s office in city hall, people wait in long lines to have their papers processed by the business bureau.

Business Permits

Ursula Padero, a bookkeeper for seven years, said she’s used to shuttling from one government office to another and waiting for weeks to secure business permits for her clients. She said graft still exists among city officials, with some accepting bribes to facilitate the release of permits.

And for her, it may be too late to try and improve things even in Davao. “I don’t think the mayor can pay attention to this practice especially now that he already has a bigger obligation,” Padero said.

QuickTake Philippines Path

“All this hype about Davao is not borne out of statistics,’’ said de Vera at the University of the Philippines. “If you go to Davao, many problems of urban areas are still there, such as criminality and prostitution.’’

Duterte’s reputation as someone who got things done for Davao’s 1.4 million residents may put pressure on him as president to produce results quickly for the other 100 million Filipinos.

“Davao was not created overnight, said de Vera. “He had to deal with changing attitudes there for two decades. Unfortunately, he only has six years. It takes a lot of time to put in systemic change, and he does not have the luxury of time.’’

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