Rodrigo Duterte, the Mayor of Davao City, Philippines, is being hailed as ‘The Punisher’ for his controversial crime fighting strategies. Despite being a government official, Duterte allegedly uses vigilante methods that have elicited severe criticism across the world. But in Davao, he’s considered a hero. During his long mandate, he’s transformed the city once known as the murder capital of the Philippines into what many call “the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia”.
The Punisher is a comic book and movie character who will stop at nothing to keep criminals in check. He resorts to violence, torture and even murder in his war against wrongdoers. Some say Duterte isn’t very different. Although he has never openly admitted being involved in the kidnappings and executions of various crime lords in Davao, his controversial comments on crime and encouragement of vigilante activity have convinced a lot of people that he is indeed a real-life Punisher.
“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, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination,” Mr Duterte said in 2009. Three years later, during a press conference, he reportedly offered a $120,000 reward to whomever brought him the head of an alleged gang leader, and a $24,000 bonus if it was brought in a bag of ice, “so it won’t smell so bad”.
That sounds barbaric, especially to human rights activists, but to the people of Davao, the effects of Duterte’s efficient purging apparently matters more than the means he uses. They are now able to walk through the city streets at any hours of the day and night with a sense of security. Duterte’s success has had a huge impact on the lives of millions, and his supporters are now urging him to run for president.
Mayor Duterte is speculated to have carried out his work through Davao Death Squad, a vigilante outfit that kidnaps and executes drug traffickers, petty criminals, gang members, and other miscreants. Between 2005 and 2008 alone, more than 700 people went missing in Davao, presumably killed by the squad. Although he has never publicly endorsed the squad’s activities, he never discouraged them either.
He has issued shoot-to-kill orders against all troublemakers in the city, and called for security forces to shoot looters when Typhoon Haiyan hit last year. In February of this year, he admitted to a Senate committee that he would ‘gladly kill’ an accused rice smuggler. “I want smuggling of rice in my city stopped,” he said at a press conference. “But if you still do not stop your smuggling activities, I will kill you.”
And that’s just official news. There are wild rumors of Duterte’s behavior against criminals – he’s believed to have pushed a drug trafficker from a flying helicopter, beaten a Philippine army soldier badly, and turned his back on a friend who tried to speak on behalf of a drug trafficker. In fact, illegal drugs seem to be one of Duterte’s pet peeves. “It is like an alum, chew it and in no time your mouth will burn with holes,” he has often remarked.
Human rights advocates, including Amnesty International, are outraged with Duterte’s no-nonsense attitude towards crime in his city. Commission on Human Rights chairwoman Loretta Ann Rosales said that such methods send “wrong signals that invite vigilantism.” She added: “Simply put, ordering law enforcement officers to ‘shoot to kill’ suspects, or threatening smugglers to leave your area out of their operations or ‘I will kill you’, is no way for a local chief executive to lead.”
Duterte, however, remains unapologetic. “I admit I am 100 percent terrorist, but I am terrorizing only the drug pushers, kidnappers, hold-up gangs, and other criminals,” he responded. “Kidnappers, drug pushers from other places, I dare you to come over here so that I can finish you off.”
And it his this attitude of his that has endeared him to the larger population of Davao. They affectionately call him ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘Digong Duterte’. He is believed to have spent his youth hanging around with the city’s tough, but he eventually secured a law degree and served as a city prosecutor for some time, before his political career took off.
His language though, according to local media reports, is “colorful, thought-provoking, and mean,” yet, Duterte is loved by the people of Davao. Since March, a legion of supporters have been pushing him to run for president in 2016, when the current President Benigno Aquino III steps down. Although Duterte rejects the idea, the ‘Pilipinas 2016 Duterte Movement’ has amassed over four million signatures, describing Duterte as an “iron-fisted leader with a heart.” The amount of support he enjoys is understandable, given the sense of security people feel in their city.
To fully understand Rodrigo Duerte’s achievements and why the people love him so much despite all the wild rumors and allegations, it’s important to the state of Davao city before he took office. Located on the southern island of Mindanao, it is a port in the Sulu Sea, the second most pirated waters in the world, after Somalia. Davao was a haven for smuggling of drugs, weapons, bootlegs, humans and pretty much anything else worth smuggling.
Then there’s the Jihadis. The island of Mindanao is the main base of the Moro Islamic Front, a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda. 600 US Special Operations troops along with Philipino soldiers are fighting Moro in the jungles around Davao, but while the criminal organization used to strike in the city in the past, Duerte managed to put an end to their terror.
The means with which he has done all this are no doubt questionable, but for the majority of Davao’s population, the effects of his actions matter much more.