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Duterte’s Reported Links to a Drug War Death Squad

Duterte’s Reported Links to a Drug War Death Squad
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Harry Roque

Harry Roque

Philippines presidential spokesperson

“I investigated the Davao Death Squad. I concluded that while the Davao Death Squad does exist, there is no evidence linking the President to the Davao Death Squad.”


On September 15, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation into crimes allegedly committed during the Philippines drug war, which a United Nations report estimated may have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths from 2016 through 2019.

The investigation will not only cover the war on drugs during the tenure of President Rodrigo Duterte, but also killings committed from 2011 to 2016 in the city of Davao, where Duterte served as mayor for parts of more than two decades.

On September 20, Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque disputed the idea that Duterte played a role in extrajudicial killings by the so-called “Davao Death Squad” (DDS).

“I investigated the Davao Death Squad. I concluded that while the Davao Death Squad does exist, there is no evidence linking the President to the Davao Death Squad,” Roque told the ABS-CBN News Channel, according to The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper.

It is unclear which investigation Roque references. In 2015, Roque himself previously pinned killings on Duterte, who has appeared to admit and later deny Davos Death Squad ties. Likewise, former death squad members have claimed Duterte ordered killings.

According to the ICC, approximately 385 people were victims of extrajudicial killings in Davao between 2011-2015, one of the periods in which Duterte was mayor. The ICC prosecutor noted that “strikingly similar crimes” were committed by “the same types of actors” in Davao while Duterte was mayor prior to the nationwide war on drugs campaign.

The ICC said the majority of those killed in Davao, by security forces and vigilante groups, were “young men suspected of involvement in small-scale drug dealing or minor crimes such as petty theft or drug use.”

“The plethora of public statements made by Duterte and other Philippine government officials encouraging, supporting and, in certain instances, urging the public to kill suspected drug users and dealers also indicate a State policy to attack civilians,” the ICC prosecutor said.

Dogged by allegations that he orchestrated drug war killings in his home city while running for president, Duterte told a local TV station on May 28, 2015: “Am I the death squad? True. That is true.”

However, Duterte then qualified that statement, saying he was actually challenging critics to file charges against him if they had proof, the Rappler website reported.

Earlier in May 2015, Duterte claimed Davao had become one of “the world’s safest cities” thanks to his policy of killing criminals.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Duterte broadcast threats against criminals by name in 2001 and 2002, and some became “apparent victims of the death squad.”

Duterte told reporters 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, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”

Four days after Duterte told local TV about his “death squad links” on May 28, 2015, Roque, then an attorney and law professor in Quezon City, said in an editorial in the Manila Standard that Duterte’s links to deaths squads were widely known.

“Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s recent admission that he has ‘ties’ with the dreaded Davao Death Squad is old news,” Roque wrote. “Those who know about the killings perpetrated by the death squads also know that somehow, the death squads operate with permission, if not upon orders of the mayor.”

In the editorial, Roque asked why former president Benigno Aquino III’s administration had “done nothing to investigate, prosecute and punish members of the Davao Death Squad, including the mayor [Duterte].”

Roque quoted Philip Alston, a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extra-legal Killings, as saying in 2009 that “Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has done nothing to prevent these killings” and recommending that Duterte be stripped of his supervisory role over the police.

Roque said it was “the height of hypocrisy” that then-Secretary of Justice Leila De Lima waited until six years after Alston’s recommendations to “belatedly say that Duterte should be held liable for the acts of the death squads.”

What caused Roque’s apparent change of opinion remains a mystery. A well-known human rights lawyer, he helped establish the Center for International Law (Centerlaw), which has in recent years taken up drug war cases.

Roque served in the House of Representatives as the Party-list Representative of KABAYAN from 2016 to 2017 and spoke out against the war on drugs during one of his first speeches as a new lawmaker, Rappler reported.

A member of the Philippines Congress, Edcel Lagman, slammed Roque in 2018 for his “180 degrees turnaround” on the drug war.

He noted that Roque had transformed from being among those who campaigned for the Philippines to ratify “the Rome Statute, which created the ICC” to becoming Duterte's “leading apologist,” the Philippines broadcaster GMA News and Public Affairs reported.

The Philippines government has refused to cooperate with the recently approved ICC probe or allow investigators into the country, with Roque now saying the “ICC has no jurisdiction.”

That’s because Duterte announced the Philippines would withdraw from the ICC in March 2018. The ICC, however, maintains it can investigate crimes committed during the period the Philippines was party to the court, up until March 2019.

Apart from the contradictory and enigmatic statements by Roque and Duterte, former death squad members have accused Duterte of direct involvement.

In 2017, Arturo Lascanas, a retired police officer and self-described Davao Death Squad leader, claimed that Duterte had actively directed some of the killings.

“We implemented the personal instructions of (then-Mayor) Duterte to us. All of the killings we did in Davao city, whether we buried or threw them out to sea,” CNN quoted him as saying in 2017.

Lascanas claimed Duterte directly ordered the bombing of mosques in Davao to retaliate for the 1993 San Pedro Cathedral bombing linked to jihadist group Abu Sayyaf, which killed 17 and wounded 157, as well as the murder of journalist Jun Pala.

Lascanas had denied any role in the killings when queried about it in a Philippines Senate probe the previous year. He later claimed he had been forced to lie before the Senate.

Another alleged Davao Death Squad hitman, Edgar Matobato, also directly linked Duterte to the drug war killings.

In 2017, Matabato’s lawyer filed a complaint with the ICC against Duterte and other senior officials for crimes against humanity, claiming that killing drug suspects and other criminals had become “best practice” under Duterte.

Roque called the alleged killers’ testimony flawed.

How the ICC will weigh the testimony of Lascanas or Matobato remains to be seen.

In June 2012, the Philippines Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent constitutional office, issued a resolution seeking “possible administrative and criminal liability of the highest city official at the time [Duterte], for his government’s failure to investigate the killings attributed to the DDS.”

Prior to Lascanas and Matobato, the CHR acquired testimony from four other witnesses outlining the death squad’s structure and activities.

Filipino activists and relatives of people killed in the country's war on drugs hold a rally in observance of Human Rights Day in Manila, on December 10, 2019. Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
Filipino activists and relatives of people killed in the country's war on drugs hold a rally in observance of Human Rights Day in Manila, on December 10, 2019. Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Only one alleged death squad member, going under the alias “Crispin Salazar”, directly implicated Duterte in the killings. contacted the Philippine’s Office of the Presidential Spokesperson to determine what Davao Death Squad investigation Roque conducted and whether those findings are publicly available.

The office had not responded by the time of publication.