Filipinos hope new President Duterte remains the 'enforcer'

The newly inaugurated president of the Philippines faces accusations that as mayor of Davao he used death squads to clean up crime. He is pledging to be just as tough in his new job, but he will need to show his softer side, too.

Bullit Marquez/AP/File
In this May 9, 2016 file photo, front-running presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference in Davao city in southern Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File) Rodrigo Duterte

Rodrigo Duterte, the man who became the Philippines’ president on June 30, has a fearsome reputation.  And Filipinos love him for it.

Mr. Duterte, a dark horse candidate in May’s elections, campaigned on a pledge to wipe out crime – by wiping out criminals. He pointed to his 22-year record as mayor of the provincial capital of Davao, and people believed him. As crime soars across the Philippines, voters have turned to him for action.

“We can walk late at night in confidence we’re safe from harassment,” says Jocelyn Gumpad-Joson, who teaches at Ateneo de Davao University here. “People would hesitate to do crime because as we all know there are rumors they will be eliminated.”

They are more than rumors. Under Duterte’s rule, vigilante police officers known as the Davao death squads have killed 1,424 suspected criminals, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

In a murder spree that peaked around the turn of the century, early in Duterte’s rule, “the streets were becoming a killing field,” says one local nongovernmental organization head who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

“If they were suspected of drugs and crimes, they were just executed in the streets or in their houses. Motorcycle-riding men would come in as children were watching TV,” he recalls.

Davao city spokesmen deny their boss had anything to do with the death squads. But he still peppered his presidential campaign rhetoric with threats to kill anyone who breaks the law, and it went down well with voters.

“People, if they don’t know how it feels to lose a mobile phone that you spent three or four months working to get, won't understand how a candidate with a platform focusing on minimizing crime can be popular,” says Valenice Balace, a 27-year-old software technology entrepreneur in Manila. She says she herself has witnessed 15 crimes.

From "murder capital" to "world's 5th safest city"

When he took over as mayor of Davao, Duterte inherited a city that was caught in violent strife between leftist rebels and a government counterinsurgency campaign. Teen gangs fought in the streets over drug sales. You couldn’t make a mobile phone call outside at night without fear of someone snatching the phone. Davao was dubbed the murder capital of the Philippines. 

It is a very different town now. Drug crimes have plummeted 75 percent since Duterte became mayor, says city spokesman Leo Villareal. Muggings and pickpocketing are rare, he adds, and leftists are no longer violent. 

The most common drug, the methamphetamine strain called shabu, is no longer sold in the streets, locals say, and it’s safe to walk anywhere at night.  Smoking in public is banned, as is the use of firecrackers and driving at more than 19 m.p.h. on downtown streets. Traffic accidents have fallen more than 40 percent since the speed limit took effect in 2013.

 Last year Davao, a city of about 1.5 million people, was named the world’s fifth-safest city by crowd-sourcing survey website

Davao’s citizens credit their mayor. “He personally made it safe for Davao,” says Michael John Polia, a 31-year-old factory worker and Davao native. “There may be bad words about him, but he was good for us.”

Duterte took 85 percent of the Davao vote in May’s presidential elections, and voters elsewhere in the archipelago seem ready to give “the enforcer,” as he is known, a chance to tackle a nationwide crime wave in his own distinctive fashion.

The number of reported crimes rose more than fivefold between 2012 and 2014, according to Philippine National Police figures. The Philippines topped all of East Asia in 2012 for shabu use, the United Nations found.

A softer side

Duterte may have built his reputation, and his popularity, on tough talk and tough action, but he has used more constructive means as well to calm his city, not least a readiness to listen to ordinary citizens who were always welcome in his office.

To start with, he beefed up the police force to 3,000 officers – nearly one per block – and installed closed circuit cameras almost everywhere.

Duterte has also tamed the leftist New People’s Army insurgency through personal contacts with their leaders. Though the rebel group maintains bases in the mountains, “here in Davao city we have observed less fighting,” says city publicist Boogie Abasolo. “He has high regard for the rebels because they are fighting for a cause, they have their principle.

“Because he’s a friend of their commander, he can talk them and he even goes to the mountains to talk to them to offer peace,” he says. 

Duterte is now scaling that approach up to the national level. His transitional government is talking to the National Democratic Front, a broad leftist group that includes the New People's Army, about an agenda for resumed peace talks after the inauguration.

He has also begun exploring a peace plan with rebel Muslim groups that have been fighting a deadly 40-year war for resource control on the southern island of Mindanao, where Davao is located. Meeting the leaders of two major Muslim rebel groups on June 17, he proposed federalism as a way to give Muslims more regional autonomy, which one of the groups appeared to find acceptable.

At the same time, Davao city passed a law guaranteeing fair treatment for Muslims, a small minority once so reviled that Catholics would avoid living near them. City officials call Muslims “brothers” and have paid to send some on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

And for a rough hewn loudmouth, Duterte has also shown unexpected sympathy for vulnerable teenage prostitutes, says Jeannette Ampong, executive director of the Talikala Foundation, an anti-sexual exploitation group.

Despite the occasional sexist remark, Ms. Ampong says, the mayor listens, cares, and acts. “He is very honest with us,” she says. “He knows the problem of being in prostitution is rooted in economic ones but he can’t provide jobs, so he promised to provide medical service to street girls.”

“We are safer when he’s mayor, particularly women who are abused in trafficking and prostitution,” Ms. Ampong adds.

As he turns his attention to national affairs, he is only now beginning to formulate policies on challenges such as the Philippines territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. But he has set himself at least one target – the corruption that is rife in public life here.

“Corruption must stop, now,” Duterte told a business development conference in Davao recently. “My standard will be zero tolerance.”

He did not say how he would enforce that standard. But it seems unlikely he would resort to the sort of methods Davao has become used to.

“As a president, he should act like one,” Mr. Abasolo, the publicist and local radio commentator says. “He is the face of the Filipinos now.”

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