This story is over 5 years old.


The Philippines' Death Squad-Loving New President Has Some Surprisingly Progressive Plans

The president-elect plans to to fill his cabinet with women and ethnic minorities, but is also feared by those who document extrajudicial killings in the city he's governed.
Presumptive president-elect Rodrigo Duterte on 16 May 2016. (Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA)

Rodrigo Duterte rode to victory in last week's Philippine presidential elections on a campaign that included jokes about rape and his own penis, misogynist boasts, and by championing his dubious record on human rights. In his first televised news conference since winning the election, Duterte threatened a gruesome punishment for the worst criminals.

"After the first hanging, there will be another ceremony for the second time, until the head is completely severed from the body," he said.


While Duterte does not shy away from sounding like a madman, he is more complex as a statesman. He cultivates the image of being a hardass, but sobbed at his parents' tomb on the night of his win. "Help me, Mom," he said through tears as a camera rolled, "I'm just a nobody."

Though he was widely compared by international media to conservative politician Donald Trump during his incendiary campaign laced with outrageous remarks, Duterte has dismissed Trump as a bigot.

The way Duterte imagines his own government is decidedly different.

"We ideally want to follow Justin Trudeau's cabinet in Canada," Peter Lavina, spokesperson for Duterte, said during a press conference.

Like the famously liberal Trudeau, Duterte, who at 71, will be the Philippines' oldest president, plans to fill his cabinet with the "young and brilliant." Like Trudeau's cabinet, in which a Sikh and an Afghan refugee hold office, Duterte is seeking to include ethnic minorities and people from diverse social backgrounds.

Related: The Next President of the Philippines Promises 'Double Hanging' the Worst Criminals

Despite sounding like a misogynist, Duterte is taking Trudeau's lead and aiming for a 50-50 ratio between women and men in his cabinet. He appointed Pia Cayetano, a respected women's rights advocate, to lead the team searching for female candidates.

Unlike the right-wing, contemporary crop of populist politicians across the world, with whom he is often lumped, Duterte calls himself a leftist and maintains strong ties with progressive groups. In the same news conference where he announced the brutal system of hanging, he also said that he had reserved high-level appointments for the political left, in four major government departments: Labor, environment, social welfare, and agrarian reform.


As mayor of Davao City for more than 20 years, he has a strong record of championing minority rights. In a country whose majority Catholic population can be fanatical about keeping to the letter of Catholic law — it's now the only one on earth where divorce remains illegal — Duterte has championed the rights of the LGBT community, arguing in favor of gay marriage, and pushing through an anti-discrimination ordinance. He's an open ally of the Philippines' Muslim minority, raising his fist and chanting Allahu akbar during his rallies.

In line with his anti-corruption stance, Duterte is proud of his commitment to austerity. He brags about having two wives and two girlfriends, but also that he houses them in cheap boarding houses that run about $30 a month. His administration has since signaled that they plan to lead by example. He announced that he will put the presidential yacht on sale and repurpose government helicopters as emergency vehicles.

His policies, however, can quickly turn paternalistic. He proposed a countrywide smoking ban in all public places, as well as ban the sale of alcoholic beverages after 1am, on the grounds that "We have to work the next day, all the [restaurant] staff have to work, as well as the customers," Lavina, his spokesperson said.

He plans to put a stop on the noise pollution of late-night karaoke, and wants to impose a mandatory curfew on minors, "to protect the children," according to Lavina, on penalty of arrest for negligent parents.


Related: China Scrambles Fighter Jets, Sends Warships to Shadow US Destroyer in South China Sea

Ramon Beleno III, department chair of political science at Ateneo de Davao University, said that as mayor, Duterte was successfully able to implement these types of ordinances in once-chaotic Davao City with the support of the local legislature, all of whom were members of Duterte's political party, Hugpong.

Beleno and other political analysts are watching closely whether Duterte can rally the same kind of support in the legislature at the national level. Support from congress is key to Duterte's success, which is why he threatened to abolish congress if they do not back his plans. However, with Duterte's popularity, that may not be necessary. Beleno says, "Right now I don't see any impediment in supporting the legislative agenda of Mayor Duterte."

"Maybe for the death penalty," Beleno adds, "which the Catholic Church really strongly opposes."

Duterte ran on an almost single-issue campaign based on imposing peace and order on the Philippines. As a step towards achieving that, he said on Monday that he would seek to reinstate the death penalty in the Philippines, which was abolished in 2006. He said he would forgo lethal injections or a firing squad in favor of hanging, in order to save on bullets, and because he believed snapping the neck at the spinal cord was a more humane way to die.

Leila de Lima, a former chief of the Commission on Human Rights and longtime rival of Duterte who was elected to the Philippine senate last week, said she will oppose any attempt at restoring capital punishment.


The absence of capital punishment would curb any legal avenue for Duterte to punish criminals with the methods he's suggested, which include the promise to "fatten the fish in Manila Bay" with the bodies of 100,000 dead people.

Marites Vitug, a journalist and political analyst, says that Duterte may be effective for a few months as "Scarer-in-chief," by using fear to deter crime. However, "the eyes of the international community will be on the Philippines because of what he's said. It will be hard for him to commit shortcuts," Vitug said. "We have active human rights groups, and the media is free."

Related: Mayor Jokes About Rape, Brags About Death Squads, Gets Elected President of the Philippines

Duterte already has a record in circumventing the law in his quest for criminal justice. In Davao, where he was mayor for more than 20 years, Duterte has admitted to (as well as denied) backing the death squads that meted out extrajudicial punishment to suspected criminals.

Father Amado Picardal, a Catholic priest and former spokesperson for the Coalition Against Summary Execution, and perhaps the only person among the community of human rights activists monitoring the Davao death squads who feels safe enough to speak publicly since Duterte's presidential victory, says he hopes that what Duterte has said was little more than campaign rhetoric.

However, the fear that Duterte strikes into the hearts of criminals in Davao is based on far more than just talk.


In more than a decade of living in Davao, Picardal has brushed up against the death squads repeatedly. In one incident, he recalls a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by gunmen on motorcycles outside his church. The boy had been caught two weeks prior breaking the window of a car parked at the church lot and stealing a few items.

"Whatever you've done, you die," Picardy said. "You steal a cell phone, you die. You push drugs, you die. These are not even heinous crimes. We don't even have capital punishment here."

Picardal also officiated in the burial of a man named Fernando, a sometime petty thief and drug user. Picardal says that by the time Fernando was killed by a death squad, he had already reformed. But they still killed him, more than a year after his crimes, Picardal said.

"Bring a case against them," he said, "don't just kill them."

Related: Beheaded Hostage Triggers Debate Over Whether Governments Should Pay Ransoms

Picardal knows a nun whose brother was killed recently by a death squad in front of his three children.

"She wouldn't even talk to the media because she was so afraid," says Picardal.

Current members of a human rights group that monitors the death squads — the Coalition Against Summary Execution — refuse to speak publicly.

"Because of fear. That's paramount. They are prepared to work silently. They don't want to expose themselves," Picardal says. "Duterte said 'I will kill these criminals in front of human rights activists.' Was it campaign rhetoric? I don't know."

"If you promote vigilante killings, who is going to prevent encouraging citizens from killing criminals?" Picardal says.

Duterte's election seems to inspired others in the Philippines to take crime into their own hands. Tomas Osmeña, mayor-elect of Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines and 500 kilometers and several islands north of Davao, said he is willing to give the police 50,000 pesos or ($1,076) for every drug lord, robber or other criminal killed.

"We expect that this is going to be nationwide," said Picardal. "We don't want what happened in Davao to be forgotten."