A Theoretical Evaluation of the Davao Death Squad Prosecutions

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte I Images: Reuters/Jorge Silva.

Perhaps the most controversial among recent events in the southeast tropical of Asia is Rodrigo Duterte’s advocacy of vigilante killings, that is, the supposedly authorized extrajudicial killings of criminals.

According to a research done by the Human Rights Watch, these killings usually begin with the police force identifying and selecting the targets[1]. The authorities would then hire local gangs and arm them with weapons. These hired guns would ride off with vehicles without license plates, and shoot their targets in broad daylight. After the executions, the gunmen would depart with unconcerned interest, confident that the police will take their time before reaching the scene to only perform a perfunctory investigation. Often, civilian witnesses are also too scared to provide any useful evidence. As locals have reported, they fear of becoming the next targets, suspecting that it is the police themselves who have given the green light. These killings have been taking place for the last nearly 20 years. In Davao City alone, where Duterte served as the Mayor, number of executions has risen from two in 1998 to 98 in 2003, to 124 in 2008[2]. As of recent date, this number has already reached 712 since July 1 of 2016[3].

From the outset, it seems that Duterte’s support for the extrajudicial killings have bent the rigidness of the legal process which many has complained about in the developed parts of the world. After all, it is not unusual even in the US that the prosecution of a criminal could take up years and even decades, and sometimes only to have the criminals walk away. But perhaps rigidity is more often the better solution than to let things run out of hand.

For one, the vigilante killings largely rely on the judgement of local authorities, for Duterte himself cannot possibly monitor all those executions, even during his more relaxing days as the mayor. What we are seeing, therefore, is not only a decentralized form of political power, but more importantly, a mixture of the executive and the judiciary department, that is, the police making the judgements and executing those decrees. Ideally, this could work better than to send all criminals to a single court, even if there are many courts throughout the country. This is because, theoretically, the local police could have better knowledge than the judge of the particularities which a crime has taken place, and therefore make better judgements. As the wise Socrates rightfully suggested, justice consists in doing the right things at the right time, and what better reasons do we have to believe that a single judge who does not make much contact with the local surroundings to have better knowledge in these things than the ground police? But the answer this question anticipates is too good to be true.

So far, little has been revealed about the backgrounds of these “death squads”, and it is at least possible to assume that only a handful of them are law-abiding citizens. Above all, one cannot rule out the possibility of corruption within the police force themselves, given the substantial legal authority they have now been attributed, allegedly. If the police can get away with dismissive investigations on their targets, what prevents them from incarcerating those who are innocent with undeserved consequences? Especially when the power to crucify the guilty becomes localized to such levels, what can possibly prevent the Philippines police from “selling justice”?

Secondly, the dismissal of the judicial process in the prosecution of criminals undermines the public image of the police, or broadly speaking, the justice system. At the end of the day, even the boldest criminals would sometimes avoid committing crimes in broad daylight, which is to say that he is just as ordinary as anyone else in a grocery market shopping among a group who does not acknowledge his sins. So when this criminal gets gunned down in public, even if he is the greatest sinister to ever live, some people in the public might see him as just a common citizen akin to themselves. So what must citizens who are ignorant of the crimes of the slain make of the killings and the police force who supported them? The police seem to only have replaced the fear of criminals with the fear of themselves.

One must always be conscious of what the judicial process stands for when complaining about its rigidity. After all, the judicial process exists not only to offer the defendant a chance to proof himself innocent, but more importantly, a convincing reason to pronounce him guilty. This provides clarification to the public that anyone who has been sentenced guilty indeed got what he deserved, even if it will not always be the case. To execute a criminal before an appeal is even made, however, strips every possibility altogether, and therefore making it not only impossible for what might have been an innocent man to appeal justice, but also ruins the state’s transparency.

Lastly, it is not clear whether the vigilante killings are sensitive to the various degrees of injustice, since all who were convicted are already dead. Certainly, every line which has gone astray from the straight are equal in the respect that they are skewed, but their differences in degrees is what a justice system must be extremely careful about. Sure, the strictness of laws could incite a sense of fear, and that fear of laws could make a community safer, but to what extent is security actually characterized by fear instead of reverent assent? Let us not even consider the possibility that the vigilante killings have failed, and instead ask whether it is actually a fear of laws which compels the citizens’ obedience. Do citizens abstain from injustices in fear of the possibilities that they might be prosecuted? Or do they maintain their decencies because doing so is just? It appears that Duterte is a believer of the former, and his critics would beg to differ.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Jeff Wang is a 4th Year student studying Political Science at the University of Toronto.

[1] Anna Neistat and Kay Seok, You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao, Human Rights Watch: April 6, 2009. (https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/04/06/you-can-die-any-time/death-squad-killings-mindanao)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Oliver Holmes, Philippine police anti-drugs operations have killed 712 since July, Senate hears, The Guardian: August 22, 2016. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/22/philippine-police-anti-drugs-operations-have-killed-712-senate-hears)

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