In the Philippines, the life expectancy of mayors and their deputies can be very short. A recent spate of public assassinations of local officials in broad daylight brought the spotlight back on political killings in the country, now dubbed the “murder capital of Asia” by opposition senator Antonio Trillanes.
Five local officials were shot to death in six days, from 2 to 7 July, in a mix of political and drug war-related killings. President Rodrigo Duterte declared a war against drugs shortly after his 2016 election. He urged the public to kill suspected drug traffickers, dealers and addicts and even vowed to protect the police from prosecution for killing drug suspects.
“Political killings have always occurred in the Philippines,” said Carlo Conde from Human Rights Watch (HRW). The difference now is President Duterte’s encouragement of the violence. He openly supports, advocates and even instigates these killings.”
Climate of fear
The killings create a climate of fear among public officials. “This makes it easy for them to be manipulated and it ultimately undermines our democracy,” he explained.
Duterte recently joked that vice mayors should replace their mayors by kidnapping or hexing them. “The earlier you do away with your mayor, the earlier you become the mayor also,” he said.
Four days later on 2 July, Tanauan City mayor, Antonio Halili was shot in the chest by a sniper during a weekly flag-raising ceremony in front of city hall.
In the run-up to the 2016 elections, over 30 people were killed. This year’s election of village officials saw 33 deaths, 22 of which were candidates. The country will elect its senate and house of representatives next May.
The government decided to publicise 207 names to name-and-shame officials who may be running for office. The so-called narco-list first appeared when Duterte publicly accused 158 officials of involvement in narcotics. To date, 15 mayors and vice mayors have been killed by either the authorities or unknown gunmen. Four of them, including Halili, were on the narco-list.
Halili gained notoriety when he paraded a group of drug suspects in 2016 but Duterte dismissed it as a ploy to divert suspicion from his own drug involvement and he was stripped of his supervisory powers over the local police.
Conde said there is no evidence that Duterte had a direct hand in any of the killings as part of a specific campaign. “However, the fact that many local executives are being killed one after the other certainly raises suspicion. He accused some officials of having links with drugs without due process. Then they end up dead. A coincidence? Perhaps not,” he said.
As of 30 April 2018, 4,251 “drug personalities” have been killed and 142,069 others arrested, said the Philippines National Police (PNP). PNP director general, Oscar Albayalde said 504 of those arrested were government employees, including 217 elected officials.
Sources: Various sources
Senator Trillanes claimed the death toll to be over 20,000 but the authorities insisted those figures include killings that are unrelated to the drug war, such as vigilante killings and turf wars. “Duterte’s culture of violence is upon us. No one is safe now,” said Trillanes in a statement.
“For someone who promised to restore peace and order in our country during the campaign, it is ironic for a lot of people that Duterte has actually turned the Philippines into the murder capital of Asia,” he said.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) director general, Aaron Aquino revealed that the number of “narco-politicians” have increased from 83 to 96, whose involvement in illegal drugs has been “verified” and most of whom are city mayors. Mindful of the recent killings, he is not revealing their names.
The war on drugs may be providing cover for other motives. Rolando Espinosa Sr. evaded a “shoot on sight” deadline by surrendering to the police. While awaiting trial, he was shot for apparently resisting officers who went to search his jail cell. Espinosa was allegedly guaranteed safety in return for signing an affidavit implicating 226 police officers, government officials and media workers to the drug trade. Senator Leila de Lima, who was leading an investigation against Duterte’s drug war, was named and subsequently jailed on drug-related charges.
Bien Unido, Bohol’s mayor Gisela Bendon-Boniel was believed to have been abducted and killed by her husband over marital issues. Her remains have yet to be found.
General Tinio’s mayor Ferdinand Bote and Trece Martires’ vice mayor Alex Lubigan have no known connection to the drug trade. PNP chief Albayalde said the authorities were looking into possible motives for the killings but noted that it was a well-established fact that deadly attacks against elected officials spike “before, during and after the elections.”
Other government critics were also attacked. In June, prosecutor Madonna Joy Tanyag was stabbed to death and Dennis Denora, publisher of Trends and Times, was shot and left for dead.
The Catholic church, often critical of Duterte and the extra-judicial killings have also drawn the president’s ire in return, finding itself in the cross-hairs of assassins.
Fr. Marcelito Paez was killed in Nueva Ecija on 4 December 2017 after aiding the release of a political prisoner. Fr. Mark Ventura was shot in Cagayan on 29 April. He was a champion for ethnic minorities and against mining. Fr. Richmond Nilo was killed on 10 June as he prepared to celebrate Sunday Mass in Zaragoza. A fourth priest, Fr. Rey Urmeneta survived a shooting by unidentified suspects.
Local human rights group Karapatan condemned the attacks as “clear signs of a thriving climate of impunity in the Philippines.”
Senator Kiko Pangilinan, president of the Liberal Party, questioned if the recent spate of killings is an orchestrated event. “Are these deliberate and orchestrated attempts at creating an atmosphere of lawlessness to justify strongman rule?” Pangilinan asked.
This article was first published by The ASEAN Post on 3 October 2018 and has been updated to reflect the latest data.