“Throw them in the ocean or the quarry. Make it clean. Make sure there are no traces of the bodies.”
The words are shocking. That they allegedly came from the man who is now president of the Philippines makes them explosive. It is claimed that Rodrigo Duterte gave the orders to his first death squad in Davao, in the southern island of Mindanao, in 1989 when he was ‘“mayor Rudy”.
Arturo Lascanas, a retired police officer, made the accusations of Duterte’s campaign of extrajudicial killings under oath to the country’s senate last month, and he repeats them to the Observer with an air of uneasy calm, with the resolve of a man who has carried these secrets for decades. “We were the first hit squad during his reign,” claims Lascanas, from the safe house in Manila where he is hiding from his own president.
Inside the house, with curtains drawn and the military men guarding the door, there is a sense the ordeal could turn ugly at any moment, that Lascanas expects to die for what he has divulged.
After more than 20 years as mayor of Davao, Duterte won the presidential election last May with promises to rid the country of drugs and crime, to kill every drug dealer and user, and to feed their corpses to the fish in Manila Bay.
On the back of his claims of having established law and order in Davao, Duterte, 72, was seen as a strong man, a savior and an antidote to the “narco” state the Philippines had apparently spiraled into.
But behind the bluster the statistics don’t lie: Davao still has the highest murder rate in the country and the second highest number of rapes, according to national police data for 2010-15. Yet the drug threat has become so deeply entrenched in the Philippine psyche that the normalization of the mass murder of traffickers and dealers appears to be setting in.