One late evening in September of 1988, a colleague and I went on a ride-along with the newly elected mayor of Davao, a 43-year old former prosecutor and vice-mayor named Rodrigo Duterte, to learn about his plans to fix Davao. As we patrolled the streets in his van, his bodyguards kept watch, the muzzles of their rifles peeking out of the vehicle’s windows. Throughout our ride, Duterte offered an invective-laced running commentary about the challenges of maintaining law and order in his rough-and-tumble city. There was a notorious drug dealer, he said, who had been rushed to the local hospital, wounded and bloodied, following a shootout with the police. The drug dealer was still alive, he said. So he went to the hospital and unplugged the life support system. My colleague on the ride-along that night recalled another story: Duterte claimed to have pushed a drug dealer out of a helicopter. I don’t know whether any of his stories, loaded with blood-curdling hyperbole, were true or told merely for dramatic effect. What I do know is that amid the anarchy of Davao in the 1980s, these stories were far from the most chilling that I heard.
In May, Duterte, who would serve as Davao’s mayor for 21 years, was elected president of the Philippines, defeating four other challengers with a promise to purge the country of drug dealers. Already in his first two months in office, police and vigilantes have reportedly gunned down some 2,000 suspected drug dealers, apparently heeding Duterte’s vow during his inauguration that the fight against drugs would be “relentless.” Despite growing criticism from human rights groups in the Philippines and overseas, he has not backed down. “I will not stop until the last pusher on the streets is fully exterminated,” he said on Monday. “I will kill all the drug lords. Make no bones about it.”
To Duterte and his supporters, Davao—once a haven for communist rebels, Muslim secessionists, and assorted criminals, and now one of the Philippines’s safest, most prosperous urban areas—is living testament to this take-no-prisoners approach. Duterte has staked his presidency on the presumption that if Davaeños were willing to pay such a steep price for law and order, most other Filipinos will be as well. You can think of Duterte, then, as the bastard child of Philippine democracy. If he is to be understood at all, it’s as a product of the bloody, messy democratic transition on Mindanao, the country’s conflict-torn southernmost island.
But Duterte’s version of success came with a price. There is a curfew for minors, and a ban on late-night liquor sales. Unlike in the rest of the country, traffic rules and city ordinances are strictly enforced in Davao. More menacingly, human rights groups say that Duterte’s office facilitated the creation of the Davao Death Squad, a group of vigilantes composed of local thugs, former rebels, and ex-soldiers and policemen. Between 1998 and 2015, the death squad allegedly killed over 1,400 petty criminals and street children in Davao.