MANILA, Philippines – The Davao Death Squad (DDS) was a very contested issue in the first year of the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.
It, however, has not seemed to erode the support Duterte has been enjoying since he announced his candidacy years ago – like the “unprecedented” number of killings in his anti-illegal drug campaign.
June 28 marked the 5th year since the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) released its resolution recommending that the Office of the Ombudsman investigate the “possible administrative and criminal liability” of Duterte in relation to the numerous killings under his watch as mayor.
This was one of the many efforts to hold someone accountable for at least a thousand deaths in Davao City. In 2016, a few months into his presidency, it was once again put under the spotlight.
Here's a timeline that covers other initiatives, investigations, and hearings done to unmask the notorious Davao Death Squad.
Then Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairperson Leila de Lima announces that the commission will conduct an investigation and public hearings on the notorious Davao Death Squad.
She says the full-blown probe was warranted as killings were “getting alarming”, adding that it is high time for the country’s main human rights institution to emphasize that killing “is wrong, legally and morally, even assuming that these are criminal elements.”
Duterte assured her of cooperation as long as it was “open and transparent,” according to De Lima.
The CHR starts its public hearings on the killings in Davao City.
The first hearing, held at the Royal Mandaya Hotel, features at least 39 respondents – local and national government officials, police officers, and “non-state actors” – who were summoned by the commission.
The first person quizzed by the panel, headed by De Lima, was then Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte. The questioning mainly revolved around the death squad’s existence, what the local government was doing to address the killings, and how it dealt with criminality.
Expectedly, Duterte denies there is a death squad or that his government has a hand in the summary killings. He, however, acknowledges that there were “unexplained, unresolved” killings in Davao City. (READ: The day Duterte faced the Commission on Human Rights)
Human Rights Watch (HRW) releases a report entitled, "You Can Die Anytime: Death squad killings in Mindanao" which features its findings after an investigation into the killings attributable to the Davao Death Squad.
The Office of the Ombudsman suspends 12 police officers from Davao City guilty of simple neglect of duty in relation to the vigilante killings. It recommends penalties ranging from one month suspension to a fine equivalent to a month's salary.
CHR releases a resolution which includes recommendations based on its probe and public hearings in 2009.
The Office of the Ombudsman, according to the commission, should investigate the “possible administrative and criminal liability of Duterte for his inaction in the face of evidence of numerous killings committed in Davao City and his toleration of the commission of those offenses.”
A fact-finding report submitted by the Field Investigation Office to Overall Deputy Ombudsman Arthur Carandang quotes then CHR Region XI Director Alberto Sipaco Jr as saying that his office does not have any proof that the death squad does exist.
The field investigation office also echoes Sipaco's statement that the allegations remain as "chismis (rumor) and other gossips.” This is why the investigation was “closed and terminated.”
The issue of extrajudicial killings in Davao City hounds Duterte as his supporters rally to convince him to run for president in the 2016 elections.
It does not help that he goes back-and-forth about the existence of the Davao Death Squad.
In May 24, 2015, Duterte stresses that his statement, seemingly “confessing” that he was involved in the death squad, was his way of challenging his critics to file charges against him in Davao City. (READ: Duterte: 'Am I the death squad? True’)
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announces that the probe into the death squad was halted since the sole witness had left the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP), making it “difficult to do anything.”
De Lima, meanwhile, says that the witness had asked to leave the program when she stepped down from office in October 2015. The decision was “definitely in reaction to Duterte’s victory.”
Self-confessed hitman Edgar Matobato surfaces before a Senate hearing and insists on the existence of the DDS. He adds that Duterte and his son, Davao Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, were behind some of the killings. (READ: ‘Killed for no reason’: Matobato’s claims on the Davao Death Squad)
Matobato narrates how his group carried out the killings of drug users, petty thieves, and other criminals. Targets eventually became people who had a rift with Duterte or his son Paolo.
The individuals allegedly ordered killed by Duterte include broadcaster Jun Pala, bodyguards of ex-House speaker and then-mayoral candidate Prospero Nograles, a certain Sali Makdum, and Jun Barsabal, among others. (TIMELINE: Witness lists killings allegedly 'ordered by Duterte’)
At least 16 Davao police who were allegedly part of the DDS, as testified to by Matobato, face the Senate committee on justice and human rights. (READ: Davao cop denies Matobato's DDS claims: ‘All lies’)
Senior Police Officer 3 Arthur Lascañas, whom Matobato claimed was Duterte’s “right-hand man”, denies the allegations, adding that if he was really close to the former mayor, his brothers who were involved in illegal drugs would not have died.
Retired police superintendent Dionisio Abud, former head of the Davao City Police’s heinous crimes division, meanwhile, says that the death squad was just “media hype.”
Committee chair Senator Richard Gordon says there is not enough proof that Duterte ordered the killings allegedly attributable to the death squad or that the drug war killings are state-sponsored. He also alleges that there was “really an effort to pin down mayor or President Duterte.”
Matobato, through his lawyer Jude Sabio, files criminal and administrative complaints against the Duterte and his son Paolo, PNP chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa, and 25 DDS members over alleged summary executions.
This move, he says in his complaint, was made to seek "justice" for the alleged victims of the notorious death squad.
Malacañang, however, dismisses it as "nothing but harassment" since Duterte cannot be sued.
In a press conference organized by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), the then already retired Davao policeman says that they were rewarded P20,000 to P100,000 per hit by Duterte.
Lascañas, the cop supposed close to Duterte, also confessed to being involved in the murder of his two brothers who were part of the illegal drug trade – an incident he previously used to support his denial before the Senate. (READ: Which information from Matobato does Lascañas corroborate?)
The Senate confirms it will reopen the probe into the Davao Death Squad after Lascañas’ confessions, which caused a stir among the senators. (READ: The Senate scramble that led to the Lascañas probe)
According to sources, 10 senators voted to reopen the probe, while 7 rejected it. Meanwhile, 5 senators abstained.
Rappler sources say that some senators went to meet with Duterte in Malacañang to “strategize.” This was also exposed to the media by Trillanes and De Lima the following day. Senator Tito Sotto, however, says that the meeting was scheduled and requested prior to the confession of the veteran Davao cop.
He says he “feared for the life” of his family as he was specifically ordered by SPO4 Sonny Buenaventura, alleged Duterte’s longtime aide, to deny every accusation made by Matobato.
Wanting to clear his conscience, Lascañas also says his confession was driven by his “desire to tell all the truth.” He adds, “That’s the reason I approached the church people...Because of my sincerity… for the sake of truth.”
Senate public order committee chair Panfilo Lacson, however, says that Lascañas’ confession is not enough proof against then mayor Duterte’s role in the death squad killings, adding that he has grown “averse” to flip-flopping statements of witnesses.
The hearing only lasted a day before the Senate terminated once again its probe. The information the retired Davao policeman presented, according to Lacson, will be “filed and noted.”
The Commission on Human Rights confirms to Rappler that it has formed a new team to investigate killings allegedly carried out by the Davao Death Squad.
This move comes after Lascañas again faced the Senate to detail murder allegations against Duterte.
Jude Sabio, Matobato’s lawyer, officially files a 78-page complaint against Duterte before the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the alleged “mass murder” in the country.
There is "direct proof beyond reasonable doubt" that Duterte's so-called "best practice" of killing suspected criminals in Davao City spilled over in his Philippine-wide war on drugs, according to the complaint.
Malacañang, meanwhile, hits the ICC complaint as a tool intended merely to “embarrass and shame" Duterte while undermining the Philippine government.
The Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs says that the Davao Death Squad does not exist.
In its report released more than two months after Lascañas faced the Senate for the second time, the committee points out that he failed to show any other proof besides his claims.
It added that his second testimony “is flooded with loopholes and uncertainty on material facts. Apart from the lack of corroborating evidence, his testimony was easily negated and destroyed by established facts, legal presumptions, and resolutions of government agencies concerned.”
It also recommended an increase in the penalty for those who commit perjury. Lascañas’ testimony, the committee says, “only highlights the fact that there are individuals who have the audacity to spread falsity before the august body.” – Rappler.com
Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.