Investigate Role of Tagum City Officials, Police in a Decade of Murders
Human Rights Watch REPORT: "One Shot to the Head"
Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines
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The 71-page report,
Since 1998, when he was first elected Tagum City’s mayor, Rey Uy, along with close aides and city police officers, hired, equipped, and paid for an operation that at its height consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices. Many were on the city government payroll with the Civil Security Unit, a City Hall bureau tasked with traffic management and providing security in markets and schools.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than three dozen people, including surviving victims and their families, witnesses to killings, police officers, and former death squad members. The former death squad members described how those who refused to carry out orders, sought to quit, or otherwise fell into disfavor were themselves likely to become death squad victims.
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The 12 killings Human Rights Watch documented typically occurred outdoors, on the streets, and often in broad daylight. The hit men, wearing baseball caps and sunglasses and armed with .45 caliber handguns, would arrive and depart on government-issued motorcycles. Former death squad members told Human Rights Watch that they would routinely inform local police via text message of an impending targeted killing, so the police would not interfere. After the killing, the police in turn would notify them if any witnesses had identified them.
Those targeted were primarily people that Mayor Uy had declared to be the “weeds” of Tagum society, namely suspected petty criminals and drug dealers, as well as street children. The death squad drew its targets from the “order of battle” or OB, a list of names coming from various sources, including local community leaders, neighborhood watchmen, and police intelligence officers. Names of drug suspects were provided by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
The Tagum Death Squad also apparently carried out “guns-for-hire” operations that Uy was either unaware of or did not specifically commission, such as the killing of a journalist, a judge, at least two police officers, and a tribal leader as well as local politicians and businessmen. In several cases, the death squad’s handlers would fabricate drug allegations against the target of a contract killing to justify to Uy their murder.
Former Tagum Death Squad members told Human Rights Watch that the unit was paid 5,000 pesos (US$110) for every killing, which the members would divide among themselves. They said that on at least two occasions, Uy personally paid the death squad members for two killings. A former hit man who was himself attacked by his former colleagues surrendered to the Davao del Norte provincial police and later agreed to testify in a case filed against Uy and others. Targeted killings have continued but with less frequency since Uy stepped down as mayor in June 2013.
The Tagum Death Squad was initially a crime-fighting group patterned after the death squad in nearby Davao City, which propelled that city’s mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, to national fame. In February 2011, Uy issued an explicit warning to “criminal” elements in the city advising them to “go somewhere else.” A senior official of the governmental Commission on Human Rights described these murders as “silent killings” because they were hardly ever reported in the media.
Local and national authorities have failed to seriously investigate the vast majority of Tagum City’s killings, Human Rights Watch said. While police routinely cite a lack of witnesses to explain the absence of prosecutions, victims’ relatives and witnesses say they fear testifying, largely due to the perceived links of the death squad to local officials.
On April 28, 2014, the media reported that the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation had recommended the prosecution of four security guards employed by the Tagum City government for their alleged role in the abduction, torture, and murder of two teenage boys in February 2014. The current Tagum City mayor, Allan Rellon, reportedly told the media that he was “bewildered” by the allegations, saying that, “As a local chief executive, I abhor any form of summary killing.”
President Benigno Aquino III has largely ignored extrajudicial killings by death squads in Tagum City and other urban areas. He has failed to condemn local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage the unauthorized use of force to rid city streets of “undesirables.” A much-vaunted initiative by the administration to address impunity – the creation in 2012 of a so-called “superbody” to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases of extrajudicial killings – has remained largely inactive even as new cases were reported by Philippine human rights groups.
[caption id="attachment_79270" align="alignleft" width="300"] Police officers at the crime scene of the murder of Rogelio Butalid, a broadcast commentator, outside his radio station in Tagum City, in the southern Philippines on December 11, 2013. A witness told Human Rights Watch that a Tagum Death Squad member shot Butalid at point-blank range.[/caption]
Other national institutions responsible for law and order, namely the Department of Justice, the Philippine National Police, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights have largely been inactive in combatting death squads.
Human Rights Watch has previously published a103-page report, “You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,” on a ‘death squad’ active in Davao City and the government’s failure to investigate the involvement of police and local government officials in targeted killings.
Human Rights Watch called on the Aquino administration to direct the responsible government agencies to take measures to stop the killings in Tagum City and elsewhere, thoroughly investigate death squad killings and the death squads themselves, and bring justice to the victims’ families. Immediate attention should be given to the situation in Tagum City and the role of former and current government officials and members of the police in abuses.
“The asset [hit man] arrived at around 5 p.m. and stayed by the billiards table.… I had no idea that they were planning to kill [Jerome]. When Jerome came out after his nap, the asset left because somebody called him [from outside].… Two men then appeared at about 6 p.m. But we learned afterward [from other witnesses] that they were already casing the place as early as 4 p.m. When Jerome took his nap, [the assailants] were already here….They shot him first from behind; he didn’t see them. He turned around and the other killer shot him, too, hitting him in the armpit. He was shot four times in the body. They took turns shooting him.” – “Toto,” pseudonym of a teenager in Tagum City whose friends (among them Jerome, killed in September 2011) were murdered by the Tagum Death Squad, September 2011.