MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – The unsolved murders of hundreds of Tagum City residents were the responsibility of a death squad operating at the behest of the city’s former highest official.
This is according to a 71-page report released Wednesday, May 21, by New York-based organization Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report, titled “One Shot to the Head: Death Squads in Tagum City, Philippines,” accuses former Tagum City Mayor Rey “Chiong” Uy of organizing and financing a group of hired killers linked to the murders of suspected petty thieves, drug dealers and street children.
“Rey Uy called these citizens ‘weeds,’” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He and other city officials and police officers underwrote targeted killings as a perverse form of crime control.”
The report says that since his election as mayor of the southern Mindanao city in 1998, Uy, along with aides and police officers, “hired, equipped, and paid for an operation that at its height consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices.”
Sought for comment, Uy denied the allegations. “This death squad does not exist. The killings in the city have many factors including revenge and business rivalry,” Uy told Rappler.
The report, he added, is a result of a “conspiracy” against him. “These witnesses were paid by certain individuals to make up stories against me,” Uy said.
Watch this report below.
Tagum City is the capital of Davao del Norte. It is known for its agricultural products and huge banana plantations.
Uy’s brother Arturo is the governor of a nearby province, Compostela Valley.
The Human Rights Watch report says that 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.”
Between January 2007 and March 2013, records acquired by Human Rights Watch note at least 298 killings attributed to the Tagum death squad by provincial police.
The report documents the killings of 12 of the victims.
The oldest of the 12 was 62-year-old Robert Onlos, who was driving his Mitsubishi Pajero with his wife sitting in the passenger seat and his 3 daughters in the back.
His wife Rizalina said she heard a pop, and a sharp pain in her head. She turned to her husband in the driver’s seat. His head was bent over the steering wheel, blood spurting out of his neck.
The youngest of the documented victims was Jenny Boy Lagulos, accused of having stolen money and phones from a store at the Trade Center in Tagum City. His body was found 4 days after the theft with 22 stab wounds.
He was 9 years old.
‘They wanted to clean up Tagum’
HRW interviewed 3 former members of the death squad, and secured the affidavit of a fourth.
Romnick Minta, a former member of the death squad, told Human Rights Watch that the mayor himself participated in Minta’s briefing after he was recruited.
“They said they wanted to clean up Tagum, to bring change to Tagum, so that bad elements would think twice in coming in, because they would end up dead in Tagum.”
Minta said members of the squad were not involved in planning the murders. The orders came from the mayor and were disseminated to members through the death squad’s team leaders.
Minta said that “after finishing a job,” they would report to their team leader, who would then message the mayor.
“Then the mayor would reply and say okay.”
The report says that many of the death squad’s members were on the city government payroll. They were provided a monthly salary of P 10,000 and issued identification cards naming them employees of the Civil Security Unit (CSU), a City Hall bureau whose official mandate was the provision of security in public schools and markets, as well as traffic management.
The CSU supplied squad members with motorcycles and weapons. Most of the killings were done in broad daylight. Usually 4 men in a pair of motorcycles were deployed, 6 if there was a chance the victim would defend himself. Deployment decisions were made by team leaders – handlers who were part of the CSU and close to the mayor and his aides.
The squad’s targets were listed in an order of battle (OB), a list of alleged criminals culled from sources that included community leaders, neighborhood watchmen and police intelligence officers. Also included were names of alleged criminals submitted by complainants through a public hotline.
The target would be told, through intermediaries, that staying in Tagum would mean execution. Those who ignored the warnings or chose to return to Tagum were killed.
According to a victim’s relative, Uy himself issued the warning on at least one occasion. Leotinida Cabayacruz claimed in her affidavit that Uy himself told her that her 23-year-old son Jesus was a drug dealer, and called him one of the city’s “weeds.” He said her son was being watched, and advised her to send Jesus out of Tagum “or he would be killed.”
Uy: They’re behind illegal drugs, gambling
Uy however explained that those interviewed by HRW are people “engaged in the illegal drugs and gambling industry” who are hell-bent in preventing him from returning to power in Tagum City.
He said: “They do not want me back in power because they cannot establish their illegal activities if I am in charge of the city. During my time, I did not tolerate these individuals and their activities.”
He said that illegal drugs and gambling dropped significantly during his administration because of his “firm” governance and leadership style.
“But after my administration, these people are back in business. And they are very overt in their operations. Collection of payoffs happens weekly,” Uy said.
Bribe money from drug syndicates and illegal gambling operators goes directly to the barangay captain, chief of police and the aides of city officials, Uy said.
‘If the mayor gives his order, it gets implemented’
In the report, the former death squad members said they were paid P5,000 pesos (US$110) for every killing. The money would be divided among members. Minta said Uy himself paid them personally on at least two instances.
“We enter the red gate of his house,” said Minta, “enter the bodega and turn right to his house to wait for the payment from him.”
The report says that members of the police colluded with the former mayor. Certain police officers would be warned a killing was about to take place, and would in turn make certain no investigation would take place.
A police intelligence officer who had investigated the death squad said in the report that it was impossible to disobey the mayor’s orders, because “his power is higher than the chief of police.”
“So we just kept quiet. We couldn’t arrest them. We couldn’t do anything when they’re in front of us. But we knew what they were doing.”
The report says the police claim that the absence of prosecution is due to a lack of witnesses. In many of the documented cases, however, victims’ relatives and witnesses to the actual killings say that they fear that testifying, or even filing cases, would endanger their lives.
Guns for hire
The report also says that the Tagum Death Squad also worked as guns for hire in operations “that Uy was either unaware of or did not specifically commission.”
The victims included a journalist, a judge, at least two police officers, a tribal leader and a number of local politicians and businessmen.
The report says that the death squad’s leaders fabricated drug allegations against contract kills to justify the murders to Uy
‘Failure to act’
The report notes that the death squad’s killings “have continued but with less frequency” ever since June 2013, when Uy stepped down as mayor.
Human Rights Watch said authorities failed to seriously investigate the majority of the Tagum City killings. The human rights group accused President Benigno Aquino III of having “largely ignored extrajudicial killings by death squads in Tagum City and other urban areas.”
The report also singles out the Department of Justice, the Philippine National Police, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights for their lack of action.
“The Philippine government’s failure to act decisively against death squad killings has certainly contributed to the horrific death toll in Tagum City,“ said HRW’s Kine.
The report calls on the Aquino administration to direct government agencies to thoroughly investigate the killings 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.
“President Aquino needs to send a loud and urgent message that deploying death squads as a ‘crime control’ measure is unlawful and needs to stop.” – Rappler.com