Dissecting and weighing Duterte’s anti-crime strategy

Pia Ranada

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Dissecting and weighing Duterte’s anti-crime strategy
Duterte's anti-crime platform mirrors the strategy he employed in Davao City. Will it work on a national scale?

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – One night, former press secretary Jesus Dureza was driving home late in this city. As he eased his car to a stop at the traffic light, a taxi drove up beside him. 

The taxi driver rolled down his window.

“Pards,” said the taxi driver. It was no ordinary driver. It was Rodrigo Duterte, the city mayor.

Anong ginagawa mo diyan, nagda-drive ka ng taxi?” said a flabbergasted Dureza. 

Duterte said he had heard from taxi drivers that they were recently being victimized by hold-up gangs in the dead of night.

Gusto ko ako ‘yung ma-holdup eh, kasi gusto ko ako ‘yung personally titira sa kanila eh,” the mayor had supposedly told Dureza, his friend since their high school days at the Holy Cross Academy of Digos. (I want to be the victim of a hold-up so I can personally deal with them.) 

This is the image of the crime-fighting Duterte that many people, especially Davaoeños, have come to love. He is proclaimed a man of the people, so involved in their concerns that he puts himself in the shoes of victims. 

Many have described him as a “hands-on” leader, especially when it comes to his supposed specialty, peace and order.

It is this experience that Duterte proposes to use on a national scale, should destiny grant him the presidency this May.

No wonder his most famous campaign promise is to “suppress” crime in 3 to 6 months. Yet he has been very sparse in his explanations about how he’ll actually pull this off.

But a closer look at his proposals shows a similarity to the strategy he employed in Davao City, starting in 1988 when he first became mayor. 

The question is, will his local strategy work on a national scale? Is his approach comprehensive enough to address not only street crime, but blue-collar crime like cybercrime and money laundering as well? (READ: The promise of busting crime and why it’s old news)

Rappler interviewed close associates, police, military, crime experts, Davao City local journalists, and political science experts to understand Duterte’s crime-fighting strategy and the challenges it faces.

Part 1 of strategy: Incentives for military, police

“I will double the salaries of the military and police,” Duterte was often heard saying during public rallies, to the cheers of the crowd.

This was the first step in his anti-crime plan that he spoke about openly. Duterte believes the salary increase is the best way to stop corruption among the ranks of law enforcers. Given the low pay, especially for the lower officers, they are easily bribed or intimidated by powerful crime syndicates.

NEW RECRUITS. Officers-in-training get briefed by police officers of the San Pedro police station in Davao City. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler


It’s similar to what he did in Davao City.

Retired police general Rodolfo “Boogie” Mendoza Jr, who was a lieutenant assigned in Davao in the 1970s to 1990s, remembers Duterte’s “Bulad, Bugas” program of giving dried fish and rice to military and police as a form of assistance or reward to them. 

It was in the early 1990s that Task Force Davao, a joint military and police effort, was formed specifically to crack down on crime.  

The city government, under Duterte, allotted P1.5 million a month from its Peace and Order Fund for members of the task force. 

“PNP are given allowance. The PNP in Davao City receive rice and P1,000 a month. If a family member gets sick, hospitalization is automatic. If you tell the mayor about the hospital bills, the mayor will really help you,” said Police Chief Inspector Ronald Lao, station commander of the San Pedro police station. 

To this day, Davao City police receive such “incentives” from the city government.

Mendoza called it patronage, adding that the mayor was generous to police and military officers to the extent that they eventually became more loyal to him than to the institutions they belonged to. “He has his own chain of command,” Mendoza told Rappler.

The Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessments (SOCTA) 2014, a study on anti-crime efforts by Philippine government agencies, listed the provision of “decent and reasonable compensation packages” to government employees as a recommendation to reduce corruption. 

But members of the law enforcement community have a more specific suggestion: to increase only the salaries of “front-line” officers.

“It should be done for those who do legwork, like Police Officer 1 (PO1) or Customs officials in the ports. The office-based officers already have a big salary. The problem is the big gap between them and the front-line staff,” said one of those involved in writing the SOCTA 2014. 

Part 2 of strategy: Marking targets 

Hindi ko masabi sa inyo kung bakit (I can’t tell you why), but I need two divisions in the army, ranger-trained,” Duterte said last April 14.

He said that once he has “positioned” them, he will launch a crackdown on drug and criminal syndicates.

A member of an anti-organized crime coordinating body explained that rangers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines are typically trained for high-land terrain anti-insurgency operations.

Perhaps Duterte, in proposing this strategy, recognized the so-called terrorism and drug trade nexus observed by law enforcement in which members of the Abu Sayyaf are known to fund their operations with drug money. 

But Fr Amado Picardal, who led the Case Against Summary Executions (CASE) during many of Duterte’s mayorships, is worried that this “ranger-trained” division could just be the Davao Death Squad on steroids. 

Though the link between Duterte has so far been based only on hearsay and his own boasts of killing criminals, Picardal is convinced the mayor is behind it all.

Picardal was based in Davao City from 1977 to 1981 and from 1995 to 2011. He was among the main sources of Human Rights Watch in their widely quoted report on extrajudicial killings.

VICTIMS OF VIGILANTEISM. Family members of boys allegedly slain by vigilante groups in Davao City hold of photos of their dead. Photo from Human Rights Watch

One link between Duterte and the DDS, said Picardal, is the list of criminals he reads out during his weekend show, “Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa.” 

That list, he said, comes from reports from barangay captains who are required to keep abreast of who the drug criminals and “troublesome” people are in their area.

“Every barangay has to submit a list of who are the notorious ones. I met some barangay leaders who said, ‘We have to submit the names of who are the troublesome ones,’” said Picardal.

Vic Sumalinog, a Davao City journalist since 1986, said he has never seen such a list in his years covering the crime beat. But he said the police always seemed to know who the drug pushers are in a certain area.

“There was a police operation known as ‘tuktok.’ The police know which houses had known pushers. The police would go there and knock on the door. [The pushers] would be told, ‘Stop what you’re doing because many lives are getting destroyed in Davao,’” said Sumalinog.

Two or three weeks after Duterte announced names of the criminals, they would be found dead, said Picardal. 

“He says ‘1,000 dead bodies will become 100,000,’ it’s not hyperbole,” said Picardal.

“Because the only way for him to fight crime in this short period is to do it extralegally…That is why the only way is a shortcut. And how do you take a shortcut? It’s to multiply your death squads,” said Picardal.

The priest said CASE has tallied a total of 1,424 murders by death squads in Davao City from 1998 to 2015. But he said that the 2013 tally included deaths during police raids.

But Sumalinog downplayed the Duterte connection. He said it’s possible that some of these extrajudicial killings could have been ordered by rival drug syndicates and not Duterte.

“You have to remember that there are many players in illegal drugs. They are competition. Of course, you will kill your competition if they try to infiltrate your territory,” he said.

These syndicates could have easily copied the “DDS style” of killing (stabbing or gun shot by men on motorcycles) so it would be attributed to the so-called DDS.

But direct connection or none, Duterte could not have been in the dark and could have done more about the vigilanteism, said Ateneo de Davao political science department head Ramon Beleno.

“It cannot happen without the knowledge of the mayor. It cannot happen, you are mayor and you control the policies in your area, yet you cannot control extrajudicial killings,” said Beleno.

Part 3 of strategy: Tactical alliances

If there’s one thing Duterte is good at, it’s making deals.

He employed this skill in achieving his number one priority in his first years as mayor: freeing Davao City from armed struggle.

Knowing that the violence mostly emanated from clashes between communist rebels and government forces, Duterte made a tactical alliance with Leftist groups. 

'LEFTIST.' Rodrigo Duterte poses in front of an NPA camp in Compostela Valley. Photo by Karlos Manlupig

Mendoza, whose job was to spy on the communist movement in the late 70s to 90s, described Duterte then as a “strategic ally of the National Democratic Front,” the communist group led by Luis Jalandoni and Jose Ma Sison.

This made the city off-limits to the rebels, but not its neighbors, according to Mendoza. He noted that the other provinces in Davao Region remain to be NPA strongholds and asked how Duterte as president would then deal with the situation.

Duterte has created a state of equilibrium but not exactly of peace.

– Tina Cuyugan, development consultant


Indeed, such an “alliance” has been, for the most part, effective in bringing peace and order to Davao City. The guerrillas are no longer wreaking havoc there, allowing businesses to flourish, yet, as a International Crisis Group report shows, they are still allowed to operate in parts of Davao.

“Duterte…in effect grants the guerrillas permission to operate in certain areas of the city. He also ensures leftist activists are safe from extrajudicial killings,” reads the report.

Duterte’s friendship with the Left has no doubt irked many in the military who have seen comrades fall in the hands of these “enemies of the state.”

The mayor has stoked this fear with pronouncements of declaring a “revolutionary government” and beginning “a revolution from the center,” pronouncements he often makes at NPA camps. 

The same tactical alliance he used to create a fortress of peace in Davao City (because the rest of Mindanao is not as safe from NPAs) seems to be his strategy in tackling the nationwide communist threat. Problem is, the Philippines is no fortress. 

“He could save Davao City by keeping the NPA rebels somewhere else. On the national level, where do you put them?” asked Tina Cuyugan, a development consultant who worked from Davao City from 1999 to 2012.

The deals Duterte struck brought about a “state of equilibrium but not exactly of peace,” Cuyugan weighed in. 

She criticized the “equilibrium” as practical yet temporary, the type achieved through “warlord politics.” 

It’s a technique used for highly unstable situations but gives no assurance of bringing about lasting peace.

Duterte has proven he can talk to the NPA, having already suggested a “ceasefire” to exiled communist leader Joma Sison.

But he is yet to explain how he can address their deep-seated concerns and balance them with those of the rest of society who are not exactly in a love affair with the Left.

Stones left unturned

Duterte’s anti-crime game plan addresses key aspects in law enforcement but is far from being comprehensive. Either he has chosen to keep other parts of his plan to himself for now, or he is yet to be briefed on other crimes requiring very different solutions. 

For cybercrime for example, the SOCTA 2014 cited the need for better-trained NBI and police officers, and even for judges and prosecutors to understand the elements of a cybercrime.

CCTV SYSTEM. This CCTV system monitors traffic in Davao City, another (not shown) monitors crucial areas like sea ports, airports, and crowded parts of the metro. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

For drugs, Duterte is yet to address the demand side of the equation. One of the SOCTA recommendations is the intensification of anti-drug campaigns in schools.

Fighting crimes like corruption requires not only a Freedom of Information law (which Duterte says he supports) but also a comprehensive whistle-blower protection law and the strengthening and broadening of powers of the Office of the Ombudsman, which according to the SOCTA, is “long overdue.”

To combat money laundering, law enforcement agencies have cited the need for more equipment like analytical software and more investigative personnel under the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

And how about the increasingly transnational nature of all crimes? Philippine government agencies will need to strengthen coordination not only among themselves but with other organizations all over the world.

Duterte’s plan of nationalizing Davao City’s world-class Central 911 emergency response center is a promising one. His comprehensive CCTV system, if implemented across national anti-crime agencies, could deal a blow against smuggling, drugs, terrorism, carnapping, and theft.

Above all, hiring brilliant and honest people to lead these agencies will get the ball rolling. So far, Duterte has not named his PNP chief.

But Duterte has achieved one thing already: he has set very high expectations which he will be pressed to meet. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.