From DDS ‘denier’ to whistle-blower: Why Lascañas changed tune

Bea Cupin

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From DDS ‘denier’ to whistle-blower: Why Lascañas changed tune

Senators grill the self-confessed Davao Death Squad hitman over his decision to recant an earlier claim before the Senate

MANILA, Philippines – In the same session hall where he denied the existence of the Davao Death Squad (DDS), his supposed involvement in it, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s alleged orders to kill crime suspects and personal foes, Arturo “Arthur” Lascañas on Monday, March 6, claimed all these to be true as he became the second self-confessed hitman to make such admission official on Senate records.

Lascañas’ 180-degree turnaround did not sit well with many senators, who repeatedly questioned the motives behind his transformation from one of the many Davaoeños who deny the existence of the infamous DDS into a whistle-blower.

Lascañas, who retired from the police force in December 2016, served in the Davao City Police Office practically his entire career. In a press conference two weeks ago and in an affidavit leaked to media, Lascañas claimed to have been among the founding members of the hit squad.

He was proud, at first, to be part of Duterte’s efforts to rid Davao City of crime. Duterte was Davao city mayor for over two decades before he was elected to the highest post in the land.

Later on, Lascañas claimed he soon realized that the “DDS” was being used to target political and personal enemies for a price. The group eventually turned to contract killing.

The turning point, said the retired policeman, was when he had to undergo dialysis. Surrounded by “zombies” – his co-patients – Lascañas began to feel the full brunt of his past sins.

Is the former cop in search of salvation or part of a “plot” against the current administration, as its allies have suggested?

Why he lied

Lascañas first appeared before the Senate on October 3, 2016, during a different Senate committee’s probe into allegations of extrajudicial killings by police in the name of Duterte’s war on drugs. The probe eventually spilled over to the alleged existence of the DDS.

“I would like to ask for apology and understanding,” Lascañas began his second testimony before the Senate. He said as much when he was confronted by Senator Joel Villanueva, who had interrogated him the first time he appeared.

Villanueva seemed personally miffed by Lascañas’ flip-flopping, asking the retired cop to look him in the eye as he answered the senator’s questions. Lascañas apologized during Villanueva’s turn to ask questions and even apologized to the neophyte senator himself.

Lascañas, repeating assertions he made in his affidavit, said he feared for his own life and the safety of his loved ones.

DDS WHISTLEBLOWER. Retired police SPO3 Arthur Lascanas with FLAG lawyers Pablito and Arno Sanidad during a hearing of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs on March 6, 2017 on the existence of the Davao Death Squad. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

He also said that just as Edgar Matobato, the first self-confessed DDS hitman to go public, made allegations against Duterte, Lascañas said he was approached by a certain “Superintendent Clavera” who told him and other alleged DDS members not to attend the hearing.

Later on, Sonny Buenaventura, an alleged member of the DDS and Duterte’s supposed aide, told Lascañas that if he was “forced” to face a probe into the death squad, he would have to “deny everything.”

“The reason why I made my public confession last week [was] because of my desire to tell all the truth, not only in pursuit of my spiritual renewal and fear of God and I wanted to clear my conscience,” said the 56-year-old.

Lascañas’ family has since been kept safe, the cop said, while refusing to go into detail. 

‘Spiritual renewal’

Lascañas’ change of heart or his “spiritual renewal,” as he called it, began in 2015, months before Duterte made a final decision to run for president.

While he was undergoing dialysis in Davao City, Lascañas had an epiphany and began to feel remorse for the 200 or so people he had killed as a supposed DDS member.

Senators, however, questioned why Lascañas had a “spiritual renewal” in mid-2015, only to lie before the Senate in October 2016.

SPIRITUAL RENEWAL. Senator Manny Pacquiao during the Monday hearing. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Alam mo ba ‘yang spiritual renewal? Naintindihan mo ba yan (Do you know what spiritual renewal is? Do you understand what it is?)” neophyte Senator Manny Pacquiao, known for peppering his arguments with passages from the Bible, asked Lascañas.

The former policeman said his kidney problem and a vision of a “child-like image” saving him from the devil convinced him that it was about time he told the truth about the death squad.

For a good part of the hearing, lawmakers debated and lectured Lascañas on details of his “spiritual renewal.”

At one point, chief Duterte critic Senator Antonio Trillanes IV had to step in and clarify that the “spiritual renewal” referred to Lascañas’ decision to spill the beans about the DDS, and had nothing to do with his subsequent decision to lie before the Senate, supposedly because he feared for his life.

Whatever the exact definition of a “spiritual renewal” is, at least one thing is clear: It took a while for Lascañas to act on that realization.

He sought refuge and expressed willingness to expose what he knew only after he retired from the police service in December 2016.

“That’s the reason I approached the church people. Because of my sincerity…or the sake of truth,” he said, while refusing to specify who these “church people” were.

It was only in February 2017 that Lascañas first found legal counsel through the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG). It was the FLAG lawyers who flanked him when he first recanted his earlier statements at a press conference.

Another key personality who was beside Lascañas when he switched sides was Trillanes. Lascañas said it was he who sought Trillanes’ help sometime in “February or January” 2017.

The press conference, which was hastily organized by Trillanes, happened the same week another top Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, would be put in jail for allegedly violating the country’s drug laws.

No political backers?

Another question lawmakers repeatedly asked Lascañas was whether any member of the Senate approached him in the lead-up to his exposé. Both Angara and Pacquiao asked Lascañas as much.

The former cop would say over and over that it was he who approached Trillanes, and not the other way around. Responding to Angara’s questions, Lascañas said no other politician – or politician’s staff – approached him in the past.

DUTERTE CRITIC. While other senators insinuate the involvement of their other colleagues, Lascañas insists it was only Trillanes that he approached. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Lascañas said the same during Pacquiao’s interpellation in Bisaya. “Ako’y niduol kay (It was I who approached) Senator Trillanes,” said Lascañas.

Pacquiao was decidedly less subtle in his questions, asking Lascañas outright if he was merely being used against Duterte. Lascañas answered in the negative. 

Senator JV Ejercito, son of ousted president Erap Estrada, noted that Lascañas’ lawyers were the same private prosecutors at the impeachment trial of his father in 2000.

Ejercito hinted that Pablito and Arno Sanidad, two of Lascañas’ lawyers, were part of a “plot” to destabilize his father’s administration then.

“We are here for the truth. We don’t want the Senate to be used for any destabilization plot. This has happened before. Sa ngayon, masasabi ‘nyo bang hindi rin kayo kasama (This time, can you say you are not part of a plot again)?” Ejercito asked Sanidad.

Duterte’s allies, including several senators, have alleged that Lascañas is part of a bid to destabilize the current administration.

Arno Sanidad had a brief reply. “We are here as lawyers,” he said.

Lascañas’ appearance, coupled with the issuance of an arrest warrant against De Lima, had caused turmoil in the Senate, which is ruled by a PDP-Laban-led “supermajority.”

The vote to allow Lascañas a chance to speak before the Senate triggered a realignment of that “supermajority” and the removal of key committee chairmanships from members and an ally of the once-ruling Liberal Party. (READ: The Senate scramble that led to the Lascañas probe)

The 10 senators who favored Lascañas’ testimony before the Senate include Trillanes, De Lima, Risa Hontiveros, Francis Escudero, Ralph Recto, Joel Villanueva, Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, Francis Pangilinan, Franklin Drilon, and Angara.

Of those, only De Lima (who is in jail), Escudero, Recto, and Drilon did not take the chance to interpellate Lascañas.

Senators who were against the testimony were Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, Senators Richard Gordon, Pacquiao, Sherwin Gatchalian, Gregorio Honasan II, Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Cynthia Villar. Only Pacquiao asked questions during the hearing.

Senators Tito Sotto, Panfilo Lacson, Nancy Binay, Loren Legarda, and Ejercito abstained from the vote. Binay and Legarda opted not to interpellate Lascañas.

Duterte’s staunchest ally in the Senate, his 2016 running mate Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, was absent during the vote but showed up during the Monday hearing, mostly to debunk many of Lascañas’ claims and to point out inconsistencies in his testimony.

Senator Grace Poe was also absent during that Senate caucus but had earlier expressed openness to hearing Lascañas’ claims. She was present during the Monday hearing. 

The almost 6-hour hearing, however, may have proved futile since Lacson, who chairs the committee that led the probe, said it would be the first and last to feature the self-confessed hitman. – 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.