May 21, 2014 · Posted in: 2013 Elections, Access to Information, Civil Society, Free Expression - Asia, Freedom of Information, General, Governance, Human Rights, In the News, Local Government, Peace and Conflict
by Cong B. Corrales
and Julius D. Mariveles
A FORMER CITY MAYOR and member of the ruling Liberal Party allegedly placed members of a vigilante-type death squad under the city’s payroll during his term in a brazen show of impunity and a reflection of “the abject failure of the central government,” according to a report released by an international human rights group on Wednesday.
In a press conference in Manila, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented its 71-page report entitled One Shot to the Head: Death Squad Killing in Tagum City, Philippines where it linked the former city mayor of Tagum and other local government and police officers in almost 300 murders in the city since 2007.
HRW said the Aquino administration must “take decisive action” in connection with the “death squad killings” in Tagum City that have already drawn the attention of provincial officials, the Commission on Human Rights, and even the Office of the Ombudsman. Tagum is a city in Davao del Norte province in Mindanao, not far from Davao City where HRW also earlier reported the existence of another vigilante-type group, the Davao Death Squad.
The HRW report offers details on the alleged involvement of former Tagum Mayor Rey Uy and other officials in the extrajudicial killings in the city. Uy, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, served as city mayor of Tagum for three terms until 2013. HRW says it has witnesses, including former death squad members, who said they personally received money from Uy as payment for some of the murders.
Most of the victims of these vigilante-type killings were supposedly alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children – whom Uy was reported to have branded as “weeds” that needed to be cleaned up, according to HRW’s witnesses. However, HRW said in its report that the members of the death squad also served as contract or hired killers.
Phelim Kine, deputy director for Asia of HRW said the report is based as well on official police records they obtained that showed some 298 killings between January 2007 and March 2013 which the provincial police office itself attributed to the “Tagum Death Squad.”
“(This report is borne) out of a two-year thorough research,” said Kine.
For the report, the HRW interviewed more than three dozen people. The subjects include surviving victims and their relatives, witnesses to the killings, police officers and four self-confessed former death squad members.
Interviews provided by Human Rights Watch. Identities of some have been hidden for security reasons.
Romnick Minta, one of four men who claimed to have acted as hitmen, made a videotaped confession to HRW. In his taped confession made available by HRW to the media, Minta made several controversial claims. These include the charge that several death squad members were integrated into the city’s Civil Security Unit, a security unit under the direct supervision and control of the Mayor’s office, and drew regular pay as city hall employees aside from additional pay of PhP 5,000 for every hit they made.
Minta added that they received orders for a hit through an aide of Mayor Uy. However, Minta said that the death squad members themselves would go to the Mayor’s residence to personally collect their payment for the hit from the Mayor himself.
Minta also told HRW that hit squad members who refused to carry out orders or tried to quit the squad were themselves likely to become subject to assassinations as well.
“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 in the video.
“[The police] fully knew beforehand of the execution of such killing and that in every summary killing investigation they always appeared at the scene of the killing to see if we are positively identified by witnesses or not,” added Minta.
Minta is reportedly now under the protection of the provincial police office of Davao del Norte. Other than that, it is not clear what Minta’s status is, or if he has talked to any government prosecutors or anyone from the Department of Justice. It is also not clear if Minta is in any way considered a candidate for witness protection.
In a telephone interview with the PCIJ, Uy denied the accusations against him by HRW and claimed that mayors are always being blamed for the rise or fall of crimes in their towns or cities.
“Everytime someone is killed it is always being blamed on me, that’s the price you have to pay if you are a mayor, everything is being blamed on you,” he said.
When asked about the claims of the HRW witnesses that he was directly ordered the killings, Uy answered: “Did they present any written contract or any written order coming from me?”
Uy also blamed the current administration of Tagum Mayor Allan Rellon of trying to hide the killings and claimed that the murders continued after Uy’s term. One such killing was that of broadcast journalist Rogelio Butalid who was shot last December 2013 when Uy was no longer mayor of Tagum. Uy and Rellon are political rivals, as Rellon defeated Uy’s son De Carlo in the 2013 mayoralty elections.
The HRW report also attributed Butalid’s murder to the Tagum Death Squad. “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,” the report said.
HRW also made available to the media a videotaped interview of a man it described as a police intelligence officer who has been investigating the Tagum Death Squad since May 2013. The officer, whose name and face were not revealed in the recording, said the activities of the death squad were common knowledge in the local police force.
“If the mayor gives his order, it gets implemented…. My colleagues would tell me, when I was new, to keep quiet. ‘These officers are the mayor’s men.’… 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 intelligence officer said in the recording.
Kine said that the provincial police told HRW the 298 extrajudicial killings is only a “modest” estimate since the killings in Tagum City are under-reported.
“There is compelling evidence of the involvement of Tagum City police and former Mayor Rey Uy mayor in a death squad that operated during Uy’s 1998-2013 tenure as mayor,” Kine said.
Kine added: “We make no sweeping allegations but a laser-precision, well-documented and based on evidence we have filed in our report.”
Kine reiterated that they interviewed the subjects separately and on separate occasions and corroborated through cross-referencing the testimonies of the subjects of the report.
The HRW report claims that since 1998, when Uy was first elected as mayor, he 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 (assets).” All the alleged hit men were on the city government’s payroll with the Civil Security Unit (CSU). The CSU is a bureau of Tagum city hall tasked with traffic management and providing security in markets and schools.
“The Tagum death squad’s activities imposed a fear-enforced silence in Tagum City that allowed the killers and their bosses to literally get away with murder,” said Kine.
“This is a total system failure by the government at multiple levels. An abject failure of the central government. Without a single arrest, these killings are totally unacceptable,” he said.
Kine said that they gave copies of their report as well as an invitation to relevant government agencies 10 days before Wednesday’s press conference, but not one of the eight invitees attended.
Among those invited were: Tagum City former mayor Rey Uy and the incumbent mayor Allan Rellon; Solomon de Castilla, Tagum City police chief; Philippine National Police Chief Alan Purisima, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima; Commission on Human Rights Chair Etta Rosales and Rodolfo Elman of the Office of the Ombudsman for Mindanao.
“The Aquino administration entered with a strong rhetoric on ending impunity,” said Kine. “There is a big gap between rhetoric and reality. It has failed to take decisive actions. The administration needs to recognize that death squads are real,” said Kine.
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.
“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,” Kine said.