EIGHT YEARS before retired SPO3 Arturo Lascañas admitted to participating in killings done by the Davao Death Squad (DDS), supposedly on the orders of then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte, four other individuals had given sworn statements on the DDS and those who they said were behind it.
Three gave their sworn affidavits on separate dates in early 2009 to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR); CHR lawyer Jacqueline Ann C. de Guia, the current spokesperson of the agency, took their statements. The fourth gave a sworn deposition on July 10, 2009 before Judge William Simon Peralta of the Manila Regional Trial Court for a case filed by the Philippine National Police (PNP), which was then seeking entry to a suspected burial site of DDS victims.
Although they were made separately, the statements of all five, including Lascañas, have interlocking details such as the general composition of DDS and the involvement of the police. The affidavits submitted to the CHR and that of Lascañas, along with his second testimony at the Senate, have even more details in common as well as complementary with one another, including the hierarchy within the DDS, the manner in which the killings were carried out, and the amounts given to a team per hit, which usually ranged between P13,000 and P15,000.
Two of the affidavits with CHR even named Lascañas as among the policemen involved in DDS. Lascañas, though, had denied there was a DDS when he first testified at the Senate in October last year.
But then four months later, he appeared with lawyers in a surprise press conference, where he said the exact opposite and even recounted specific murders in which he said he took part. He would also execute an affidavit containing even more details about the DDS — details that he would repeat and elaborate on some more at another Senate hearing, as well as in an interview with PCIJ.
Of truth, conscience
Among other things, Lascañas has attributed his change of heart to “spiritual enlightenment” and attacks of conscience.
The other four individuals who issued sworn statements on the DDS were less dramatic in explaining why they decided to speak up about the group, saying only that they wanted to tell the truth, with three of them adding that they had been bothered by their conscience.
The DDS is believed by many, including local and international rights groups, to be behind the deaths of petty criminals, drug pushers, and addicts (among them minors) in Davao City when Duterte was mayor there. Between 1988 and 2016, Duterte had seven full terms as mayor of Davao City, and one term each as congressman and the city’s vice mayor.
Duterte, now President, has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the killings. There have been times, however, that he has declared that there is nothing wrong with bad elements of society ending up dead.
How DU30 figures
Only two of the self-confessed assassins, however, linked Duterte by name with their bloody occupation in their respective affidavits: Lascañas and someone who went by the alias ‘Crispin Salazar.’
Lascañas in his affidavit dated Feb. 19, 2017, said in part, “I was present when then MAYOR RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE of Davao City ordered the killing of numerous men and women, and gave us reward money after we executed them. I was responsible for the killing of many men and women, and at least one child, upon the instructions of MAYOR DUTERTE.” (Capitalization in original)
Salazar, a rebel returnee and who was 46 years old at the time of his June 24, 2009 affidavit, for his part said that he had met Duterte in 1992 through a longtime acquaintance, a certain Councilor Ibuyan. He said Ibuyan had brought him to Duterte’s house in the city’s Matina District for possible employment.
Said Salazar in his affidavit: “Ipinakilala ako ni Councilor Ibuyan kay Mayor Duterte. Tinanong ako ni Mayor ‘kaya mo ba ang ganitong trabaho? Ang patayin ang salot sa lipunan tulad ng mga drug addict, pusher, at magnanakaw?’ Sabi ko, papatulan ko.’Sinabi niya na babayaran niya ako ng P15,000 at pinabalik niya ako ng Lunes at binigay niya personal sa akin ang isang baril. Isa yon na .357. (Councilor Ibuyan introduced me to Mayor Duterte. Mayor asked me, ‘can you handle this kind of work? To kill the dregs of society like drug addicts, pushers, and thieves?’ I said, ‘call.’ He said he would pay me P15,000 and told me to return Monday, during which he personally gave me a gun. That was a .357.)”
He began working that same day, Salazar said. He also recounted, “Makalipas ang isang linggo, binigyan na ako ng listahan ng mga wanted na tao na aking papatayin. Nakalagay doon ang pangalan at tirahan ng mga taong papatayin ko. Iniaabot at dini-distribute ang listahan sa akin at maging sa aking mga kasamahan ng aming pinaka-pinuno sa samahan. Minsan ay mismo si Mayor Duterte ang pumupunta sa safehouse at nag-aabot ng listahan matapos sambitin, ‘O, ito ang mga listahan ng mga tarantado. (After a week, I was given a list of ‘wanted’ people who I was going to kill. The list had the names and addresses of my targets. My colleagues and I would be given lists by our group’s leader. Sometimes it was Mayor Duterte himself who would go to the safehouse and hand out lists, saying, ‘Here, these are the lists of imbeciles’.)”
Not real names
CHR’s de Guia said that Salazar and the two other self-confessed DDS members were allowed to have pseudonyms for security reasons. Instead of their signatures, their affidavits have their right thumbmarks. De Guia confirmed with PCIJ that the signatures that appear on the documents are hers and that it was she who conducted the interviews with Salazar, as well as with the two other men who took on the names ‘Jose Basilio’ and ‘Ramon Evangelista.’
“They were straightforward and had the demeanor of someone telling the truth,” de Guia told PCIJ when asked if she believed the three’s statements at the time.
But she begged off giving more details about the men because, she said, she needed to get additional details about the progress of the case and the whereabouts of the three.
CHR had embarked on an investigation on the DDS in 2009, when it was still headed by Leila de Lima. But the human-rights body would not get to finish its report on the DDS until 2012 under its then head Loretta Ann Rosales; it has since not done much on the matter.
For sure, despite their having points of convergence, the affidavits submitted to the CHR, the court deposition, and Lascañas’s sworn statement vary in length and richness in detail. In large part, that may be because the five men played different roles within DDS, as indicated in the incidents they narrated in their respective sworn statements.
Lascañas, who among other things said that he “was responsible for the killing of many men and women, and at least one child,” was the lone police officer among the five. His affidavit is rivaled in detail, however, by that of Salazar, who was also a hitman, as well as that of Basilio, who described himself in his affidavit as an employee of the “Heinous Crimes Office,” an “extension office of the Investigation Division at Camp Leonor.” Basilio also said that he was part of the “civilian component” of that office.
Basilio mentioned Lascañas in his May 30, 2009 affidavit, along with other policemen whose names would appear as well in Lascañas’s 2017 affidavit: SPO4 Fulgencio ‘Boy’ Pavo, SPO1 Jim Tan, SPO2 Jun Naresma, and SPO4 Sanson ‘Sonny’ Buenaventura, then Duterte’s trusted driver and bodyguard.
Orders to kill, bury
In his affidavit, Basilio said that one of the foremost objectives of the Heinous Crimes Office (HCO) was to “carry out the ‘orders’ coming from Sonny Buenaventura.”
He added, “Nagmumula sa kanya ang ‘clearance’ para isagawa ang isang operasyon. Ang ‘order’ na ito ay ang pagpatay sa mga tao na sa kanilang tingin o pagsusuri ay may atraso sa lipunan o sa kanila (The ‘clearance’ to do an operation would come from him. This ‘order’ would be to kill people who in their view had done them or society wrong).”
Almost a decade later, Lascañas would recall in his own affidavit that Buenaventura had approached him to assassinate radio broadcaster Jun Pala, an avowed critic of Duterte.
“SONNY BUENAVENTURA told me that Mayor Duterte asked him (Sonny) to look for a hitman for a hit job against JUN PALA,” Lascañas said in his February 2017 affidavit. Sonny suggested my person to Mayor Duterte to do the hit job against JUN PALA. According to SONNY BUENAVENTURA, Mayor Duterte agreed and offered Three Million Pesos (PhP3,000,000) as pot money (reward).” (Capitalization in original)
Both Lascañas and Basilio also brought up retired SPO4 Bienvenido ‘Ben/’Tatay’ Laud’s name in their respective affidavits, as did Ernesto Avasola, who used his real name in his July 10, 2009 deposition before then Manila RTC Judge Peralta. In fact, it was Avasola’s testimony that prompted Peralta to issue a search warrant on Laud’s property in Barangay Ma-a in Davao City. In his deposition, Avasola had said he was an “asset” of Laud and had witnessed at Laud’s compound the execution of six men by six members of the Anti-Crime Unit of the Davao City Police Office in December 2005. Avasola also said that he was among those made to bury the remains of the victims within the Laud property.
Avasola’s deposition, however, was rather short compared to that of Basilio, Lascañas, and Salazar. So too was the July 4, 2009 affidavit of Evangelista, who said his role in the DDS was that of an informant of a barangay-based DDS cell.
Nevertheless, Evangelista gave an interesting description of the set-up in the barangay level, which he said could be found “all over Davao”: “Ang bawat cell ay kinabibilangan ng mula apat hanggang anim na miyembro. Sa isang buwan, ang bawat cell ay may nakalaan na target o mga taong papaslangin. May mga kilala ako na ilang miyembro ng ibang cell sa pangalan o sa mukha at alam ko kung sino sa kanila ay ang driver sa mga operasyon at sino ang mga hitman (Each cell has four to six members. Every month, each cell has a set target or people to kill. I know some members of other cells by name or by face and I know who among them is the driver in the operation and who the hitmen are).”
He said most of the targets were “snatcher, durugista (addicts), at magnanakaw (thieves). According to Evangelista, he would pass on information on his cell’s targets via a Nokia 3310 cell phone, for which he would usually receive usually P500 each time. There was at least one operation that netted him P1,000, but he described the event as “malungkot (sad)” because the target was one of his friends, Marlon, who happened to be a notorious thief.
Evangelista, who was 25 years old at the time he executed his affidavit, recalled: “Matapos kong tukuyin kung asan siya, kami ay pumasok sa bahay niya. Mula sa hagdan nakita ko na hinabol nila si Marlon. Tumakbo si Marlon papunta sa bintana upang tumalon ngunit may nag-aabang sa kanya doon na isa naming kasamahan at binaril siya (After I determined where he was, we entered his home. From the stairs I saw them running after Marlon. He ran toward the window, intending to jump out, but one of our colleagues was waiting for him there and shot him).”
Poignant as it sounds, that recollection has weak shock factor compared with stories narrated by the likes of Lascañas and Salazar, who said that they not only witnessed killings but also did several themselves. Salazar, who referred to “clearance” from Buenaventura before every hit as well, even estimated that by the time he quit the group in 1998, he had killed about 40 people.
One incident recounted by Salazar in his affidavit that is particularly chilling, however, did not have him pulling the trigger.
Sometime in 1993, Salazar said, “may isa kaming lakad na kasama si Mayor Duterte. Kami na kanyang mga kasamahan ang dapat tumira ngunit nagkamali kami. Hinabol niya mismo yung tao na isang hold-upper at saka niya ito pinagbababaril. Naubos niya ang isang magazine noon. Matapos iyon, natakot ang mga pulis at nakita kung paano magalit si Mayor (We had an operation in which we were with Mayor Duterte. We were the ones who were supposed to do the hit but we made a mistake. So it was he himself who went after the man who was a holdupper and he shot him repeatedly. He used an entire magazine on him. After that the police were all scared because they saw how angry the Mayor could get.)”— With research and reporting by Nancy C. Carvajal and Davinci Maru, PCIJ, March 2017