Missing Information and Justice Stalled: What is Known About the Davao Death Squad
EVEN WITH the testimonies of Retired SPO3 Arturo Lascanas and Edgar Matobato, many feel that there is not enough evidence to prove that there were death squads operating in Davao City. The public has obviously taken the lead of the Senate where most of the members have tended to doubt, if not dismiss outright, the credibility of the two confessed killers. At the end of the session which heard Lascanas early this week, the body expressed doubts about what they heard and felt that they did not have sufficient information to make firm recommendations. The Senate has not called on the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to reveal findings gathered through a period of eight years in which two chairs—Leila de Lima and Loretta Rosales—had served.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) report on the evidence found about the so-called Davao Death Squads (DDS) is timely. It also enforces a review of what information is available at this time. Clearly, the public should have access to these findings.
Published last March 6, “Fits, starts, new hope for DDS probe?” reviewed official documents of the CHR since 2009 and surfaced key points about killings which occurred during the term of Rodrigo Duterte as mayor.
PCIJ found recorded evidence such as sworn statements of key informants, transcripts of stenographic notes and reports of human rights groups – which “should have moved the story about this alleged group of assassins beyond the conduct of public hearings.” But the lack of commitment of public officials to get to the truth about the allegations, the shortage of witnesses and the slow judicial process had hampered the investigation.
The CHR began looking into the DDS when it was still chaired by now Senator de Lima. It took three years before the commission—by then chaired by Loretta Rosales—outlined recommendations based on the findings of the probe initiated by De Lima.
Some key points in the PCIJ report are:
- De Lima, Justice secretary from 2010 to 2015, and Vitaliano Aguirre II, current DOJ chief, both “failed their mandates to ferret out the truth and do justice to those who were killed.” During De Lima’s tenure, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) did not exert significant effort to investigate the DDS. Even until last week, the NBI has not submitted any report to the DOJ.
Aguirre, meanwhile, has a conflict of interest on the DDS issue. He served as the legal counsel of Ret. SPO4 Bienvenido Laud, owner of the Laud firing range and quarry where, according to sworn testimonies of CHR witnesses, DDS victims were killed and buried.
- De Lima, as CHR chair, had summoned 39 local officials, police and “non-state actors” to public hearings from March 30-31, 2009, but after these inquiries, CHR obtained sworn statements from only four people who disclosed first-hand accounts of DDS operations. Lascanas and Matobato were implicated in these testimonies.
CHR’s resolution on the DDS dated June 28, 2012 found that only one out of the 39 persons summoned in the 2009 hearings affirmed the existence of the death squad. The others either flatly denied it or offered cautious statements.
- From 2005 to 2009, there were witnesses only in 94 out of the 206 unsolved summary killings in Davao City. Of this number, 20 “outright refused to cooperate.”
- Aside from the lack of witnesses in the 2009 CHR hearings, Duterte and the Davao City police showed a lack of interest in solving the murder cases in the city, particularly those attributed to the DDS. CHR said that the police relied heavily on testimonial evidence and the lack of witnesses was used to justify the stalling of investigations.
- In March 2012, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales imposed a penalty equivalent to one-month salary’s worth on 21 high-ranking PNP officials for failure to act on the killing attributed to the DDS. Some of these officials are still in active duty and are occupying positions as appointees of President Duterte.
- CHR’s resolution under Rosales recommended that the Ombudsman investigate “possible administrative and criminal liability of (then) Mayor Duterte” for not acting on the killings in Davao City despite the evidence gathered by the commission. CHR emphasized that “The State can be held liable for violations committed by third parties when it can be shown that the State had knowledge of a real and immediate threat and failed to adopt reasonable measures to prevent it.”
The lack of interest and failure to act on the issue should be charged to the media as well. While the investigation was going on at length, the media failed to follow up on the findings and it has taken PCIJ to review the paper trail of the CHR investigation.
Recognizing a similar effort by Rappler to review the 2012 CHR resolution, CMFR said in a previous monitor that “The historical context (of DDS probes) cannot be dismissed in assessment of the anti-crime policy of the new administration.” PCIJ’s extensive report provided necessary background and explanation to drive the investigation of this issue forward. It’s not too late for some of the senators looking into the issue to connect the dots that would have helped some of them to better appreciate the testimony of the two confessed killers.