The Philippines' ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte—facing international outrage for his bloody anti-drug crackdown—boasted to a group of business leaders he hosted at the presidential palace in Manila Dec. 12 that he "personally" killed drug suspects when he was mayor of Davao City. Bizarrely, this boast came as he argued that the thousands of victims of his drug war have been killed in legitimate police operations. The quote (apparently cleaned up from his choppy verbatim) is reported in the Philippines Inquirer: "I know because…I used to do it personally. Just to show to the [police officers] that if I can do it, why can't you? …I go around in Davao [on] a big bike and I would just patrol the streets and looking for trouble. [Sic] I was really looking for an encounter to kill."
Of course, prowling the streets on his trademark Harley-Davidson spoiling for a fight was not exactly what most would consider legitimate police operations. Duterte began his murderous social purge of druggies and low-level criminals in his years as Davao mayor, employing unofficial death-squads as well as the actual city police. Since becoming the country's president this year, he's been applying the same strategy nationwide. The total number killed in his campaign—both as mayor and president, and both by death-squads and official security forces—may be as high as 6,000.
In his rant to the business leaders, Duterte again voiced contempt for his critics in the international human rights organizations: "If I am afraid [and] stop because of the human rights [groups] …sorry, I am not about to do that. You [want to] arrest me? Oust me? Go ahead. So fine. Oust me? Good. Assassinate me? Better. I have this migraine every day [anyway]…"
More bizarrely still, just before addressing the businessmen that same day, Duterte refuted charges that he is a "killer" for overseeing extrajudicial executions. He told an awards ceremony at the palace: "I am not a killer. I do not relish or enjoy [seeing] a Filipino sprawled there with all the blood." Maybe he thinks if he doesn't enjoy it, it doesn't count?
This latest outrage comes as Duterte just appointed a notorious rights abuser as head of his armed forces. Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año, formerly commander of the Philippine army, has been promoted to armed forces chief of staff. The appointment was harshly criticized by an organization of families of those "disappeared" by military-linked death squads. Lorena Santos, secretary general of Families of the Desaparecidos for Justice, said it is "a clear manifestation of impunity, when human rights violators escape prosecution and are instead rewarded for their crimes against the Filipino people." She added: "What does this tell us of this system? This fascist state continues to hail mercenaries, while [the] victims of enforced disappearance have yet to be surfaced."
Año was appointed army chief last year by then-president Benigno Aquino. As the Philippine rights group Karapatan noted at the time, he was accused of overseeing paramilitary groups in Mindanao as part of his campaign against leftist guerillas of the New People's Army. This was in the same period Duterte was running his anti-drug death squads in Davao, also on southern Mindanao island. Despite Duterte's current overtures to the left and pledge of peace talks with the guerillas, it is hard to believe there wasn't some overlap between these death-squad networks.