President Duterte and the Death Squads A Politician and an Ex-Hitman Take on Philippine Leader
More than 7,000 people have died in the war on drugs since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office. A politician who has investigated the leader fears for her life and has since been arrested. Her most important witness, a former hitman, is living in hiding in the rainforest.
The man who claims he was involved the deaths of more than 1,000 people is sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of a tropical paradise, cutting up a fresh coconut with a machete. The clear coconut milk runs down his hands and drips onto his black sneakers.
Edgar Matobato says that he was a member of a death squad in the city of Davao in the southern Philippines for 25 years, a squad he says was established by the country's current president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Matobato smiles timidly. He grows passion fruit and guavas. The soil is fertile in his hiding place, the air smells aromatic, chickens are clucking and a soft wind caresses his salt-and-pepper hair. Matobato sees the beauty, but it doesn't interest him.
For the last few years, he has had only one wish: "That Duterte goes to prison before me," he says. "And that there is justice for all those who were murdered."
Matobato, 57, a short, stocky man with a placid facial expression, a husband and the father of five children, lives in a hut on an island in the Philippines, far away from civilization. He is under the protection of the church. He left the government witness protection program voluntarily, because his enemy now controls the government. To reach Matobato, you have to change cars, climb hills and pledge not to reveal anything about your whereabouts.
The 'Davao Death Squads'
Matobato is the most important witness of an unprecedented occurrence in his country. Last September, speaking under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he accused the president of creating an army of killers when he was mayor of Davao. The members of the so-called "Davao death squads" now operate nationwide, he says.
Matobato also incriminated himself with his testimony. As a founding member of the death squad, he said, he killed "more than 50 people." He kidnapped hundreds of others, and tortured people, cut them into pieces, buried or dumped their bodies into the ocean. He also helped his fellow death squad members murder people. According to Matobato, then Mayor Duterte selected the victims and issued the orders to kill them. He also says that he witnessed Duterte killing at least one person himself.
Matobato's face was broadcast on all stations and printed on every front page. Could such a seemingly harmless man have committed these crimes? What consequences would he suffer for opposing the president?
Because Matobato does not expect to receive a fair trial, and fears that his former partners in crime will torture him, he is afraid to go out in public. A valley in many shades of green is spread out below the terrace where he is sitting today, and a muddy river rushes through the vast plain. In the wooden hut behind him, there are two old mattresses on the floor, where he and his wife sleep.
"I tried to explain the system of the death squads to the Senate," says Matobato, pouring coconut water into glasses. "I am more familiar with it from Davao than almost anyone else."
An Enforcer Mentality
Matobato says he feels it is his duty to speak out. The culture of impunity in the Philippines today is reminiscent of the period under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who imposed martial law in 1972. More than 3,000 people were killed, and many bodies disfigured by the traces of torture were dumped by the side of the road, just as victims of the war on drugs are today. The one difference is that twice as many people have already died in the first six months under Duterte than in almost a decade under Marcos.
Duterte had promised his voters to rid the Philippines of organized crime, drugs and corruption. And they elected him because they saw him as a savior, as someone who wasn't like the establishment. But within a short period of time, he has taken his country to the brink of an abyss with his enforcer mentality. He once compared himself to Hitler, but didn't get his numbers right. "Hitler massacred 3 million Jews," he said. "There's 3 million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them."
The press is relatively free in the Philippines, and people feel comfortable speaking openly. Still, large parts of the Philippines are a de facto police state, at least when it comes to life-and-death decisions.
About seven months after Duterte's inauguration, more than 2,500 people have died in official police operations, and about 5,000 have been killed by death squads -- masked or unmasked killers who patrol on motorcycles. They execute people by shooting them in the head, or they wrap packaging tape around their heads, causing them to suffocate. They slaughter their victims like animals, in broad daylight, next to a 7-Eleven shop, at an intersection or when they are napping. Everyone knows that anyone can be killed at any time.
The bodies are piling up in morgues in the capital Manila, because no one is picking them up. The prisons are overcrowded. Many Filipinos now use the war on drugs as an excuse to settle scores with their enemies or troublesome neighbors. The killers are almost never prosecuted.
Until recently, there had been two people who could pose a threat to the president. They are an unusual pair. One is Leila de Lima, a senator and lawyer, who demanded an investigation in the Philippine Senate in September 2016, when more and more people were being murdered after Duterte came into office. The other is Edgar Matobato, her witness, who claims that Duterte ordered him to kill her seven years ago.
On the veranda of his small safe house, Matobato looks shyly at the floor. He is wearing a chain of pearls and a cross around his neck. How does one talk about immeasurable guilt?
Matobato chooses his words carefully, and tries to stick to the facts: time periods, dates, names. He remembers the moment well when Duterte recruited him as a killer. It was in 1988, says Matobato. He had once been a paramilitary fighter and a farmer, and he farmed his father's fields after the father was beheaded by the communist New People's Army.
In March, he was approached by the bodyguard of the new mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, who offered him a new job in the city administration. He was told to go to a hotel where, according to Matobato, Duterte explained to him, and six other men, that it was their duty to purge criminals from Davao: rapists, petty criminals and drug dealers. Duterte called the new group the "Lambada Boys," says Matobato. It would become the first cell of the Davao death squads.
Matobato's first victim was a man in a pool hall. He doesn't remember what the man was accused of. Matobato says that a policeman gave him a weapon in a hotel, and something to eat, and then they drove off. "I wasn't very nervous, because I was with the police," says Matobato. He went to the pool hall and pulled the trigger. He was astonished at how easy it was.
In 1993, says Matobato, he witnessed Duterte shooting an investigator from the Justice Ministry. The man was lying injured on the ground after a gunfight, says Matobato, when Duterte "finished him off."
The mayor personally selected the victims, says Matobato. District administrators gave him lists of information about alleged criminals. "Then he alone decided whether they would live or die."
'I See the Faces of the Dead Every Night'
They were paid 3,000 pesos, or about €57, for ordinary criminals, and 6,000 pesos for more high-profile targets, says Matobato. His official job was to guard "markets, terminals and schools." "After six months, I was convinced that I was helping good people by killing bad ones," says Matobato. He said nothing to his family.
Over the next three or four years, the cell grew to 100 killers, after a number of former communist rebels joined the group. Most had had official jobs with the police, says Matobato. "That's why the murders were never investigated."
Matobato is highly focused as he tells his story. He makes the impression that he cares mostly about being heard and understood. He still finds it hard to believe that the authorities are not investigating him. He shows us a binder full of papers that he says document his position in Davao.
He says he is plagued by his conscience. "I see the faces of the dead every night," he says, adding that they haunt him at like ghosts. He looks at his wife as she walks silently to the clothesline. Does she still love him, now that she knows what he did in the past? "She sticks with me," he says with a quiet voice, looking at the ground.
Matobato's affidavit consists of 87 questions and answers. It describes how Duterte established a system in Davao in which only those who were loyal were rewarded. The members of the death squads were practically untouchable, and anyone who wanted to be part of it had to be extremely brutal.
Because the government itself has become criminal in the Philippines under Duterte, Matobato is unable to atone for his guilt. The president's allies in the Senate discredited Matobato, calling him "unreliable." The justice minister, who has said that he believes criminals are not human, accused Matobato of spreading "lies." Duterte denied knowing him. Ironically, until recently he has bragged about killing people himself. The judiciary committee before which Matobato testified has since closed its investigation of the matter.
Matobato talks about how he and the other six founding members of the death squad went about killing people, how they kidnapped their victims first and then made the bodies disappear. "Before we cut up their bodies, we undressed them and burned their clothing, in order to destroy the evidence. Then we poured vegetable oil on their bodies so they wouldn't smell." According to Matobato, Duterte sometimes watched the procedure and checked to make sure they had killed the right person before burying the body in a stone quarry.
- Part 1: A Politician and an Ex-Hitman Take on Philippine Leader
- Part 2: 'Everything We See in Manila Today Comes from Davao'