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.

'Everything We See in Manila Today Comes from Davao'

The turning point came in 2013, says Matobato. The Davao death squads had about 300 members at the time. It had kidnapped three young women, allegedly dealers, who were about the same age as his own children.

"Before they were killed, the other men raped them," says Matobato, adding that he did not participate. "But I knew that the women were innocent." For decades, he had accepted as a necessary evil that innocent people could also be killed during the murders. But now he had had enough, and he wrote a letter to his team leader, saying that he was now old and wanted to leave the group.

The others tortured him in the police station for an entire week. He managed to escape, and he eventually appealed to the Philippine Commission for Human Rights. The Justice Ministry placed him in a government witness protection program. But he left the program when it became clear that Duterte might become president, because he no longer felt safe. The church has protected him since then.

Before he was elected president, Duterte promised to have criminals thrown into Manila Bay "to fatten all the fish there."

"And that's what happened," Matobato whispers. "Everything we see in Manila today comes from Davao. I recognize our style, the way we wrapped victims in packaging tape, and the scenes we staged, like placing a cheap pistol next to the body so that it looks like he put up a fight. We also always had drugs with us, which we planted on the victim's body."

What has changed slightly, he says, are the signs that are placed at the scene. Instead of "I am a dealer," a sign would now read: "I am a dealer. Don't imitate me."

"Everything I did was the result of orders. It was nothing personal," he says at the end of his account. Then Matobato begins to weep for a long time.

A visit to a Manila slum today offers grim reminders of how the Davao system has expanded. One encounters mourning neighbors keeping vigil next to a dead person who was shot and killed while sleeping next to his children. Because his daughter has no money for a funeral, the man's body has been laid out in a coffin for more than a week already.

Three 10-year-old children playing in a run-down cemetery tell stories of a mass burial of 13 bodies, as they pile up skulls that are lying around into pyramids.

In a cell at a police station, 84 men are crammed into a roughly 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) cell. They shout their stories through the bars of the cell. Few know why they even ended up here. It's unbearably hot, a stench fills the air and sick prisoners are wasting away on the floor in front of the cell.

'Collateral Damage'

A walk through any slum is like a trip into a relentless underworld. In one house, the location of which must remain a secret, we meet an 18-year-old boy named Ryan. He tells us that he survived a massacre in which six of his friends died. None of them has ever had anything to do with drugs, he says. "We were listening to loud music and laughing when a motorcycle sped by, and a man fired into our living room."

The boy managed to hide in a bathroom. But now the neighbors believe he is guilty, because he survived. He too is now under church protection. There is a bullet lodged in his leg. Innocent victims like Ryan are what Duterte called "collateral damage" in the drug war.

The hunt for supposed drug addicts and dealers under Duterte is based on a simple principle, which Matobato says also originated in Davao. The heads of a "barangay," the smallest administrative unit in the Philippines, prepare a list of suspects, which they then give to the police. The names are of local residents and the list is used without being verified. In this way, a person who is in debt or is having a dispute with a neighbor can easily end up on Duterte's kill list. As a next step, police officers go to the homes of those on the list and issue warnings. Some of the targets promise to improve their behavior, and yet they are soon found dead on the street.

This was the pattern until a few weeks ago, when police officers kidnapped a South Korean businessman, demanded a ransom and murdered him. It was only then that Duterte demonstratively called his death squads to order, and the campaigns are now officially suspended for the time being. But the death squads are still active. And the president has also said that he plans to use the army in the future to operate in the slums. If that happens, the drug war will likely become even more brutal.

"The thing with the army is purely cosmetic," says Senator Leila de Lima in her Manila office, her voice full of rage. "In reality, we have been under martial law for a while now." There are no longer any human rights, she says. "And the values of our society are rotting away."

Going After the President

Next to Matobato, Leila de Lima, also 57, is the second person in the country who has tried unsuccessfully for years to pose a threat to the current president. She is a stylish, heavily made-up woman wearing a patterned blouse. Her look is a flamboyant one. "It's my attempt to feel good," she says with a laugh. She is a member of the Liberals, a party that led the government for many years.

There are two mobile phones on her desk, on which she is constantly receiving text messages with death threats. Next to them is the new report by Amnesty International on the killings. It's the kind of report De Lima would like to have written herself. "But I didn't get the chance," she says. She turned from pursuing Duterte to becoming one of the pursued. There are now bodyguards sitting in her reception area.

De Lima met Duterte for the first time in 2009, when she was the chair of the Philippine Commission for Human Rights. She read a United Nations report on the Davao death squads. She was fascinated. As a journalist, she had always been interested in hunting down the powerful who ignore human rights.

De Lima assembled a team and flew to Duterte's home city, where she conducted interviews and questioned witnesses. There were public hearings in a hotel, and Duterte was present once. De Lima says that she made a momentous decision at the time when she publicly asked the then mayor a question: "How could these murders in Davao have occurred without the blessing of the local government?"

Duterte simply looked at her without saying anything, she says. Then he launched into a monologue about the tradition of violence in Davao. He spoke about the Alsa Masa movement, which fought the communists in Davao in the 1980s. The groups of guards were simply part of the local fabric, he said.

De Lima was unable to find any evidence at the time to connect Duterte or the police in Davao with the death squads. But, she says, "he hasn't forgotten anything." She later learned from Matobato that Duterte had wanted to have her killed. Matobato testified that a group of 80 men had waited for De Lima and her team when she had planned to investigate a garbage dump where the death squads had buried their victims. De Lima's saving grace was that she had not ventured as far into the site as the men had expected.

Mudslinging

"The murders began in Manila as soon as Duterte was elected president," says De Lima. As the former justice minister and chair of the human rights commission, De Lima prepared the investigation in the Senate.

Her surprise witness was Matobato, whom she had encountered for the first time as justice minister, when he sought protection from his former colleague in 2014. The man can neither read nor write, she says, "but he knows the situation in Davao. I believe he is credible." The mudslinging began after his testimony. Duterte called the death squads "a myth" and De Lima "an immoral woman" who would be better off hanging herself.

The Senate Judiciary Committee terminated all investigations without examining Matobato's testimony in detail. Duterte claimed that his opponent, De Lima, had received hush money from drug lords when she was justice minister. His allies in the Senate removed her from her position as chair of the committee. There were hearings against her, and one of the witnesses read out her telephone number and address on television. There were fake videos on YouTube that allegedly showed her attending a party with drug lords.

She was indicted in October for drug dealing, which she allegedly allowed to occur in a Manila prison. De Lima calls the accusations "a fabricated story that was supposed to force me to be quiet." Duterte warned the Senate early on, she says: Do not intervene in my drug war. There are a total of 16 charges against her.

De Lima wants to pursue impeachment proceedings against Duterte for mass murder. But the president is still very popular, with polls showing his approval rating at 86 percent. His party holds the majority in the Senate. And presidents in office are protected against criminal prosecution by an immunity rule. This is why De Lima is appealing to the International Criminal Court to investigate Duterte for crimes against humanity.

"I am innocent," says De Lima. But she knows how strong the government apparatus and how powerful the president is.

Surviving family members from a slum took their story to the courts for the first time at the beginning of the month. A man who says he witnessed a police massacre has reported that after committing the killings, the police officers discussed how to stage the scene of the crime. The man's testimony corroberates what witness Edgar Matobato said about the methods used by the death squads in Davao. The case could be the first of its kind to be heard in court, and that would be a success for Senator De Lima. Most victims of the drug war are poor people who can rarely afford to defend themselves.

When a Rumor Can Mean Death

Duterte has created a climate in which a rumor can lead to someone's death -- and there is no end in sight. De Lima and Matobato are leading a fight that will be difficult to win.

On a morning in February, Senator Leila De Lima walks into the Senate chamber where Matobato testified. She has little left to say. The parliament is no longer interested in the Davao death squads or in accusations against the president. Instead, on this morning the members are discussing the possible reintroduction of the death penalty. They want the government to take a tougher approach.

The members present their argument and the debate becomes heated. After an hour, De Lima gets up from her chair and says: "The death penalty is wrong." Then she gathers her files and leaves the hearing. She has no time to waste. She believes the government is waging a war against the poor and is pursuing their advocates.

On Friday, Feb. 24, the authorities came for her at the Senate. De Lima has been in police detention ever since.

With additional reporting by Eloisa Lopez.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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