$110 Per Hit

Vigilantes in the Philippines have killed kids, drug dealers, and petty thieves. The government that paid their salaries insists they don't exist.

Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Nine-year-old Jenny Boy "Kokey" Lagulos didn’t stand a chance. One of the many children who hung out in Tagum City’s Freedom Park plaza, a large open space in the city center surrounded by video-game parlors and other attractions, Kokey was rumored to be a thief. In Tagum City, on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, rumors like that can get people killed.

On April 12, 2011, local residents found Kokey dead on a Tagum City side street, his body a bloodied heap punctured by 22 stab wounds. Kokey wasn’t the only child found murdered that day in Tagum City. Earlier that morning, the body of 12-year-old Macky Lumangtad was discovered in a vacant lot with a gunshot wound to the head. Three years later, Tagum City police have made no arrests in either killing.

In a May 21 report, Human Rights Watch exposed the existence of a death squad in Tagum City, one linked to hundreds of killings and operating as a salaried arm of the municipal government. Extrajudicial killings and the activities of shadowy death squads that serve as anti-crime vigilantes are nothing new in the Philippines. But the level of government complicity was front-page news, even in a society mostly inured to street violence. Kokey and Macky were but two of those victims targeted with calculated, premeditated brutality by a death squad organized, equipped, and financed by then Tagum City Mayor Rey "Chiong" Uy and elements of the local police and municipal government.

In Uy’s Tagum City, a sleepy agricultural center with a population of 245,000, extrajudicial killings became a perverse form of crime control. Uy paid the death squad $110 per hit to eliminate from Tagum City what he frequently referred to as "weeds": suspected petty criminals, drug dealers, small-time thieves, and children living or working on the streets. Tagum City’s gunmen did their job with chilling efficiency. Human Rights Watch’s report reveals that the death squad killed at least 298 people from 2007 until 2013, when Uy stepped down as mayor. Uy, who continues to live openly in Mindanao, has denied the existence of the death squad and has dismissed the allegations against him as a "conspiracy" by unnamed rivals whom he accused of paying alleged witnesses "to make up stories against me." (Uy didn’t respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment.)

The thread that links these killings and their alleged political patrons has been the willingness of successive Philippine governments to turn a blind eye to the brutality. That official tolerance for political figures using extrajudicial killings as an acceptable form of governance has been catastrophic for those who challenge what is often an abusive status quo. Across the Philippines, there is a lengthy and growing body count of journalists and activists — a total of 169 such killings under President Benigno Aquino III’s administration as of December 2013 — whose efforts to expose government corruption and organized crime have led to their murder by local politicians with private armies, corrupt police officers, and criminal syndicates.

Aquino is no stranger to this official culture of denial about extrajudicial killings. Twelve Filipino journalists were murdered in 2013, the highest number since Aquino’s election in 2010. Although one of Aquino’s key campaign promises was to end impunity for the murderers of journalists and activists, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization, reported in November 2013 that 23 journalists had been killed in Aquino’s first 40 months in office — a higher annual rate than the roughly nine killed annually during the administration of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There have been no successful prosecutions in any of these cases. A much-vaunted initiative by the government to address impunity — the creation in 2012 of an interagency "superbody" to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases of extrajudicial killings — remains largely inactive.

At its peak in mid-2012, the Tagum death squad consisted of 14 members who operated under the veneer of Tagum City employees. That cover gave the hit-squad members a monthly salary of $220 as well as city-issued .45-caliber handguns and motorcycles. Besides "weeds," they also freelanced for-profit killings, including those of a journalist, a judge, a local tribal leader, local politicians, and businesspeople. Those freelance killings for profit by death squad members were committed outside of Uy’s direct knowledge and participation. But there is compelling evidence that Uy was deeply involved in directing the death squad to eliminate what he considered "undesirables" from the streets of Tagum City. Three self-confessed former Tagum City death squad members have provided Human Rights Watch detailed accounts of how the mayor provided an official cover for the hit men by employing them as members of Tagum City’s Civil Security Unit formally tasked with traffic management duties. They allege that the death squad received its kill-target orders via text message from Uy’s closest aides and that on numerous occasions the mayor would personally disburse their $110-per-kill payment.

These revelations should be deeply embarrassing for the government of Aquino, which swept into office in 2010 on a platform that balanced promises of strengthening the economy with pledges of improved governance and greater respect for human rights. Although Aquino has won praise for helping power economic growth to 7.2 percent in 2013, its highest level in more than 50 years, and stoking the confidence of foreign investors, old problems persist. The Philippines’ 2013 unemployment rate of 7.3 percent was the highest in Southeast Asia, and the country is still bedeviled by violent insurgencies. Over the past year, the Aquino government has been roiled by a corruption scandal implicating legislators and government officials in massive pilfering of state budget funds, as well as tensions with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the killings of leftist activists, environmentalists, and journalists persist within a culture of impunity that allows the perpetrators to get away with murder.

Ruthless and unlawful approaches to "crime control" are nothing new in the Philippines. Alfredo Lim, a former police officer and chief of the National Bureau of Investigation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a national police agency modeled on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, was implicated in using similar tactics while mayor of the capital, Manila, from 1992 to 1998. Instead of being prosecuted for his alleged role in the summary executions of dozens of suspected drug dealers and other criminals, Lim gained the affectionate nickname "Dirty Harry" and was voted into the Philippine Senate in 2004. And in 2007, he was again elected mayor of Manila. Uy’s Tagum death squad resembled that of an operation in nearby Davao City, which propelled that city’s tough-talking mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, to national fame. From 2001 to 2002, Duterte would announce the names of "criminals" on local television and radio: A local death squad later murdered some of those he named. No one has been successfully prosecuted for any of these murders. At a public hearing of the Philippine Senate in February 2014, Duterte reportedly boasted that if a notorious suspected smuggler tried to do business in Davao City, "I will gladly kill him."

The Tagum death squad is an urgent reminder to the Philippine government of the unacceptable costs of accommodating, rather than prosecuting, thuggish demagogues like Uy and Duterte. Aquino needs to end the culture of denial by opening independent investigations into alleged death squad activities in Tagum City and elsewhere and prosecuting politicians, police, and government officials implicated in such abuses. Until Aquino addresses his government’s glaring failure to hold these killers to account, children like Kokey and Macky will continue to die violent, uninvestigated deaths.

Phelim Kine is deputy director in the Asia division at New York-based Human Rights Watch.