Edgar Matobato claims to have worked for 24 years as an assassin for the Davao Death Squad, the vigilante group believed responsible for the murder of 1,000 suspected criminals since its creation in the late 1980s. He claims to have heard Rodrigo Duterte, then Davao City Mayor and allegedly the force behind the squad in which police, former rebels and civilians were involved, personally order some of the killings. He says he witnessed Duterte using an Uzi submachine gun to kill a National Bureau of Investigation agent. He claims to have been involved in the killing of some 50 people. He says he was instructed to “kill criminals every day.”
As the star witness at the ongoing Senate inquiry on President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that has left at least 3,000 people dead, Matobato’s testimony gripped the nation. But while questions hang like a thick pall of smoke on the man’s credibility, the truthfulness of his testimonies, and the plausibility of his claims, it is the spread of both fear and optimism that has pitted Filipinos against one another.
Matobato’s admissions are terrifying but the devil seems to be in the details. His recollections are exceedingly gruesome, savage and revolting. He says he was instructed to kill only criminals, those suspected of being drug pushers, snatchers and rapists, and so, at least for a time, he thought he was doing good. On orders from Duterte, he says, he kidnapped and assassinated political rivals, dumping their bodies in quarries. He spoke of slashing open the bodies of his victims, filling their abdomens with bricks and tossing them in rivers or feeding them to crocodiles. But he had a change of heart when he bombed a mosque and innocent civilians were massacred. Then he turned into a whistle-blower who even implicated Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo, to the killing of a love rival.
Thus far, President Duterte has not reacted. No denial has been issued. Why should he, and why should there be, given that he admitted to as much during his election campaign? “They say I am the Death Squad. True, that is true,” he said back in May 2015. He also warned there would be carnage should he be elected President. “If by chance God will place me there [the Presidency]the 1,000 will become 100,000”. The quotes, in which Duterte has said he will kill, has killed, and is not afraid to kill, are now so well-known that his current silence cannot really be read as either surprising or ominous. Do we really think Duterte will thunderously deny any of this? He has got his legions of devoted digital activists to do that for him. What is more, they are now also starting to tell the international media not to destabilize the Philippine government through negative reporting.
It’s been up to Martin Andanar, the President’s Communications Secretary who has quite perfected the blasé look, to mouth, every so often, colorless variations of “the President is awaiting proper investigation” or “not being capable of such things” or “such things not being possible” spiel to provide the hollow official line.
As due process continues to be ignored by a crass, brutal and volatile President, the net effect of all this is, on the one hand, fear – a fearful and despairing section of citizenry who feel that it cannot turn to democratic institutions for justice or to the police for protection. Investors too are starting to get nervous about a government who thumbs its nose at the rule of law. “A lot of people are hesitant to put their money into the Philippines at this point” observed Guenter Taus, chief of the European Chamber of Commerce.
On the other hand, the optimists’ view is that the end justifies the means. The drug trade, say Duterte’s supporters, is markedly in decline. More important, the country is seen to have a President who is shaking up the establishment and following through on his promises. Never mind the bluster and insulting the mothers of foreign dignitaries. The hope is that the innate goodness of the strongman will prevail and change the country for the better. Just give him time, say the hopefuls.
Fear and despair and an unlikely, if not unwarranted, optimism are dividing society. By remaining silent, by refusing to take an unambiguous stance against the killings, Duterte does not assuage the despair among the fearfuls or inject reality into the optimist camp. He is plunging the country into uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the executions continue and the world sees the grisly, taped-up corpses appearing on our streets, listening to a 57-year-old assassin remember the years he slaughtered people on the orders of the man who would one day become the nation’s President.
Whether Edgar Matobato is telling the truth or not matters little when so much damage is already being done.