“ITO,” asked Sen. Manny Pacquiao of SPO3 Arthur Lascañas, “sino ang magpapatunay ng bago mong testimony ngayon?” (Who will prove the truth of your new testimony today?)
I watched with skepticism the Senate hearing yesterday on the police officer’s allegations about the Davao Death Squad (DDS) and President Rodrigo Duterte’s alleged role in DDS killings in Davao City when he was still the mayor there. I could not understand why the Senate would want to hear a witness whose main purpose is to recant his earlier testimony before the chamber in October last year.
And yet, after enduring the thing from morning to afternoon, I came away reassured that the new members of the Senate (notably Senators Pacquiao, Ejercito, Hontiveros, Villanueva, Angara and Aquino) are capable of bearing the high responsibility of the Senate, and preserving the dignity of a Senate inquiry.
Senator Manny was, for me, a revelation in his direct questioning of Lascañas. He questioned the witness expertly, and a touch solemnly, about his claim of “spiritual renewal” as the reason for changing his testimony.
First extra-judicial confession
Before opening yesterday’s hearing, Senator Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, read aloud Supreme Court decisions that ruled negatively against the veracity and reliability of recanted testimony.
Independent or recanted confession, the high court said, cannot stand alone, without corroboration.
Lacson also introduced a new word into the national vocabulary for the war on drugs: extra-judicial confession. The term means presumably a confession offered voluntarily or outside the judicial process.
The Lascañas confession or testimony should fittingly go down in history as the first recorded EJC.
The big thing missing in the Davao story is that there are no crime gangs battling or shooting it out with the police.
Lascañas testified that in over 90 percent of DDS operations, the targets did not fight or shoot back. This stood in stark contrast to the claim of the Philippine National Police (PNP), that some 3,000 of the casualties in the current drug war were killed while fighting the police.
Lascañas’ narrative played like a police procedural. I can see from one eye how an imaginative script writer could turn the story of the DDS into a movie, like the excellent Hollywood film, LA Confidential, which turned new actors into stars.
A glossary of the terms the witness used to describe the DDS operations would include the following:
Players – hitmen/killers, Filipino and foreign
Assets – police informers and helpers
Salvaging – killing of targets
Force multipliers – assets which increase the effectiveness of the force.
Collateral damage – people other than targets who are accidentally killed in a DDS operation.
Riding in tandem – killers who ride in a motorcycle in doing a hit.
Packing tape – the packaging of victims for disposal in common graves
Reward system – payment for the killing of targets – from P20 to P50,000 per kill.
Erase – kill a target
Contract killing – killings by the DDS and heinous crimes group, that are disguised as police operations.
Spiritual renewal – change of heart about killing for a spiritual reason.
Business of killing – the economics of killing.
Quarry – place of burial for victims of the DDS.
Superman – Davao Mayor Rody Duterte
One interesting side story concerned the late Col. Ernesto Macasaet, erstwhile team captain of DDS. He gave Lascañas this advice: “In the business of killing, trust no one.”
Macasaet was targeted for liquidation. He died of a stroke, before the contract could be executed.
Macasaet was the mentor and godfather in marriage to Lascañas.
The story of Arthur Lascañas was detailed; he named names, victims and fellow police killers; and he had no hesitation citing the name of Rodrigo Duterte in ordering some of the DDS killings.
The trajectory of his life went like this:
• Member of police in 1982
• Got into trouble for a couple of homicides. DU30 helped in extricating him.
• Went AWOL in 1985.
• Reinstated in 1989.
• Had a kidney transplant in 2015.
• Retired in 2016.
• His wife works at the Davao city hall.
Lascañas came to depend on the money for the killings because of his dialysis treatment for a kidney ailment. The treatment became unnecessary after his kidney transplant.
Lascañas got P100,000 per month from Duterte as compensation; to earn the money he had to do the corresponding killings at the rate of P 20 to 50,000 per hit.
By his personal admission, Lascañas said he killed or participated in the killing of 200 to 300 victims.
When Gen. Ronald Bato dela Rosa became Davao City police director, Oplan Tokhang was launched in the city.
Why did Lascañas change his story? The details are grim.
He was complicit in the killing of his two brothers, who were drug pushers and possible drug traffickers. Their rubout now haunts him.
He has had an apparition, which made him change his ways.
He said he decided to tell all because he can’t bear to bring to the grave all the killings and sins on his conscience.
He says he knows he will be imprisoned. But he is prepared; testifying is the only way to set himself free.
His closing words are not kind to DU30 and the drug war. DDS was not effective. The drug trade still exists up to now in Davao City. Lascañas does not believe the drug war will be effective nationwide.
Human rights commission must prove its worth
Listening to the inquiry, it struck me that this is preeminently the time when the Commission on Human Rights should prove its worth and provide its service to the nation.
The commission, if it were really doing its job, should be able to answer the question whether the DDS did exist. It can provide a confident answer to the question whether human rights were violated in the city, or how the Davao practice was expanded to national level in President Duterte’s war on drugs.
The CHR acts as if it were a constitutional commission, comparable to the Commission on the Civil Service, the Commission on Audit, and the Commission on Elections.
The pertinent constitutional provision reads:
Sec.17 (1) There is hereby created an independent office called the Commission on Human Rights.
(3) Until this commission is constituted, the existing presidential committee on human rights shall continue to exercise its present functions and powers.
The commission is composed of a chairperson and four members. The Constitution requires that a majority of the commission’s members must be lawyers.
Significantly, the current chairman, since the years of President Benigno S. Aquino III, is not a lawyer.
The Supreme Court of the Philippines, in Cariño v. Commission on Human Rights, 204 SCRA 483 (1991), declared that the commission does not possess the power of adjudication, and emphasized that its functions were primarily investigatory. The commission can resolve conflicts through mediation and conciliation.
At the time when Senator Leila de Lima was chairman of the CHR, during the Arroyo presidency, the CHR tried to investigate the alleged DDS killings in Davao City. The commission retreated from the challenge in fear of the formidable barrier posed by the city government of then Mayor Duterte.
Through all these years, the commission has been unable to establish with any certainty that there was or is a Davao Death Squad, or that there were extra-judicial killings (EJKs) in Davao City.
When asked at yesterday’s hearing, the CHR commissioner present could only testify to the commission’s inutility and powerlessness.
If ever a government body has not earned its budget, the CHR is it. Today, it has been content to cheer the occasional reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and the US State Department.