DAVAO: Clarita Alia’s nightmare began after a man in a police uniform showed up outside her hovel in this southern Philippine city in July 2001.
Send your boys away,” the stranger warned, “or I will get them one by one.”
Two weeks later, Richard, 17, who like his siblings had dropped out of school and joined a gang, was knifed to death in the tough Bankerohan neighborhood of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao.
Chistopher, 16, and Bobby, 14, met the same fate within 16 months.
By 2006 Clarita’s youngest, Fernando, 15 was also dead. No one was arrested or prosecuted for the killings.
Their 54-year-old mother, who hawks cigarettes and lives in a six-square-meter shack at the Bankerohan public market with two dogs, her remaining son and his wife and two children, swears the man who threatened her boys still lives nearby.
“I know God will be angry, but I feel happy every time I learn on television that a policeman has died,” she told Agence France-Presse. “I tell myself it’s only right that they also suffer.”
Independent rights monitors here say at least 583 persons, including 45 minors and 185 young adults, have been shot or knifed to death since 1998 by unknown assassins in a city whose local officials openly back a tough stance against drug dealers and juvenile offenders.
Philip Alston, a special investigator for the UN Commission on Human Rights, flew to the Philippines last year to investigate extrajudicial killings of leftist dissidents across the country and of minors in Davao.
All the young Davao victims lived on the street, had joined gangs, and many had police records for petty crime or were drug couriers, local rights monitors say.
“One fact points very strongly to the officially sanctioned character of these [Davao] killings: no one involved covers his face,” Alston wrote in his report.
Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, unavailable for an interview for this article, previously denied that the killers were executing his orders.
Alston, who also talked to the mayor last year, said Duterte would “perfunctorily deny the existence of a death squad.”
“This is a war against the poor,” said Father Amado Picardal, vicar of a Roman Catholic Church that caters to the Davao urban poor community of Sagrada Familia.
“The death squads are actually copying Brazil,” he said, referring to the wave of vigilante killings of street children in the South American country in the 1990s.
He recalled a wealthy parishioner venting his spleen at a group of street children after his car was broken into as he attended Mass in 2003. A week later a youth was shot dead outside the church.
Davao has a long history of political violence, and Picardal is alarmed that some of his flock approve of the killings.
“They said that this is a good thing for Davao. This is good for business because people feel safe, that the DDS [Davao death squads] is doing a service to the community—that they’re trying to get rid of the garbage,” he said.
Communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels turned Davao’s slums into laboratories for urban guerrilla warfare in the 1980s until they were supplanted by anti-communist militias, some of them armed and trained by the security forces.
Rights monitors say the killers’ tactics uncannily ape those used by NPA gunmen who assassinated soldiers, police and government officials in the 1980s—two men on one motorbike, one acting as the executioner and the other as lookout and getaway driver.
Davao, a sprawling city of 1.3 million people, is the hub of Mindanao island’s industries, mining and corporate farms.
Massive labor migration from surrounding rural areas in recent years swelled its teeming slums and accounts for rising numbers of children joining gangs, said Carla Canarias, a case officer for Tambayan, a Davao halfway house that helps out street children.
“They actually have families. But when they moved into the city the parents have to look for work and the children are left at home,” she told Agence France-Presse. “Many of them are abused, physically or sexually,” she added.
Alma Loysabas, another Tambayan official, said a girl who sought refuge at the center suffered a nervous breakdown after one of her young male friends was murdered.
“She said she was tailed by unknown men who flashed their guns and showed her a hit list that included her name,” Loysabas added.
In 2006 the killers’ tactics shifted and they started using mostly knives.
Jesus Dureza, a Davao-based senior adviser for President Gloria Arroyo, said the government “does not condone extrajudicial killings” and added “no one can play God” in Davao or elsewhere.