Between 2001 and 2009, more than 900 people, including peasant leaders, environmental campaigners and student activists, were murdered in the Philippines by mysterious death squads who appear to have close links to the army. Thomas Bell wrote in The Telegraph, “Since President Gloria Arroyo came to power in 2001, campaigners say over 900 people have been extra-judicially executed and 200 more have "disappeared". [Source: Thomas Bell, The Telegraph, January 18, 2009 -]

A U.N. report in 2007 pointed to the military as "responsible for a significant number of killings." On who is ultimately responsible, Philippine military chief of staff, Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, told the Washington Post that while it is "probable" some military officers are responsible for some of the killings, the doctrine of command responsibility cannot hold him personally responsible. "The immediate commanders over those officers will be responsible. That is the essence of command responsibility," Esperon said. "It is not, as described in the Rome Statute, that you should know what happens. Who should know that? Who would know everything that happens?" He added: "If I knew everything that happens, then I must be God." [Source: Emily Green, Washington Post, October 1, 2007]

“One of the most dangerous areas is the Compostela Valley, on the southern island of Mindanao. It is a place of great natural beauty as well as rural poverty which is home to several foreign owned gold mines and a long-standing communist insurgency. In the final few weeks of 2008, five apparently peaceful, law-abiding men were mysteriously shot dead in the area. The first victim was Danilo Qualbar, a 48-year-old activist for the Left-wing People First party, who was shot on November 6. Human rights researchers said there was no autopsy and no investigation – the police did not even interview the victim's family. According to Mr Qualbar's widow, a group of soldiers called out "that one" as her husband passed through a military checkpoint a week before his murder. -

“The next victim was 4 days later when Rolando Antolihao, 39 – a banana plantation worker and People First party member – was shot dead in front of his wife and 2-year-old daughter. There was a small army post 50 metres away but according to reports the soldiers on duty did respond to the shooting. In the following weeks two more activists were shot. Finally, two days before Christmas Fernando Sarmiento, a 39-year-old environmentalist who argued that a local gold mine was damaging the interests of local people, was killed by assassins fitting the same description. Mr Sarmiento's friends said he was arrested by the army in July and accused of being a communist guerrilla. -

“Witnesses noted that the killers in the Compostela Valley usually arrived on a red Honda motorcycle and used a .45 pistol. At the top of the list of suspects are soldiers from local army camps, but there has been no official investigation into the shootings, or whether the deaths are even in any way connected. -

“Human rights campaigners claim that the killings are part of an offensive launched by President Arroyo in an attempt to defeat Maoist guerrillas called the New People's Army (NPA) by 2010. Although they deny the murders, senior army officers claim that legal parties such People First and other activist groups which most of the victims belong to are fronts for the communists. Instead, the army frequently claims, the deaths are a result of feuds and purges within the communist party. -

“According to Lt Col Ernesto Torres, an army spokesman the "security forces are convenient scapegoats" for the killings and he claims allegations against the army are made by "groups who want to bring down the government and replace it with their own brand of government". Yet, according to Alan Davies, director of the Philippine Human Rights Project, "No agency, either international or local, is trying to properly investigate and map these killings to see how they are linked". -

“One woman who knows the pain this official silence causes is Erlinda Cadapan. Her daughter Sherlyn was a 29-year-old university student campaigning for peasant rights when she was abducted along with a friend by suspected soldiers in 2006. A witness, who claims he met the two women in army custody, has testified that he saw them raped and tortured by soldiers and that soldiers told him they were later killed. -

Death Squads in Manila and Davao

According to Human Rights Watch: The summary killing of suspected criminals is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. Alfredo Lim, a former police officer and chief of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), was implicated in using similar tactics while mayor of the capital, Manila, from 1992 to 1998. He was never prosecuted for his alleged role in the summary executions of dozens of suspected drug dealers and other criminals, which earned him the nickname “Dirty Harry.” Instead, his reputation as an anti-crime crusader buoyed his election to the Philippine senate in 2004. Three years later, he was again elected Manila’s mayor, a post he held until 2013. [Source: One Shot to the Head" Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines” by Human Rights Watch

May 21, 2014]

But Lim and other politicians who also used a tough anti-crime approach have not matched the popularity of Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City, the largest city in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, who is now serving his seventh and unprecedented term. That success is largely due to his anti-crime program that encouraged, and possibly even sanctioned, the operations of the Davao Death Squad (DDS). Investigations by Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations found evidence that government officials and members of the police were passively or actively complicit in 28 killings by the Davao Death Squad (DDS) from 2007-2009. Frequently, the victims had earlier been warned that their names were on a “list” of people to be killed unless they stopped engaging in criminal activities. Government employees, including police and municipal government officials, delivered such warnings to the targeted victims.

Duterte’s popularity, built on his seeming willingness to engage in unlawful violence to eliminate common crime—a serious problem in many urban areas in the Philippines—has an appeal that extends far beyond Davao City. His name is often floated as a potential presidential candidate for his seeming ability to solve challenges that stymie other politicians. In February 2014, Duterte told a Senate hearing on rice smuggling in the Philippines that he would “gladly kill” an alleged smuggler who tried to smuggle rice into his city. Instead of criticizing Duterte for suggesting the use of extrajudicial killings, the committee chairperson appeared to express support for Duterte’s “tough” anti-crime measures in Davao City.

The Davao City model of extrajudicial killings as a crime-fighting strategy appears to have spread to other cities in the Philippines. United States State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in 2005 noted the apparent rise of municipal government-sanctioned death squads in cities including Cebu City, Toledo, and Carcar. Then-Cebu Mayor Tommy Osmena told police officers in 2005: “Go ahead, pull the trigger. As mayor, my warning to anybody doing a crime is I will see to it that you'll be dead on the spot. If we catch you, you will be so sorry—you won't be around.”

A Human Rights Watch report published in April 2009, “You Can Die Any Time:” Death Squad Killings in Mindanao extensively documented death squad activity under Duterte in Davao City between 1998 and 2009.

Death Squads in Tagum City, Mindanao

In May 2014, Human Rights Watch said in a report that official police records show 298 killings between January 2007 and March 2013 in Tagum City on the southern island of Mindanao were attributed to the “Tagum City Death Squad,” and not one person has been prosecuted for the deaths, in some cases of children. The 71-page report, “‘One Shot to the Head’: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines,” details the involvement of local government officials – including Tagum City’s former mayor, Rey “Chiong” Uy – and police officers in the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, street children, and others over the past decade. The report draws heavily on interviews and affidavits from three self-proclaimed members of the death squad in Tagum City who took part in its killing operations. It also examines the failure of the Philippine government to seriously investigate the death squad and bring those responsible to justice. [Source: One Shot to the Head" Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines” by Human Rights Watch

May 21, 2014]

On the night of April 11, 2011, a man approached 12-year-old Macky Lumangtad in Freedom Park, a plaza in Tagum City on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. Witnesses said the man told the child that he needed his help to find “Kokey” Lagulos, a nine-year-old suspected of theft. The next day, residents found Lumangtad’s body in a vacant lot with a bullet wound to his head. Lagulos’ body was found in the nearby town of Maco. It bore at least 22 stab wounds. On December 11, 2013, a man shot controversial talk show commentator Rogelio Butalid at point-blank range moments after Butalid stepped out of a radio station in Tagum City. A witness saw the gunman speed away on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.

The murders of Lumangtad, Lagulos, and Butalid are just a few of the nearly 300 killings attributed to the Tagum City death squad (TDS) from 2007 to 2013. Police sources caution that this figure is conservative because other killings are likely to have been unreported. Human Rights Watch research and interviews paint a detailed and grisly picture of the death squad and its killing operations. At its height, the death squad consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices on the government payroll, with active involvement from local police all the way up to Tagum City’s former mayor, Rey “Chiong” Uy, who was in office from 1998 to June 2013. Despite the dispersal of TDS members after Uy left office, TDS-style killings have continued, although less frequently, sparking concerns that elements of the death squad remain operational and are continuing to kill for financial gain. However, the paymaster for these post-Uy era hits is not known.

Former death squad members told Human Rights Watch that the Tagum City Death Squad at its peak consisted of 14 people, and included ex-convicts, street children, and former members of the communist New People’s Army. Several TDS members were officially employed with the city’s Civil Security Unit (CSU), which is responsible for keeping the peace in public places such as markets, bus terminals, and schools. The structure and operations of the TDS were similar to that of the Davao Death Squad, which Human Rights Watch documented in “You Can Die Any Time”: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao in 2009. Reports of similar killings in other Philippine cities suggest that the Davao Death Squad, which boosted the popularity of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, has motivated other municipal officials to adopt extrajudicial killings as a crime control method.

Sources and Reasons for Death Squads Killings in Tagum City

According to Human Rights Watch: Many of the extrajudicial killings through June 2013 appeared rooted in Mayor Uy’s public anti-crime campaign, which sought to rid Tagum City of what the mayor frequently referred to as “weeds”: suspected petty criminals, drug dealers, small-time thieves, and children living or working on the streets. The killings seem intended to send an anti-crime message to the general population as much as to eliminate specific individuals: many were carried out in broad daylight in public places, including near Tagum’s City Hall, by motorcycle-riding gunmen using .45 caliber pistols. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

Others targeted by the Tagum City Death Squad were victims of guns-for-hire operations. Among these were a journalist, a judge, and a tribal leader as well as local politicians and businessmen. TDS members who refused to carry out orders, sought to quit, or otherwise fell into disfavor were themselves likely to become death squad victims.

Insiders say Uy directed the operations of the death squad with the help of two trusted aides as well as several officers with the Tagum City police. Uy allegedly provided payment and equipment for the operations, using the Civil Security Unit as cover to lawfully issue guns and motorcycles used in killings. Human Rights Watch found that while Uy did not approve or have knowledge of all TDS killings, there is compelling evidence that he knew and approved many of them.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three self-proclaimed members of the Tagum Death Squad and obtained the affidavit of a fourth. We also interviewed two people who had insider knowledge of the group, as well as police officers who investigated its activities over the years. The most detailed account of Tagum Death Squad operations came from Romnick Minta, a member who decided to come out and testify about the killings after members of the group murdered his brother Mario and nearly killed him as well on September 8, 2012. Wounded, in government custody, and afraid that he would be killed while detained in the Tagum City Police Station, Minta said he decided to seek refuge at the Davao del Norte Provincial Police Office, which in turn had been providing him protection.

Jomarie Abayon, the TDS member who shot the Minta brothers, also provided details of the death squad’s activities. Abayon had also wanted to testify against former Mayor Uy and his former TDS colleagues but he had a falling out with officials of the Davao del Norte police, who accused him of selling the .45 caliber pistol given to him for his own protection. He has since left Tagum City. Another former member, who talked to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity, confirmed many of the details provided by Minta and Abayon. Moreover, Marlon Hepalago, also a former member, signed an affidavit on October 25, 2012, detailing the killings in which he had participated.

History of the Tagum City Death Squads

The killings documented in the Human Rights Watch report attributed to the Tagum City Death Squad (TDS) have their roots in historical, social, and political factors in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. They include: 1) A legacy of violence linked to Mindanao’s long history as a focal point for insurgencies and conflict; 2) The operations in Mindanao of local and international drug syndicates producing, marketing, and trans-shipping methamphetamine, which contribute to corruption and low morale among police and prosecutors in the area; and 3) The influence of Davao City’s long-time mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been a vocal proponent of the use of violence to rid areas of common crime. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

In April 2009, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions reported that death squad killings in the Philippines were a legacy of the perceived success among some Philippine government officials and security forces of extrajudicial executions as an acceptable mode of crime control. Human Rights Watch believes that such a perspective has been adopted in Tagum, a city with a population of 254,000 located one hour’s drive north of Davao City in Davao del Norte Province.

Human Rights Watch’s investigations have found that Rey Uy, the mayor of Tagum from 1998 to 2013, created his own death squad. Uy deployed the death squad to reduce the presence of perceived criminals and others that he referred to as “weeds” of his city—drug dealers, petty criminals, and those who openly inhaled solvents like glue as a cheap high. Many of these were children living on Tagum’s streets.

Human Rights Watch uncovered compelling information that local police and government officials, on Uy’s orders, organized and operated the Tagum City Death Squad. The death squad consisted of as many as 14 members. Criteria for being a target were violating Uy’s perceptions of acceptable behavior on the streets of Tagum, regardless of whether the victim’s conduct violated any laws. Indeed, many of the victims had never been convicted of any crime.

By 2005, the Tagum City Death Squad had morphed into a guns-for-hire operation whose targets included businessmen, police officers, a leader of an indigenous tribe, a judge, and former TDS members. According to several sources, some of them former TDS members, Uy assigned people whom he trusted and knew well from his previous career as a gold-mine operator to operate the death squad. These men later ordered several killings—often without Uy’s knowledge—as a personal revenue generating scheme outside of Uy’s control. The TDS was an unlawful outgrowth of Tagum City’s Civil Security Unit (CSU). The CSU was part of Uy’s effort during his 15 years as mayor to transform Tagum from a sleepy agricultural town into a modern city. Uy’s focus on municipal improvement extended to a campaign aimed to rid the city of indigents and street people, many of them children.

It is not entirely clear when Uy created the death squad, using the CSU as cover. Members of the TDS claim that the killings by the group began a few years after he took office in 1998. Police records beginning in January 2007 collected by investigators from the Davao del Norte Provincial Police Office indicated what a police official said was an increasing number of killings of indigents, children, and suspected criminals.

Uy brooked no challenges to his style of governance and removed or sidelined officials whom he perceived as hindrances to his political agenda. In 2008, Uy physically removed office equipment of the Tagum City Police Station to signal his dislike for the new police chief.[37] Uy also solidified his political influence through family connections. In 2007, his brother Arthur became the governor of Compostela Valley, a province next to Tagum City where the Uys first made their fortune in small-scale gold mining. Those factors were powerful and intimidating deterrents against challenges to Uy’s mayoralty, and to his impunity for abuses. As the number of TDS killings rose and extended beyond the originally targeted “weeds,” they created a fear-enforced public silence about Uy’s abuses. Revelations that the TDS included former members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, compounded public reluctance to speak out about the killings because the NPA is known for its assassination squad called “Sparrows.” But an NPA leader in the Southern Mindanao region told Human Rights Watch that the rebel group did not support the TDS killings and that the NPA considers as “fair targets” former members who are with the TDS, as well as the death squad’s leaders.

Uy’s term of office as mayor ended in 2013. His son De Carlo lost in his attempt to succeed his father in the mayoral election that same year, due in part to public concern about the death squad killings. Because of that political loss, TDS members lost their official protection and left City Hall’s CSU to seek refuge in other provinces, particularly Compostela Valley, where Uy’s brother is governor. The new mayor, Allan Rellon, officially disbanded the CSU, but in June 2013 created two entities in its place: the Security Management Office (SMO) and the Traffic Management Office (TMO). Rellon has divided the responsibilities of the CSU between these two new agencies. The SMO regulates public security, particularly in public markets where many of petty criminals operate, and matters including police auxiliaries and school guards. The TMO is mainly responsible for the city’s traffic system.

Tagum City Death Squad Killings

According to Human Rights Watch: “Police officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch blamed the TDS for these killings, most of which have not been fully investigated by the Tagum City police. In February 2011, Uy issued an explicit warning to “criminal” elements in the city advising them to “go somewhere else.” “If you are stealing, buying or selling drugs, committing wrong things in Tagum,” a police officer told Human Rights Watch, “someone is going to kill you.” A senior official of the Commission on Human Rights in Southern Mindanao described these killings as “silent killings” because these murders were hardly reported in the press. “There is no media there that talks about it,” the official said. “All the [journalists] there are terrorized by Uy.” [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

Official police records obtained by Human Rights Watch show 298 killings between January 2007 and March 2013 that officials of the Davao del Norte Provincial Police Office attributed to the TDS. Fourteen others were wounded in attacks in the same period. All of these cases remained unsolved and not one perpetrator—except an individual who later agreed to testify in a case filed against Uy and other people involved in the TDS—has been arrested, according to the documents. An overwhelming majority of these cases involved the use of .45 caliber pistols and motorcycles.

A provincial police official said this death toll is “conservative” as more killings occurred from March 2013 onwards while others may not have been reported to the police. Members of the TDS told Human Rights Watch that the killings began as early as 2005 and continued up to the time Uy stepped down as mayor in 2013. A former TDS member said that he had heard the TDS started as early as 1998. Indeed, in August 2004, residents of Tagum, led by the Catholic Church, held a rally against the killings. One local media report claimed that the TDS killed as many as 40 people in four months in 2004.

Despite the “disbanding” of the CSU and the dispersal of TDS members after Uy left office, TDS-style killings have continued. Those murders have sparked concerns that elements of the TDS remain operational. As already noted above, on April 28, 2014, as this report was being finalized, Philippines media reported that the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation had recommended the prosecution of four members of the Tagum City SMO for their alleged role in the “abduction, torture and murder of two teenaged boys last February.”[48] Mayor Allan Rellon reportedly stated that he was “bewildered” by the allegations and responded by stating that “As a local chief executive, I abhor any form of summary killing.”

On December 11, 2013, gunmen shot dead Rogelio Butalid at a busy street in Tagum City. Butalid was a radio commentator known for his on-air criticism of Uy and his associates at the Davao del Norte Electric Cooperative. A woman who claimed to have witnessed the killing identified the gunman as a key TDS member. The paymaster for these post-Uy era killings is not known. However, there is speculation that former TDS members are continuing to commit killings for financial gain.

Apparent death squad killing operations have dropped since Uy stepped down as mayor in June 2013, but still continue. Sources say that many TDS members left Tagum and relocated to Compostela Valley, an adjacent province where Uy’s brother is governor. However, some TDS members have remained in Tagum and are allegedly operating on a contract killing for-profit basis. A woman who claimed to have witnessed the December 2013 killing of Rogelio Butalid (described at the start of this report), for example, identified the gunman as a key TDS member.

Membership and Structure of the Tagum City Death Squads

According to several sources, including two former TDS members, most members of the Tagum City Death Squad worked under a cover of legitimacy mostly as “security aides”—at the Tagum City government’s Civil Security Unit (CSU). “Most employees of the CSU were ordinary employees and they had no idea what [TDS members] were doing,” Minta told Human Rights Watch. Minta, whose official designation at the CSU was “security aide,” alleged, however, that the CSU chief at the time, a retired police official named Col. Abraham Catre, knew of the death squad’s existence within the CSU. Jomarie Abayon, another former member, confirmed Minta’s assertion about Catre’s knowledge of the TDS in his sworn statement submitted as evidence in the case filed against Uy and others before the Office of the Ombudsman. Abayon asserted that Catre “also gave us instructions and work, which means killing assignments.” [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

As employees of the CSU, the death squad members received regular salaries as well as legal documents, such as identification cards, for their employment. Minta showed Human Rights Watch photocopies of his official identification card as “security aide” of the CSU. Abayon, in his affidavit, attached photocopies of his official ID signed by the intelligence officer of the Tagum City Police Station, designating him as “confidential agent” with the station’s intelligence section.

More importantly, the CSU and police designations meant TDS members could carry firearms legally. Guisseppe Geralde, who served as chief of police of Tagum City from 2009 to 2011, justified the arming of some CSU members on the basis that it was for self-defense in the line of CSU duties. Uy also said the PNP authorized the CSU members to carry firearms. They could also drive motorcycles with no license plates without fear of being stopped by authorities. That helped enable them to commit targeted killings with impunity.

According to Abayon and Minta, Rolando “Rolly” Sabitsana, a non-commissioned police officer with the rank of Senior Police Officer 1 (equivalent to staff sergeant in the military), acted as the team leader of the Tagum City Death Squad. He also directly supervised one of the two teams comprising the death squad. Sabitsana often assigned missions to specific TDS members. A police intelligence officer told Human Rights Watch: “My colleagues would tell me, when I was new, to keep quiet. “These officers are the mayor’s men.” One of them was Sabitsana, Rolly Sabitsana. So we just kept quiet. We couldn’t arrest them. We couldn’t do anything when they’re in front of us. But we knew what they were doing.”

As the team leader who controlled the death squad, Sabitsana had direct access to two of Uy’s most trusted men: Conrado “Rading” Palen and Victor “Kulot” Cuaresma. Both reported directly to Uy, who in turn would always relay his orders to them, not directly to the hit men. Minta told Human Rights Watch: Sabitsana handled us. Rading was our adviser. Victor was always at Mayor Uy’s house and he was the one who would send us text messages about an upcoming job. Victor also handled our finances.

Connections Between the Tagum City Death Squads and the Police and the Mayor

According to Minta, Palen, who was officially designated as an “intelligence operative” of the Tagum police, directly supervised the other team to which he belonged. “If Mayor [Uy] has an event that required more security, Sabitsana’s team would be the more visible one while ours would just be watching in the sideline,” Minta said. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

The death squad also had the cooperation of several members of the Tagum City Police Station, some of whom are named as respondents in the cases filed by the families of the victims before the Office of the Ombudsman. One of them, Alex Manigo, ranked police officer 3 (equivalent of master sergeant in the military), was Sabitsana’s right-hand man. He had gone officially absent-without-leave (AWOL) when the Tagum City Death Squad dispersed after the defeat of Uy in the elections. However, he was recently appointed as head of the CSU in Compostela Valley province, where Uy’s brother, Arthur, is governor and where killings have also been taking place.

The intelligence officer told Human Rights Watch that Uy “micromanaged” the Tagum City Police Station. That control explained the police officers’ often blind obedience to Uy’s orders. Police officers were also concerned about reprisals for refusing Uy’s orders after the Tagum City Death Squad targeted several police officers for death. The intelligence officer said: “Tagum is under the iron grip of Mayor Uy. They have to do what the mayor wants because they are afraid the mayor would relieve them. You can’t disobey him because his power is higher than the chief of police. Even the police chief is fearful of him. He can’t be assigned to Tagum without the mayor’s approval. Even if you get recommended by higher officers, the head of the police in the region, the province, if he won’t approve it, you don’t get it.

The intelligence officer described an incident in 2008 in which the regional office of the Philippine National Police assigned an officer-in-charge for the Tagum City Police Station without Uy’s approval. Uy responded by ordering the removal of all the furniture and equipment the city had given to the police force, essentially crippling it. The regional police had no choice but appoint a candidate that Uy favored. “He found it disrespectful that he wasn’t consulted about the OIC,” the source said. A government official privy to the dynamic of the police and local government confirmed this account to Human Rights Watch. But it soon became apparent that control of the police force was Uy’s true objective. “Without a police chief of his own choosing, he would have difficulty committing all of these crimes,” said a police official from Davao del Norte province.

Targets of the Tagum City Death Squads

Former members of Tagum City Death Squad told Human Rights Watch that their targets were overwhelmingly individuals alleged to be thieves, drug dealers, and killers. Once the death squad had identified such individuals, often with the assistance of village officials and police officers, they would monitor them closely, particularly the repeat offenders. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

TDS member Romnick Minta told Human Rights Watch that one of his duties was to monitor the movements and activities of people recently released from jail. “[Former prison inmates] usually are our next job,” he said, referring to such targets. As an “agent,” he would follow the individual around and report to his colleagues—usually Renster Azarcon, a senior TDS member—the target’s whereabouts. In cases in which TDS members perceive the target becoming involved in criminal activity, as in the case of Kennedy Casimina, who was accused of being a thief and allegedly would not reform, the TDS killing would soon follow.

Minta described the TDS modus operandi as a more streamlined version of the “slow, corrupt and unpredictable” Philippine justice system. Minta praised TDS methods as a more efficient way to dispense “justice.” “Once arrested, the longest a person can be jailed is 24 hours if no case is filed against him,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Our job was to eliminate him immediately if no one filed a case. Minta indicated that the TDS respected the judicial principle of double jeopardy by not targeting individuals for crimes for which they had already served time in prison. Instead, he said the TDS only targeted those which the death squad believed had committed crimes, but had successfully evaded arrest and prosecution.

Other targets of the death squad were also listed in what members called the “order of battle ” or OB. Marlon Hepalago, the former member, recalled in his affidavit the February 20, 2011, killing of a police officer named Edwin Gonzales de Guzman on Sobrecarey Street. “The reason for the killing as given by Rading was that the said police officer was already in their OB and the killing was approved by Mayor Rey Uy.” De Guzman attributed the killing to Renster Azarcon, who did the shooting, while riding on a motorcycle that Hepalago drove.

The children that frequented Freedom Park knew of and dreaded this OB and some of them went to the extent of contacting the people who allegedly maintained that list. Jomarie Abayon, a former TDS member, told Human Rights Watch the OB also included names allegedly reported to the mayor and his men through a radio program that broadcast a mobile number to which citizens can report crimes or suspected criminals. Abayon said: “That number would receive a lot of calls and texts identifying suspected criminals. Our task was to check out the names, whether these people actually were committing the crimes they were accused of committing. If we confirmed it, our leaders would then assign the job [to kill the alleged criminal].

The “weeds” of Tagum City, however, were not the only targets of the Tagum City Death Squad. According to Minta, their leaders—Conrado Palen and Victor Cuaresma—also deployed the TDS for the contract killings of individuals outside of the usual profile of petty criminals. They included ordinary residents, businessmen, and even police officers. Palen and Cuaresma allegedly pocketed the largest portion of payments for these contract killings, sharing with the group a few thousand pesos for each hit. Hepalago’s affidavit states that he drove the motorcycle that Azarcon used in the September 5, 2010, killing of Mario Bongabong, one of Palen’s alleged competitors in the small-scale mining business. The murder of Alicia Ang was another such case of a contract killing that Palen facilitated after the alleged masterminds approached him because the victim sued them in court over a property dispute and won.

Both Minta and Abayon said Mayor Uy did not necessarily have first-hand knowledge of the planning of these “non-weeds” killings, but that he tolerated such abuses. “[Uy] allowed Palen and Cuaresma to do these other killings as long as we were not caught and as long as we can show that the targets were bad elements,” Minta said. Other members of the death squad, encouraged by Palen’s and Cuaresma’s deployment of the TDS for personal gain, were inspired to do likewise. Romnick Minta and Jomarie Abayon said that other TDS members began fabricating allegations against individuals in order to create greater number of paid contract killings. “They will kill even those who are not guilty. They will just text the mayor and say they will [kill] a drug addict,” a police officer said. Minta said that the TDS leaders learned that fabricating drug allegations against an individual in order to justify a summary killing was an easy way to get Uy’s approval for such murders.

How Tagum City Death Squad Killings Were Carried Out

The vast majority of the TDS killings investigated by Human Rights Watch involved the use of motorcycles. These belonged to the Tagum City government and would be assigned to members of the death squad officially employed as security aides of the Civil Security Unit. Each murder typically involved four men riding two motorcycles. In some instances, the TDS would deploy six men on three motorcycles in cases in which they suspected the victim would have the ability to fight back. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

According to Minta, after Palen or Cuaresma finalized a hit, often with Mayor Uy’s approval, they or sometimes Uy himself would contact Sabitsana. Sabitsana would then send text messages to specific TDS members to carry out the task of either conducting more surveillance on the subject or the actual murder itself. In some instances, as in the case of the murders of Epifanio Salmin and Dennis Angeles, the assigned killers would meet with the team leaders and even the person who allegedly ordered the killing, to discuss the job “formally.”

Minta said TDS members worked under three “supervisors”—Palen, Cuaresma, and Sabitsana. Minta said he and other TDS members would be told not to report to the CSU office, but had to be available by mobile phone 24 hours a day. TDS members would await instructions as to the identity and location of the target. Sometimes, the assigned assailants were given photos, descriptions, sketches, and the address of the target. The supervisors would specify the division of labor—which TDS member was the gunman and which one the motorcycle driver. Minta told Human Rights Watch: [TDS members] didn’t plan what we did. It came from the mayor. From the mayor, this would be forwarded by text to Rolly [Sabitsana]. Rolly then would forward this to us. Then we do the job. After finishing our job, we would text Rolly and report that we did it. Then the mayor would reply and say okay.

Minta and Jomarie Abayon, another former member, said that police officers were also involved in the killings. “They were with us,” Abayon said. “We would clear our operations with their intel and they would reply, ‘We’re a go today, let’s go to work.’ We would also do jobs for them if they have jobs for us.” There were instances when the TDS didn’t even have to clear a murder with their leaders. Minta said that on several occasions, TDS members who happened to catch a thief would just kill him outright. “The instruction to us was if we were sure the target had committed a crime, we can kill him without clearing it with them first,” Minta said.

Killings were often committed in broad daylight and the weapon of choice was usually a .45 caliber pistol. While TDS members were not given a quota, Minta said they often killed two or three victims a week, depending on orders from their leaders. Minta told Human Rights Watch that the TDS had also killed outside Tagum, as far away as Butuan City, in northern Mindanao. Sometimes, TDS members got assignments to work as bodyguards for businessmen who contracted the squad’s team leaders.

The TDS members would often regroup after a killing at their safe house in Visayan Village, Tagum City, owned by Sabitsana. The safe house was also where Palen or Cuaresma would pay TDS members, usually a week after a killing. On at least two occasions, Mayor Uy himself personally paid the killers. However, Minta said that Uy forbade TDS members from going to his office at City Hall. “[Instead], we go to his residence beside the Grand Mall. We enter the red gate of his house, enter the bodega and turn right to his house to wait for the payment from him,” Minta said.

$110 for a Tagum City Death Squad Killing

The TDS as a unit got paid 5,000 pesos ($110) for every killing—an amount the members of the group would divide among themselves. The money would come from Uy himself, channeled through either Victor Cuaresma or Conrado Palen. On at least two occasions, Uy personally paid Romnick Minta and Jomarie Abayon for two killings. In such instances, the payment occurred in the former mayor’s home in Apokon, Tagum City, which they called “Jaguar,” according to former death squad members. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

As an employee of the Civil Security Unit of City Hall, Minta also received a monthly salary of about 10,000 pesos ($220). That compares to a provincial monthly minimum wage of 7,224 pesos. Contract killings augmented this salary, depending on how many TDS members were involved in a particular murder. Former member Marlon Hepalago said that driving the gunman’s motorcycle paid 3,000 pesos ($66) in the murder of Palen’s business rival Mario Bongabong. Hepalago said he earned 2,000 to 3000 pesos per contract killing, depending on the budget for the hit.

None of the former TDS members said they knew where Mayor Uy sourced the money to pay them or spent on their behalf, as in the case of Jomarie Abayon, who was wounded during his attempt to kill Romnick Minta on September 8, 2012, and whose hospital bills Uy paid for. Minta suspected the funds came from the payments of third parties who contacted the mayor or his close aides for contract killings. Some Tagum residents suspected that Uy sourced the contract killing payment from corrupt activities, among them kickbacks from government contracts, even demanding a cut in the profit from small business.

But the funds for the TDS did not necessarily come from illicit sources. Under the law that created the Philippine National Police, mayors such as Uy can augment the city’s security forces by “employing or deploying” units of the PNP or by creating “community safety plans.” Funding for these initiatives can either come from the city’s budget or can be sourced through what are called “intelligence funds.” Local executives are given much leeway, often discretionary, in spending these intelligence funds, also called confidential funds, to help in “peace and order efforts.”

Children Killed by the Tagum City Death Squads

Macky Lumangtad, 12, Killed on April 12, 2011: Macky Lumangtad, 12, was one of the many children who frequented the Freedom Park behind City Hall in Tagum City in the evenings. There he would play computer games with his friends at Net Central Café, a nearby Internet café. According to Lumangtad’s mother, Carmelita Lumangtad, on the night of April 11, 2011, some of Lumangtad’s friends saw him being approached by a man they knew by the name of “Wacky.” Wacky frequented the plaza and would fence items such as cellphones stolen by the boys who hung out at the plaza. There were also rumors that Wacky had connections to the Tagum City Death Squad. The next day, residents of Mipangi, a village in Maco town, Compostela Valley province, which is adjacent to Tagum City, found Lumangtad’s body in a vacant lot bearing a gunshot wound to the head. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

Carmelita told Human Rights Watch that her son’s murder followed police suspicions that he was part of a group of children who carried out thefts, an allegation she denied. “The police thought he was part of the group that stole 40,000 pesos [US$900] as well as cellphones from a store on April 8, 2011. But he was not. [The thieves] were his friends, but he was not with them when the alleged crime happened,” she said. Carmelita said she believes that her son’s abductor must have been familiar to him as he would never have consented to leave the plaza in the company of a stranger.

Carmelita’s efforts to get the police to investigate her son’s murder proved futile. She said that each time she visited the Maco police station, she was told there were no new developments in the case. Instead, the police officers would often attempt to solicit information from her about her son’s case. “I don’t think the police have investigated properly,” she said. She tried asking the National Bureau of Investigation but she said she lacked the money for legal representation or even just transportation costs to follow-up on the case. About the only assistance Carmelita received was from the Social Welfare and Development Office of the City Hall, which paid for her son’s “pauper’s burial.”

When queried about Lumangtad’s death, the police precinct at City Hall could not produce any investigation report. The boy’s family could not even get a copy of the official police blotter of the murder. Even the Social Welfare and Development Office, which handles child safety and welfare matters, could not locate any report on the killing in its files. According to a social worker, police often just filed official reports of killings of poor people like Lumangtad to funeral homes.

Jenny Boy “Kokey” Lagulos, 9, Killed on April 12, 2011

Although only 9 years old, Jenny Boy “Kokey” Lagulos was implicated by people interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the April 8, 2011, theft of money and phones from a store at the Trade Center in Tagum City. Residents found Lagulos’s body on April 12, 2011, on Tagum’s Lapu-Lapu Street just hours after the discovery of Macky Lumangtad’s body. Media reports quoting the police stated that Lagulos’s body bore 22 stab wounds. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2014 ]

According to a report by John Paul Seniel, a journalist for GMA News Television in Davao City, two boys saw the abduction of Lagulos on the night of April 12. An employee at the Gold City bowling alley in Tagum who also worked as an informant for the death squad brought Lagulos to a dark corner of Lapu-Lapu Street where two men on motorcycles were waiting. One of them, allegedly a member of the Tagum City Death Squad named Renster “Renren” Azarcon, then stabbed Lagulos repeatedly. Seniel said that his efforts to get government officials to comment on Lagulos’s murder proved futile: “There was no police investigation, but they also denied that such a killing was committed by the government.” In his television report, Seniel said social welfare officials responded to his queries by saying that they could not comment about the case.

Jomarie Abayon, a former TDS member, told Human Rights Watch that he was one of four members tasked to look for the children who stole from the store, including Lumangtad and Lagulos. “[Lagulos] had become notorious. We had been receiving a lot of complaints against him and his group,” Abayon told Human Rights Watch. Those complaints included allegations by store owners and residents near the plaza that Lagulos and his group of friends frequently created disturbances in and around the plaza by fighting with each other, snatching cellphones and, according to a Tagum City social worker, sometimes harassing female passersby.

Romnick Minta, another former member of the death squad, also alleged that Azarcon killed Lagulos. Minta said Azarcon used a knife he called a “Rambo” knife because it resembled the one Sylvester Stallone used in the movie First Blood. According to Lagulos’s relatives, the police could not explain the boy’s murder and that they had not identified any suspects.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: One Shot to the Head" Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines” by Human Rights Watch

May 21, 2014; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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