Before His Bloody Drug War, Rodrigo Duterte was an Iron-fisted Mayor
Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a labor day campaign rally on May 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)
In November 2013, days after Super Typhoon Haiyan razed Tacloban City on the island of Leyte, Rodrigo Duterte prepared to board a helicopter headed for the heart of destruction. The future president of the Philippines was then the tough talking mayor of Davao City, credited with routing crime from its streets. He was known as the Punisher.
Duterte was on a mission, leading a humanitarian team from Davao to deliver medical aid and cash to the affected region. Before he flew to Leyte, he posed for Rappler photographer Karlos Manlupig. The outlet would report that Duterte instructed his security staff to shoot anyone who tried to steal from the aid workers. He had no qualms adding to the typhoon’s death toll, Duterte reportedly said.
“I told them to just shoot at the feet,” Rappler reported Duterte said in Tagalog. “They can have prosthetics after, anyway.”
The bravado and vigilante tactics were signature Duterte, Rappler co-founder and CEO Maria Ressa told FRONTLINE. She first interviewed Duterte while still a correspondent with CNN in the 1980s, after he was elected mayor.
“That’s part of the country in the south where law and order has been weak, and his vigilante tactics and how he’s governed the town is what he promised the Philippines,” Ressa said. “That’s what Filipinos voted for.”
As a former prosecutor, Duterte was predictably hard on crime during his two-plus decades as mayor of Davao City. But the severity of his crackdown wasn’t immediately clear. In 2017, former police officer Arthur Lascañas confessed to leading the so-called Davao Death Squad, which he alleged Duterte used to kill criminals. Duterte also famously admitted to shooting three people while mayor. In a 2016 interview, he told BBC the act proved he had the mettle to be president.
“That’s part of his appeal,” Ressa said. “He says what he thinks. He’s not a cautious politician. When you were coming from an era of politicians who watched their words, he seems refreshing – a voice made for social media. He’s authentic. He admits he kills people and he promised that he would kill people.”
On the trip to Leyte, Duterte’s security forces didn’t need to make good on the mayor’s willingness to add to the death toll. But his showmanship was on full-display. When he returned from his aid mission, Duterte was visibly emotional — calling for a state of emergency in the affected provinces, where bodies rotted in the street.
“I think God was somewhere else when the typhoon hit,” Duterte told reporters.
Haiyan was one of the strongest typhoons to ever hit land in the western North Pacific, closing in on the southern Philippines early Nov. 8, 2013. The typhoon was so destructive, it swept away even government-designated storm shelters. More than 6,000 people died.
Stefanie Caintic grew up in Tacloban but was working in Manila when the typhoon hit. Communication with her family immediately cut off.
Information trickled in through television broadcasts, revealing the wreckage of streets and buildings Caintic knew from childhood. She studied each face on her screen, looking for relatives and friends. Almost three days passed before a cousin finally called. The family had survived, and they were on their way to Manila, fleeing the same looters Duterte threatened to shoot.
“It felt like no government … no one’s looking out after you,” Caintic said. “It was chaos. People were looting the stores and robbing homes. So even if you weren’t affected by the actual typhoon, that was the next immediate danger that you were facing.”
Duterte was one of the first politicians to visit the region. At the time, Caintic had heard only rumors about the uncompromising mayor from the south. In typhoon-ravaged Tacloban, her family welcomed him as a savior. Caintic’s father later voted for Duterte, in the 2016 presidential election — which Duterte won by landslide.
Even as a longtime Duterte observer, Ressa said she could not have anticipated the violence that would unfold during his presidency, which is depicted in the FRONTLINE documentary On the President’s Orders. In that context, the order to shoot looters following Super Typhoon Haiyan was a sign of things to come, Ressa said.
Following his election in 2016, Duterte launched a bloody campaign against drugs. More than 5,500 suspected drug dealers and users have since died in anti-drug operations, according to official figures. The number is likely much higher, with some human rights groups estimating the death toll has surpassed 20,000.
In the first three years of Duterte’s presidency, there were more than 30 instances in which experts with the U.N. Human Rights Council raised concerns about human rights violations in the Philippines. A group of the experts in June called for an independent investigation, citing “a staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings in the context of the so-called war on drugs,” carried out “in an apparent climate of official, institutional impunity.” One month later, the Human Rights Council voted to launch a formal probe. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights is also investigating the drug war.
Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) also opened a preliminary examination of the country’s human rights situation, as it relates to the war on drugs. The Philippines consequently withdrew from the court, though this did not end the examination. Once the examination concludes, the ICC will determine whether to start its own investigation.