Blood and Power in the PhilippinesListen
Duterte: My campaign against drugs will not stop until the last pusher and the last drug lord are [imitates noise of cutting throat].
Aurora: The killings started as soon as Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in 2016. I was there reporting on the streets of the capital, Manila.
Aurora: So, this is the third body we’ve seen tonight. I hear there’s one more. This is really bad. He’s shot in the back of the head. His brains are spilling out and his wife is crying a lot, obviously.
Aurora: It was exactly what Duterte promised the Filipino people. Since he took office, thousands of alleged drug users and dealers have been killed by police. His extreme rhetoric and volatile policies have shocked people around the world. But their outrage hasn’t deterred him.
Duterte: I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people. Nobody not nobody!
Aurora: But if you show support, like President Donald Trump has, Duterte reveals his warm and playful side. Here he is singing a love song for Trump at a gala in Manila in 2017:
Aurora: I’ve covered all this as a reporter and tried to interview Duterte many times. I’ve chased him to different cities to try to get him to talk to me. He’s never agreed. But still, I wanted to find out more about him and how he became the leader he is today.
Aurora: Recently I flew to Davao where Duterte is from. It’s the largest city in the southern Philippines. He and his family have had a hold on power here for generations.
I go to downtown Davao. It’s Saturday afternoon and busy.
Aurora: There are street sellers selling coconut juice or calamansi juice. And fried things on sticks. There are uniformed soldiers of the army carrying M-16s. There are families walking around. Kids playing, men selling balloons.
Aurora: Duterte is credited for transforming Davao into a relatively peaceful and prosperous city. He was mayor here for more than two decades.
Aurora: 15 minutes from downtown, in a leafy gated subdivision, is the house where Duterte grew up. His sister lives here now
Aurora: We're here to visit Eleanor Duterte
Aurora: A security guard opens the gate. It’s a simple two-story house…a little rundown. Inside there’s a small Catholic chapel. On the wall are the Ten Commandments, Duterte’s presidential portrait, and a drawing about four feet high of his mother, Soledad.
Eleanor Duterte: I am the oldest daughter of Soledad Roa Duterte, and I am the older sister of Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
Aurora: Eleanor Duterte is thin, 76 years old, three years older than her brother, the president. She’s wearing Chanel earrings, some jade bangles, a gold medallion and a striped shirt with a Mickey Mouse appliqué at the center. She lived in California for more than 30 years. After she retired, she moved back to the family home.
Eleanor Duterte: All I can say is in his heart, he is guided by God. Trump is also guided. Xi Jinping is guided by. Putin! I'm not saying they're saints. They're human beings, but they're guided by a higher force. They're not guided by Darth Vader, they're guided by the light of God.
Aurora: Eleanor says her brother got his sense of discipline from their mother.
Eleanor Duterte: When he does something stupid, like he's found in a rumble, then the police comes and knocks on that gate and says, "Rodrigo is in a rumble." Here we go again. He's asked to kneel. We have an altar upstairs. There's a crucifix, then he kneels.
Aurora: She tells me their mother punished her brother by making him kneel in front of the family altar. In some tellings, he’s kneeling on mung. She made him hold out his arms.
Eleanor Duterte: The arms out is like a crucifixion you know.
Aurora: Did your mother used to whip Rodrigo?
Eleanor Duterte: Whipped? He has been whipped so many times!
Aurora: Eleanor has a favorite story about Duterte as a kid.
Eleanor Duterte: So, one time my parents were not here. So, my brother came home, and he had nose bleeding all over in the face and I said, "What happened to you?"
Aurora: Duterte told his sister a group of kids had ganged up on him and beat him up.
Eleanor Duterte: I said, "Okay come on let's go." I bring him to that group, and I said, "Is it true that you were fighting here? And then is it true that you were not fighting fair and square?" So the kids were silent.
“Which of you did the punch?" He was bleeding!
One kid says, "He did it." And the other kid, "No. He did it."
So, they were going like this. So I pulled the youngest and the shortest. I took hold of him and I know what a choke hold is. Choke hold is you put your arm around their neck so that the kid was like, "eh…ehh".
I said, "You tell the truth. Who's the captain here?" So, he pointed to the tallest guy.
So, I said to the tallest guy, "The next time you do an unfair fight, you're toast. Remember that., You will answer to me and you're toast."
Aurora: When Duterte was 14 years old in 1959, his father, Vicente, became the governor of the province of Davao.
Eleanor Duterte: He was a very peaceful, mild-spoken man but when he lays down the law, he lays down the law.
Aurora: The Duterte children grew up surrounded by politics. Like many provincial politicians, the elder Duterte held court at home, dispensing orders, advice and favor.
Eleanor Duterte: He told Rodrigo, that when you enter politics, you must be very clear with what you want. There are many forces that will oppose you and you have to stand your ground. We are not a military family, but Rodrigo took that to heart.
Aurora: Their father died of a heart attack when Duterte was just 22.
Eleanor Duterte: From that time on my mother was a widow, she became the father and the mother of the entire family.
Aurora: Soledad Duterte was a powerful figure.
Eleanor Duterte: We were in the logging business. We were in the fishing business. We were in the sawmill business. She was a realtor. She was in the real estate business. She was a teacher. She handled five hats, so who is the hero?
Aurora: Soledad was also an activist. She rallied against the authoritarian rule of then-president Ferdinand Marcos. And she helped Duterte start his political career.
Aurora: Do you think that your mother believed that he would be able to do something? Why him?
Eleanor Duterte: Yes, because he's a very good observer. During my father's time, he learned a lot when my father was governor. He and my father talked, father and son, always during dinner. My father would tell him, "One day, if you should choose politics, you have to do this. You have to do that." So, my mother knew that, of all his children, Rodrigo is the most prepared to enter public life.
Aurora:Their mother was by Duterte’s side until she died in 2012. She remains a towering presence.
Eleanor Duterte: Look at him today. Because he learned his lesson. You know when he has a problem now, he goes, he cries in the mausoleum where my mother's ashes are buried. He tells my mother what his problem is. Cries there like a baby, because the only person he really listens to is my mother. There’s no other.
Aurora: Eleanor and I end up talking for hours. She tells me so many stories. But eventually it’s time to go.
Aurora: Okay, Eleanor.
Aurora: Thank you for meeting with me again. Have a good day.
Eleanor: You too.
Aurora: After seeing Duterte’s childhood home and hearing about his family, I wanted to meet one of his old friends. A man he grew up with named Jesus Dureza. So I drive two hours south to the sleepy town of Digos. Dureza now lives on an organic farm that doubles as a shooting range. He has flocks of ostriches...some peacocks...a giant blue macaw, a koi pond and he has a talking Myna bird who only knows insults. The whole place is piped with music from the 1950s.
Dureza: How did I get to know the president?
Aurora: Dureza remembers a car pulling up to his small Catholic high school. It was Duterte’s father, the governor.
Dureza: He was trying to pull a young boy out of the car and presented the boy to the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. And that was Rodrigo Duterte.
Aurora: It was the early 1960s. The young Duterte had been expelled from his previous school. At his new school he moved in with Dureza.
Dureza: There was no boarding house at the time. So, he was made to live in the little shed where I also lived as a working student.
You know if you look back now and to look where he is today, there's not much difference.
Aurora: Even in high school, Dureza says, Duterte already had the impulse to right wrongs with violence. He says one night, Duterte convinced him to sneak out of their school and go to the bar where a local gang leader hung out.
Dureza: And the leader was seated in the bar stool in the bar counter. Without any provocation, he just approached the guy and smacked him and said you know, in Bisaya, we would say, "[foreign language]." Translated into, "Don't create trouble here."
Aurora: The boys turned and fled.
Dureza: And then we have to run fast. We were just two of us, under the coconut trees, and in the dark, and then climb over the fence, and go back to our school. He had already that tendency to be a disciplinarian even if he’s not involved.
Aurora: Dureza has another story he loves to tell about Duterte learning to fly his father’s plane. One day Dureza was out on the campus field practicing his trumpet.
Dureza: I saw one small plane diving in the campus near the canteen and all that.
Aurora: It was Duterte up there in his father’s plane. The next morning, he was back on campus acting triumphant. He took Dureza to the school canteen and began teasing one of the servers.
Dureza: There’s this pretty canteen girl. He said, ‘Pilang.’ That’s the name of the girl. ‘Did you see that plane yesterday? Oh. That was me.’ ‘Oh, you pilot a plane already?’ ‘I tell you if you don’t say yes to my proposal to you and be my girlfriend, next Saturday I will fly the plane and then crash it into the canteen so both of us will die and we will be together to heaven.’ That’s how playful he is you know.
Aurora: I’m just taking this in when Dureza decides he wants to explain it a little bit more.
Dureza: That’s how he is. Pilang very nice boobs and all that and he would take a fancy of that pretty girl, but he was not serious he was just being playful.
Aurora: After high school, Rodrigo Duterte left Davao for college in Manila. He majored in political science and went on to study law. Where he continued to stand out as a troublemaker. In 1972 he was banned from attending his law school graduation ceremony for shooting another student in the leg.
He got married the following year and moved back to Davao at a time when violence in the city was spiraling. Dureza remembers what it felt like.
Dureza: You know, you cannot even leave your house unless you are fully armed. I was a practicing lawyer. I would always have a gun on my lap while driving just to protect myself.
Aurora: This part of the Philippines has long been a lawless, unruly place. But in the 1970s and 80s the violence in Davao was particularly intense.
There was a bloody struggle between armed communist rebels and the military of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The rebels executed soldiers, police officers and civilians. Government-backed vigilantes retaliated, massacring the rebels.
Petty crimes, murder and kidnapping flourished in the chaos.
Jesus Dureza: That's why if you ask me, I lost count already how many died.
Aurora: Duterte became a prosecutor for the city. Some of his cases involved going after rebels for alleged assassinations. I found a photo of him from that period where he’s with a group of people at the side of a crude grave that’s being exhumed for evidence. Everyone is holding cloths to their faces to ward off the smell of decomposing bodies. But Duterte, he’s standing there, right up front, with his bowl haircut and gold-rimmed glasses, arms crossed, completely unfazed.
Aurora: Duterte spent nearly a decade as a prosecutor. Later he would complain that the criminal justice system didn’t work. It couldn’t contain the violence.
Carlos Conde: Davao at the time in the '80s was the hotbed of the insurgency.
Aurora: This is Carlos Conde, a former journalist who covered Duterte, and now works for Human Rights Watch
Carlos Conde: They would just go up to somebody like in the streets or while eating breakfast in a café and then shoot them there. And then, that's it. It was a, it was a very wild, wild West kind of thing at some point. This is the environment that Duterte came into.
Aurora: In 1986, at the age of 41, Duterte got his first chance at politics. The dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos had ended. The new president wanted to appoint Duterte’s mother Vice-Mayor of Davao. Soledad Duterte declined and offered her son in her place. He took the position. Two years later he ran for mayor.
Carlos Conde: On the platform that he’s going to deal with the criminality, the killing fields, and change the image of Davao as a killing field.
Aurora: The message resonated with voters desperate for security. He won that election and every election he ran in afterwards.
As mayor, Duterte was known as a bit of a micromanager when it came to running Davao. He would prowl around the city late at night, undercover on a motorcycle, or even driving a city taxi, looking for problems to fix.
I want to hear about Duterte’s impact on Davao, so I go to a poor neighborhood near the center called Barangay Bankerohan.
Aurora: The local official who runs it is a man called Edgar Ibuyan. He pulls up his sleeve and shows me a tattoo of Duterte’s name across his arm. Ibuyan says that one morning he was woken up by a call from the mayor.
Edgar Ibuyan: [speaking in Bisaya]
Aurora: Duterte berated him, “What’s wrong with your people! Why are they dumping trash in the river?” He ordered Ibuyan to get it cleaned up. The next day, Ibuyan deployed 60 people to clean the river. He knew Duterte didn’t like to be disrespected.
There’s someone else I want to see while I’m in the neighborhood, a man who has become a symbol of Duterte’s generosity as a mayor. I stop by the house of Carlito Gamboa, around the corner from Ibuyan’s office.
Aurora: Carlito is blind. He’s small and hunched and works as a busker, feeling his way through songs on a dingy old keyboard with a homemade speaker, earning little more than coins.
Carlito Gamboa: [speaking in Bisaya]
Aurora: One day, the shack where he lived with his wife and children slid down the side of the mountain in a rainstorm. Duterte famously had a house built for Carlito, turning it over in front of the television cameras to the family’s tearful gratitude.
As mayor, Duterte made a show of being humble. He never wore suits and walked around in the same jeans and shirts as everyone else. He liked to joke that he rented rooms for his mistresses in 30-dollar-a-month boarding houses, not fancy condos. People loved that he slept under a mosquito net, the old Filipino way.
Aurora: This is him singing karaoke at a local bar, something he did all the time. Everyone knows his favorite songs; they’re part of Davao lore.
It’s striking how much people love Duterte for what he’s accomplished here in Davao. It’s part of where his power comes from. But there was, of course, a very dark side to the cleanup of the city.
Carlos Conde: It wasn’t immediate. He didn’t start killing all of these people in Davao the moment he became Mayor. It took a while. But I think the inclination was there. I think the realization that he needed to use force and violence to govern was there. That the only way to tame the West, as it were, in Davao, was to be the John Wayne of Davao. And later on, became the “Dirty Harry” of Davao.
Aurora: When Duterte became mayor in 1988, the communist rebels had mostly been driven out of the city into the mountains, but crime was still rampant. Duterte began going to Davao’s police stations looking for suspects to punish: pickpockets, gamblers, kidnappers.
Renato Lumawag: He would ask them to open their arms wide, kneel down.
Aurora: This is Renato Lumawag, a photojournalist who covered Duterte for years. He says Duterte would whip these suspects the same way his mother whipped him. Or he just went straight for his fists.
Renato Lumawag: And most of the times in the closed door. We are not allowed to see what he's doing, and we can just hear the bangings, the crackings of chairs. <span style="text-decoration: line-through;"
Aurora: Sometimes the police would bring suspects directly to the mayor’s office.
Carlos Conde: And then, in front of the camera, he would slap him in the face, and just curse him right there and then, in full view of the cameras.
Aurora: This is Carlos Conde again, the former journalist.
Carlos Conde: He had total control of the city. I mean, people are fearful of him. He was very clever in using the press to give the idea that he was in total control.
Aurora: He interprets all of this as political theater.
Carlos Conde: I think it was meant to communicate to the Davao public that he means business, that he doesn't ... You know, you break my rules, I'm going to break your hands. But instead of being repulsed by that, people actually applauded that. Because they see. It certainly was better run compared to other cities, and I guess, you know, people there who live there were willing to make that bargain.
Aurora: But it got a lot more sinister than slapping people in the face. Duterte became linked to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad. Its members, some police, some civilians, are accused of assassinating alleged drug dealers and other suspects. They’d ride two to a motorcycle to go hunt them down. Those methods now look like a blueprint for some of the tactics of his current drug war.
Aurora: A local journalist named Edith Caduaya, is showing me around Davao. She takes me to what used be a lonely road leading to a place called Laud Quarry. It’s become famous as the alleged dumping ground for the Davao Death Squad.
Edith: You can hear a cadaver was found, a dead body was found. A rape victim was found, a head was found, the legs. That's, that’s how gory it was.
Aurora: So, this road which used to be one lane and is now four was just like a dumping ground on all sides?
Aurora: Former death squad members have since come forward and said they were ordered to carry out hits for Duterte. Everything from throwing a grenade into a mosque to killing and dismembering the boyfriend of one of Duterte’s sisters to feeding another man to a crocodile.
Aurora: In the car, driving to the quarry, Caduaya tells me the death squad in Davao was seen as more of an open secret than a shadowy menace.
Edith: I told you there was a culture of acceptance in Davao. The level of frustration with the justice system is so low and here comes the DDS, giving them instant justice. Imagine an 18-year-old girl was raped by a neighbor. When the suspect was arrested, he was arrested at what, 12 noon? He was presented to the media at about 4:00, at 6 o’clock he was killed, everyone was happy.
Aurora: I mean that is very quick. But, um…
Edith: Swift justice. And the family even said, "Thank you for killing him."
Aurora: Duterte has both admitted to and denied involvement in the death squads.
Duterte: [In Tagalog] They say I’m the death squad.
Aurora: “They say I’m the death squad” he asks.
Host: So how do you react to that?
Duterte: [In Bisaya] True. That’s true,”
Aurora: “True, that’s true,” he says.
Another time his son dismissed one of the accusers as a liar and a madman.
An interesting insight about Duterte came in 1998 in a psychological assessment conducted as part of a messy breakup with his wife. It concluded he suffered from narcissistic personality disorder and had a quote “pervasive tendency to demean” and “humiliate others and violate their rights and feelings.”
Aurora: The same year his wife began annulment proceedings, Duterte started his own TV call-in show, Gikan sa Masa para sa Masa, or From the People, for the People. Every Sunday, from 1998 to 2016, Duterte would sit behind a desk with a co-host, discussing the issues of the day and taking calls from listeners. Many called asking for help, with medical problems, money troubles, or quarrels with their neighbors.
Cristi Garcia: So that's why he's endeared, I think that’s the reason why he's endeared to the hearts of the Davao community, because he gives them that kind of impression, that you can, whatever problems you have, you can just go to him, and he will help you.
Aurora: This is Cristi Garcia, the show’s founding producer. She says Gikan sa Masa was a top-rated show. People tuned in to hear Duterte’s righteous anger on their behalf. They felt like he was pulling for them.
Cristi Garcia: With Davao, they just love, we just love him, because of who he is.
Aurora: Outside the TV studio, every Sunday morning, people would line up hoping for a chance to talk to him.
Cristi Garcia: Our lobby, when you enter, there's this small spaced area there. There's a sofa there. It becomes an instant office of the mayor. Then, he would be sitting there and one by one, all of those people that came here would be accommodated and it's really funny that the issues raised to him, like, husband that left the wife, and the wife has no work, and he has children to support.
Aurora: Duterte would offer to find a job for the wife, then go yell at the husband.
Cristi Garcia: "Well where is your husband?" And then, if he knows the number of the husband, and he would talk to the husband. He is that kind of person that you know he gives that feeling of whatever problems you have, you can come to him, and then he will solve it for you.
Aurora: How do people reconcile this kindness with somebody who's you know like willing to let people die or be killed?
Cristi: It's really why he's loved. He will do the revenge for you. He’s our protector. He is our savior. He will protect us. If somebody wrong us he will punish that person for us. That’s the kind of image that he has.
Aurora: So, they want these people killed?!
Aurora: One day in 2001, Duterte walked into the studio and pulled out a folder.
Cristi: It's the order of battle.
Aurora: The order of battle was the term used in Davao for the list police kept of alleged criminals and drug dealers.
Cristi: So, I was surprised when it was the list, and he read the names on air, so all of us, even the technical crew, were oh, my God, is this, is this okay?!
Aurora: There were 500 names on that list.
Cristi: So, it really you know created that fear and everyone in Davao was talking about it. And then you know the families and friends of those people, those names he read on air, were afraid.
Aurora: Within a month people on the list started dying.
Almost no one dared to criticize Duterte. But there was one man who took the mayor on. A controversial radio host named Jun Pala. He spoke about Duterte in a television interview in 2002.
Jun Pala: Dito sa Davao, the church, society, everybody is afraid of Duterte.
Aurora: He publicly accused Duterte of human rights abuses, like killing street children. He survived two assassination attempts. And said the Lord kept him alive to tell the truth.
Jun Pala: Binuhay ako ng panginoon para mag sabi ng tutuoo. Davao is not really peaceful, Davao is a reign of terror.
Aurora: On September 6, 2003, Pala was assassinated. He was shot nine times, mostly in the head and chest. A former member of the Davao Death Squad said he was part of the team that did it. No one’s ever been held accountable in the killing. Long after Jun Pala’s death Duterte continued to speak ill of him.
Rodrigo Duterte: I do not diminish memory but that he was a rotten son of a bitch.
Carlos Conde: He would refer to that moment, to the death of Pala, in a way that would suggest that he was taking pleasure in the demise of that person.
Aurora: This is Carlos Conde again, of Human Rights Watch.
Carlos Conde: And people were like, uh-oh, were wondering whether he had a hand in it. It didn't help that he would express pleasure about it. He would refer to it as kind of a warning to tell people you cross me, this will happen to you.
Aurora: By 2013, Duterte had been in local politics for 25 years. He began to think about running for president. In 2015, he declared his candidacy, running much the same way he always had – tough on crime and drugs. Once again, it worked.
News clip: Rodrigo Duterte the bombastic mayor of a major southern city was heralded Tuesday as President-Elect of the Philippines after an incendiary and populist campaign.
Aurora: Just before I leave Davao I run into one of Duterte’s biggest allies, General Ronald dela Rosa. He’s the former head of the national police, the man who was in charge of the drug war. We’re at a screening for a new movie about his life.
Aurora: What has been the biggest change in your life since Duterte became president?
Bato: Well, believe it or not, I became an instant celebrity. And that's the big change.
Aurora: What do you think that means, all the Filipino people knowing you, everyone here taking selfies with you, what does that say to you about how they feel?
Bato: Yeah, it only means one thing, that they are happy with what we are doing.
Aurora: What about the international community?
Bato: Well, I don't care about them, frankly speaking. I don't care about them. As long as I don't work for them. I work hard for the poor Filipino people who are suffering from the scourge of illegal drugs. So, I don't care about them because I'm not working for them.
Aurora: General dela Rosa is now running for office, as are several other Duterte allies, all hoping to capitalize on the president’s success. Carlos Conde marvels at how Duterte has managed to combine violence and charisma to build a cult-like following.
Carlos Conde: He’s so hard to top because I think he’s just in his own league in terms of this.
Aurora: You think more politicians are going to try to copy him?
Conde: Oh, there will be more Dutertes. I think there will be more Dutertes unless he is held to account.
Aurora: Last year the International Criminal Court opened an inquiry into the killings during Duterte’s drug war. The Philippine president is almost 74 now, with three more years left in his term. Under the current Philippine constitution, he won’t be able to run again.
But here in Davao, the family dynasty continues. His daughter Sara is now the mayor.