Tagum 'death squad' tagged in 298 killings


Posted at May 21 2014 10:59 PM | Updated as of May 23 2014 05:08 AM

Former mayor Uy allegedly involved in killings

MANILA - A "death squad" allegedly backed by a former mayor was behind hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings in Tagum City, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

In a 71-page report released on Wednesday, HRW said 298 killings recorded between January 2007 and March 2013 were attributed by provincial police to the so-called "Tagum Death Squad."

The report, titled "'One Shot to the Head': Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines," details the alleged involvement of local officials -- including 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.

No one has been prosecuted for any of the cases.

"Tagum City's former mayor helped organize and finance a death squad linked to the murder of hundreds of residents," Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at HRW, said.

"[Uy] called these citizens 'weeds.' He and other city officials and police officers underwrote targeted killings as a perverse form of crime control," Kine added.

The HRW report draws heavily on interviews and affidavits from 3 self-proclaimed members of the death squad. It also includes interviews of surviving victims and their families, witnesses to killings, police officers, and former death squad members, who described how those who refused to carry out orders, sought to quit, or otherwise fell into disfavor were themselves likely to become death squad victims.

The group was able to document 12 cases of killings in Tagum, which it said mostly occurred outdoors and in broad daylight.

HRW said Uy, along with aides and police officers, hired, equipped and paid for an operation that at its height consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices.

The group said it has evidence backing its allegations.

"The Tagum death squad's activities imposed a fear-enforced silence in Tagum City that allowed the killers and their bosses to literally get away with murder," Kine said.

How the death squad operated

According to the HRW, the Tagum death squad was initially a crime-fighting group patterned after a death squad in Davao City that propelled another mayor "to national fame."

Uy allegedly issued an explicit warning to "criminal" elements in the city advising them to "go somewhere else."

"They said they wanted to clean up Tagum, to bring change to Tagum, so that bad elements would think twice in coming in because they would end up dead in Tagum," former death squad member Romnick Minta told HRW.

The hit men, wearing baseball caps and sunglasses and armed with .45-caliber handguns, would arrive and depart on government-issued motorcycles.

They would routinely inform local police via text message of an impending targeted killing, so they would not interfere. After the killing, the police in turn would notify them if any witnesses had identified them, the report said.

"You can't disobey the mayor's order. His power is higher than the chief of police. If the mayor gives his order, it gets implemented... My colleagues would tell me, when I was new, to keep quiet. 'These officers are the mayor’s men.'...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," a police intelligence officer who started investigating the Tagum death squad told HRW.

The death squad would draw its targets from the "order of battle" (OB), a list of names coming from various sources, including local community leaders, neighborhood watchmen, and police intelligence officers. Names of drug suspects were provided by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

Former death squad members said they were paid P5,000 for every killing, which they would then divide among themselves. The local official even personally handed them the money twice, they said.

When Uy stepped down as mayor, targeted killings continued but with less frequency, the HRW said.

Uy denied the allegations.

"Some individuals here in Tagum City coerce, threaten and give money to those so called witness to make stories about me," he said in a text message to ABS-CBN News. "These individuals doesnt like that I'll be back in the city hall in 2016 because their interest as drugs and illegal gambling protectors will be affected."

"That's not true that I finance them. And I don't have any instructions to get rid Tagum City of criminals," Uy added.

'PNoy failed to act vs extrajudicial killings'

HRW said President Benigno Aquino III has "largely ignored" extrajudicial killings by death squads in Tagum City and other urban areas.

The Department of Justice (DOJ), Philippine National Police (PNP), Office of the Ombudsman, and Commission on Human Rights (CHR) have also been "inactive" in combating death squads, it added.

"The Philippine government's failure to act decisively against death squad killings has certainly contributed to the horrific death toll in Tagum City," Kine said.

The group also noted that victims' relatives and witnesses often fear testifying due to the perceived links of the death squad to local officials.

The HRW called on the Aquino administration to direct the responsible government agencies to take measures to stop the killings in Tagum City and elsewhere, thoroughly investigate death squad killings and the death squads themselves, and bring justice to the victims' families.

"President Aquino needs to send a loud and urgent message that deploying death squads as a 'crime control measure is unlawful and needs to stop," it said.

Malacañang, for its part, said government is committed to bringing those responsible for the extrajudicial killings to justice.

"During pre-Labor Day dialogue a few weeks ago, President Aquino affirmed the government's commitment to render justice to victims of extrajudicial killings dating back to those that were perpetrated in previous administrations. He reported the re-filing of cases that were dismissed previously during the prosecution phase. Inter-agency work to complete case build up that will meet the standards of judicial proof will be pursued vigorously," Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma said.