Life is better in Duterte's Davao, say residents

Karl Malakunas, Agence France-Presse

This photo taken on May 18, 2016 shows a woman selling fruits and vegetables next to a campaign poster of presumptive President Rodrigo Duterte along an alley at an informal settler area in Davao City, in southern island of Mindanao. Ted Aljibe, AFP

DAVAO, Philippines - Life in the slums of Davao became much easier after a fearsome drugs crackdown enforced by mayor-turned president Rodrigo Duterte, awed residents say, offering an insight into what the Philippines can expect under its new leader.

Fernando Totor, who for two decades has scraped by selling coconut wine, used to watch his neighbors in their seaside shantytown openly trade crystal methamphetamine -- a hyper-addictive drug known locally as "shabu".

"The drug problem here was huge, it was sickening," Totor, 55, told AFP as glassy-eyed men sat on wooden benches at sunset drinking his ultra-cheap drink out of plastic cups.

"Now it's okay. It's better."

Totor lives in Isla Verde, a slum for thousands in the southern city of Davao that firebrand lawyer Duterte has ruled as mayor for most of the past two decades.

Duterte won the Philippine presidential election by a landslide, largely on a pledge to roll out his city's law-and-order policies nationally.

The controversial and acid-tongued politician captivated millions of Filipinos, and enraged his critics, with vows of ruthless tactics to end crime within six months.

Duterte warned security forces would kill tens of thousands of criminals, and forget human rights as he eradicated the scourge of drugs that many voters rated their top concern.

Duterte's campaign threats were backed by his rule in Davao, where he has been accused of running or tolerating death squads that killed more than 1,000 suspects.

- Discipline welcomed -

But while critics howled at imminent bloodshed and human rights abuses, many residents in Isla Verde -- one of Davao's longtime drug hotspots -- felt no such concerns.

"He has done a great job in instilling discipline here," said Totor, complaining only that residents still dumped their garbage outside their shanties.

Totor said the crackdown a few years ago scared him and many others, as heavily armed police raided shanties looking for drug traffickers.

One man with a pistol who resisted arrest was shot dead, according to Totor, although he said the police were in general polite and orderly.

Another longtime resident, mother-of-three Analyn Pilpa, also embraced the crackdown, similarly saying it had not extinguished the drug trade but at least made life bearable.

"It's relatively OK now, the drugs have lessened," said Pilpa, whose husband earns less than $100 a month driving a rubbish collection truck and doing handyman jobs.

"Now at least I feel I can walk around at night."

In another Davao slum, a mother who lost four sons to what she and rights groups believe were the death squads has warned of the dangers of a Duterte presidency.

The squads -- made up of police and hired assassins -- killed people suspected of serious and petty crimes, according to rights groups.

Clarita Alia's sons -- who had been involved in run-ins with police -- were aged between 14 and 18 when they were killed.

"He has no morals," Alia told AFP before the election.

- No apologies -

After the election, Duterte confirmed he would make the war on crime his top priority.

"Those who kill my country will be killed. Simple as that. No middle ground. No apologies. No excuses," he said on Monday.

Duterte also pledged to roll out less controversial but still ultra-strict Davao law-and-order policies, such as a late-night ban on serving alcohol and a curfew for children.

Pilpa, the young mother, said those rules, as well as a late-night ban on the national passion of karaoke, had dramatically calmed the Isla Verde community.

Sitting alongside Pilpa on concrete steps of a ramshackle building facing the ocean, 67-year-old Gnaro Sumading said he voted for Duterte in the elections.

Sumading said his eldest son, now aged 43, was in jail on drugs charges and had been beaten badly by police when arrested in Isla Verde a couple of years ago.

Sumading insisted his son was innocent.

Yet he did not blame Duterte for the perceived injustice, and instead praised him for fighting drugs in the community.

Sumading, who earns about $4 a day doing menial jobs, also recalled Duterte's personal touch in the aftermath of a huge fire in 2014 that destroyed many homes.

"He came here and gave people money and rice," said Sumading.

"He helps the poor."

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