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Duterte’s Last Hurrah: On the Road to Martial Law

Rodrigo Duterte the day after he was sworn in as president of the Philippines, Manila, July 1, 2016
Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Rodrigo Duterte the day after he was sworn in as president of the Philippines, Manila, July 1, 2016

Landing last December at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila brought back memories of Ninoy Aquino himself arriving from the US in 1983 on the tarmac that was to be christened with his blood. He was the leading figure in the opposition to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 until 1986. Aquino had been imprisoned by Marcos for seven years and seven months. His health had suffered; he had been on a hunger strike until his family pleaded with him to stop, had gone to the United States for treatment for a heart condition, and now, hearing that Marcos was seriously ill, and sensing that this was the moment he must act, he was coming back out of self-imposed exile, bearing a false passport under the name Marcial Bonifacio.

This return is made most vivid by a TV report, which can be found on YouTube. Ninoy knew that his best chance would be to be placed under house arrest. Next best: back to solitary confinement. The worst option: to be shot then and there. A number of press people accompanied him, and the hope was that their presence might guarantee his immediate safety.

The plane lands. A group of soldiers comes on board and asks Ninoy to accompany them. He gets up out of his seat in a manner that for all the world might seem to indicate resignation to some tedious task ahead. The soldiers escort him off the plane. The press moves forward, trying to follow. Nine seconds later there is gunfire, and four seconds after that there is another longer burst. The first shots are the ones that kill Ninoy. The second are aimed at Rolando Galman, a supposed assassin who would take the posthumous blame for Ninoy’s death.

In the first nine seconds, the soldiers take Ninoy onto the jet bridge and then down a service stair. On one recording you can hear a soldier saying: “I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” The bullet enters the top of the back of Ninoy’s head and exits through his nose. Its downward trajectory indicates that the killer shot Ninoy from above, that is, while the group was still on the service stair. And as soon as Ninoy was dead, someone else turned and shot the patsy Galman.

It seemed a crude piece of theater at the time. You had to be a die-hard Marcos loyalist to be remotely convinced by it. And the killing indeed marked the beginning of the end of the dictatorship, even though that last act took another three years to play out.

Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of Ninoy seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.

Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.

Today by contrast the pretense of due process is impossible, because the man at the top simply blows it away. One of Duterte’s chief selling points as a leader is that he doesn’t give a shit. So, when he gets in front of any crowd, he will say whatever he thinks will make an impact at that very moment, and it is striking that most of the most shocking things we have learned about Duterte have come from his own mouth. For instance, it was Duterte who compared himself to Hitler:

Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts [in the Philippines] there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims. I would like them to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.

It was Duterte who revealed that he had been abusing fentanyl, the synthetic opioid—the drug involved in the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Prince, which is supposed to be a hundred times more powerful than morphine. He needs painkillers to combat both his daily migraines and the pain from a motorcycle accident, which damaged his spine. However, when he saw the reaction to this revelation, he thought again. “Fools,” he said, “I just made up that story and you believed it.”

Addicted or not, he has, on his own admission, four concurrent illnesses: acute bronchitis, regular migraines, Barrett’s esophagus, and Buerger’s disease. But as he is careful to point out, not cancer. His mortality, however, does seem to weigh upon him and he often alludes to it. Speaking to members of the Filipino community in Cambodia in December, he said: “This is my last hurrah. After this, 77. I am not sure if I will still be around by the end of my term.”

So far, Duterte’s war has been largely against the softest of targets—drug users and small-time pushers, pedicab drivers and the like, whose families are too poor to hit back in any way. None of them can afford to sue the police, or to mount any kind of campaign on behalf of the victims. It is out of the question.

Of course a campaign that is largely a war on the poor is going to be short on credibility, so Duterte has recently been raising his sights a little, and increasing his attacks on the mayors who are said to be involved in the “shabu,” or crystal meth, trade. In January this year he was quoted as saying: “As long as I’m president, these big ‘shabu’ dealers will die and the next batch would really be these mayors. I will call them and lock them up.” He has a thick dossier that he regularly displays during such speeches. “I will talk to them,” he said. “With the thick document I showed you, I will tell them, ‘Look for your name there, you son of a bitch. If your name is there, you have a problem. I will really kill you.’”

One mayor who has indeed been killed is Rolando Espinosa, of Albuera, on an island some 350 miles from Manila. Duterte said on this same occasion, “He was killed in a very [questionable way], but I don’t care. The policemen said he resisted arrest. Then I will stick with the story of the police because [they are] under me.” (Espinosa was shot in a police cell, early in the morning. He was already in detention.) Duterte continued: “I might go down in history as the butcher. It’s up to you.” And then: “Since I have nothing to show, I just use extrajudicial killing. [That’s because] I have no credentials to boast about.”

The meaning of the last two sentences may be a little opaque, but the essential implication is quite clear—clear enough for Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella (whose job it is to go on air and say: This never happened, he never said what you heard him say), to remind the public that this kind of violent rhetoric is merely a reflection of the president’s sincerity in his efforts to wipe out the drug menace. Abella said:

It is…a matter of the leadership style and the messaging style of the President…. This is his messaging style to underline his intention. He is serious about it…. However, it’s just meant to underline his seriousness in making sure that nobody is corrupt and involved in criminality.

Well, yes, it is Duterte’s messaging style that is at issue here, if you like, but the message he is putting over is that if the police say a man resisted arrest, he, Duterte, is going to believe them, even in the face of contrary evidence from the National Bureau of Investigation, and even if the case they make is “questionable.” As far as the crucial issues of life and death are concerned, you are living in a police state.

It doesn’t always feel like a police state. People talk freely and there is a vocal, critical press. There is an opposition, although it seems as yet ineffective. One’s instinct (remembering the forces that eventually combined to overthrow Marcos in 1986) is to wonder, where are all the clergy, where are the nuns? Where is the left? The answer seems to be that, for as long as Duterte’s extraordinary popularity holds up, there is a feeling that “now is not the time,” but that the time will come. Meanwhile, Duterte operates with such impunity that he doesn’t seem to need the full trappings of a police state.

Take the case of Mayor Espinosa, who was said to be one of the narco-mayors and was being held in the subprovincial jail in Baybay, Leyte. At around 3:00 AM on November 5 last year, eighteen members of the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) came ostensibly to search his cell for drugs and guns. To acquire their search warrant, one of them claimed to have seen Espinosa holding a gun, sitting on his bed in jail, while an inmate, Raul Yap, was repacking shabu in another cell. On the morning of the search there was—they said—an exchange of gunfire, at the end of which Espinosa and Yap lay dead.

A month later, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), a civilian body that answers to the Department of Justice, announced its findings. The police story had fallen to pieces on examination. The officer who claimed to have seen the gun and the drugs had not been to the prison on the day he claimed. The forensic evidence and the testimony of other inmates in the cells at the time told a different story. Espinosa, on the arrival of the police in his cell, had first welcomed them, then pleaded for his life and told them not to plant anything on him. The prisoners in the same cell as Yap were ordered to get out, leaving Yap alone. After two bursts of gunfire, a policeman wearing gloves and carrying a gun was observed entering Espinosa’s cell. When he came out again he no longer had the gun. It was, said the NBI, a rubout, not a shootout.

The eighteen members of the CIDG group who killed Espinosa and Yap were charged with multiple murder and (some of them) with perjury. Six other officers were also charged. The group had been accompanied by the prison superintendent, Marvin Marcos, who had previously been removed from office after being associated with the drug trade. But he had been reinstated, according to the director general of the Philippine National Police, Ronald dela Rosa, at the request of “a friend.” This friend turned out to be Duterte himself.

As soon as the NBI announced that it was bringing charges against the policemen, Duterte publicly rose to their defense. “I will not allow these guys to go to prison,” he said, “even if the NBI says it was murder. After all, the NBI is under me, the Department of Justice is under me.” As usual, though, there was an element of ambiguity, for he went on: “But to tell you, I do not interfere. They have findings, good. File the case but I won’t leave the policemen implicated in the killing.”

This kind of carte blanche must be comforting for the police to receive. Duterte said: “Whatever the police say, that’s the truth for me. The NBI said it was murder. The police said, ‘Sir, he fought back.’ I believe the police. Why would I sacrifice the police for that?”

Once again, a highly placed figure was on hand to explain that the president’s words did not mean what they appeared to mean. The Department of Justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, said that Duterte’s remarks were mere “exaggerations” and “hyperbole” in the exercise of his “right to freedom of expression.” He said that “the president has not and will not interfere in the preliminary investigation to be conducted by the Department of Justice. He does not micro-manage any department. As a matter of fact he has not even for once [given me orders on what to do].”

The crucial, ominous subject on which Duterte has expressed his discontent is the constitution of 1987 and its provisions for the declaration of martial law. The government of Cory Aquino, Ninoy’s widow, came to power through the revolution of 1986, and found the Marcos constitution so compromised that it would have to be replaced. So for her first year Cory was a revolutionary, but the constitution that she introduced was designed to prevent a repetition of one-man rule. In particular, the new constitution reinstated single six-year terms for the office of president and stipulated that, in case of rebellion or invasion, when the public safety required it, the president might, for a period of sixty days, suspend habeas corpus or place the country, or any part of it, under martial law.

But there was this restraint. The president was and is obliged to submit a report to Congress within forty-eight hours of declaring martial law, in person or in writing. Congress can revoke martial law or the suspension of habeas corpus. Furthermore, the Supreme Court must review a petition filed by any citizen of the Philippines questioning the factual basis for either the suspension of habeas corpus or the introduction of martial law. And the Court is obliged to make a decision within thirty days of the filing of the petition.

You can see why Duterte doesn’t like these provisions. What he argued just before Christmas was that the safeguards are an “almost reckless reaction” to the rule of Ferdinand Marcos. Only the president should be directing the show. “If I declare martial law and there is an invasion or war, I cannot proceed on and on, especially if there is trouble. I have to go to Congress, I have to go to the Supreme Court if anybody would file a complaint to look at the factual [basis of the declaration].”

But the “factual basis” of what he has done so far is, to say the least, wobbly. And if, as would appear, the key to Duterte’s fanatical persecution of drug addicts and dealers is that these unfortunates are the modern equivalent of Communist rebels, the new “enemy within,” then it is up to Duterte’s fantasy to decide when the state is in danger. Facts hardly come into it. The framers of the Cory constitution made an attempt to envisage what might justify martial law: an invasion, they said, or a rebellion. Well, there’s no invasion, and as for rebellions there has hardly been a time since World War II when there hasn’t been some sort of rebellion bubbling away somewhere in the country.

In January of this year Duterte returned to the subject. “If I wanted to,” he said, “and if it will deteriorate into something really very virulent, I will declare martial law…. No one can stop me. My country transcends everything else, even the limitations.” In other words, his feelings for his country will override the constitution. He said: “The sixty-day limit will be gone.” That is, martial law will last as long as he wants it to. “And I’ll tell you now, if I have to declare martial law, I will declare it—not about invasion, insurrection, not about danger. I will declare martial law to preserve my nation—period.” That is, he has already declared the 1987 constitution null and void.

But here’s how Salvador Panela, the presidential chief legal counsel, defended Duterte:

The President’s statement that he would declare martial law should the problem in the illegal drug trade become virulent—effectively threatening the institutions of the Republice and putting in grave peril the integrity and survival of the nation—is but a dramatic and graphic presentation of an exercise of presidential power and duty imposed on him by the constitution.

This is precisely the opposite of what has happened. Duterte is saying that he will defy the “duty imposed on him by the constitution.”

There is evidence that not everyone in the police force relishes working under Duterte. Here is Francisco S. Tatad, writing in The Manila Times on December 9:

The sense of moral revulsion and outrage from the community and even from the police has grown and is growing. Among the young policemen there is some deep questioning about the morality of killing. This is especially so among those who have tried to bring in as many drug users as possible for detention and rehabilitation, only to be told that the chief implementor of the drug war would like to see more dead bodies, not merely useless users.

Because of this, more and more young policemen have applied for schooling in order not to get involved in the killings. Police sources say there are more policemen applying for schooling than at any other time before, and those who are already there are in no rush to complete their schooling.

Their effort to find a “crevice in the rock,” as it were, where they could hide their heads while the storm blows, appears to find encouragement and support in their elders, usually retired policemen who happen to be their fathers or friends of their fathers.

Things will get worse this year if Duterte has his way. The death penalty, abolished a decade ago, will be restored, and the age of criminal liability will be lowered from fifteen to nine. After that, Duterte has said, he envisages executing five or six criminals a day.

At the police Christmas party, Ronald dela Rosa, the director general of the National Police, addressed the Almighty in rueful terms. “Sorry Lord, forgive us, but all I can say is we’re doing this not for ourselves or for whatever purpose—not for our personal gain, but for the future of our nation.” He said that policemen who kill drug suspects also need prayers. “The Christmas gift we’re wishing for policemen is prayer for the Lord’s forgiveness. Even if those who have died are bad, they are still people, they are still human beings and they still deserve to live and we have no right to take their lives—but things happen because we don’t have complete control of the situation.”

Having got that off his chest, he went on to pose for “groupies” in a floppy and adorable four-star Santa hat.

—This is the second part of a two-part article. Research was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.