LOST in the exchange of words between Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima is the latter’s announcement that a former member of the notorious Davao death squad is now under the custody of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and has been accepted into the government’s Witness Protection Program.

This could be the break that human rights groups and those opposed to the practice of summarily executing suspected criminals have been awaiting for years. The Davao City killings inspired similar acts in other cities like Tagum and Cebu because nobody has been sued for the crimes.

De Lima told reporters recently that the NBI is doing a case build-up on the DDS “on the basis of that was disclosed by this witness.” “Nag-execute na siya ng affidavit…the witness’ allegations are very serious,” she said.

De Lima did not divulge details of the information that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has gathered, but Duterte has been on the warpath against her. He must have taken note of what happened in Tagum.

The NBI filed with the DOJ multiple murder and frustrated murder charges against former Tagum City mayor Rey Uy and 29 members of the Tagum death squad (TDS), including retired and current police officers, based on information provided by two former TDS members.

The killings were done not only in Tagum but in the whole of Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley and Butuan City from 2008 to 2012. The NBI listed 82 killed and two murder attempts allegedly done by the TDS.

Being the original, the DDS has, however, been linked to more kills. Amnesty International and other human rights groups listed 300 people killed in Davao City from 1998 to 2005 alone. The number allegedly more than doubled between 2005 and 2008 with a little more than 700 killed.

The killings in Davao, Tagum and Cebu snuffed out hundreds of lives without the killers being made to account for their crimes for a long time. Hopefully, the recent development will correct the injustice. By punishing the perpetrators, the culture of impunity that prevailed may yet be snuffed out.