THE press conference last February 20 of retired police personnel Arthur Lascañas led to a flurry of questions. But I think a vital question was missed, one significant to people who call Davao home.
Among the questions that came out were whether Lascañas’s latest testimony attesting to the existence of the Davao Death Squad (DDS) would stand considering that it is a 180-degree turnaround from his testimony to the Senate in October 2016, whether he could be jailed on charges of perjury, whether the exposé was timed to block the rumored arrest of Senator Leila de Lima, and whether murdered broadcaster Jun Pala inadvertently got portrayed as a martyr.
But I think a compelling question that ought to be asked is this: now that there are more firsthand confirmations, regardless of the source, that anti-criminality activities could be the main reason for 1,424 deaths in Davao City from 1998 to 2015 documented and reported by such groups as the Coalition Against Summary Execution and Fr. Amado Picardal CSsR, how could we do right by these victims?
They are victims because unless the fundamental laws and institutions of the country are altered, suspects remain so and their innocence assumed until the courts pronounce on their guilt.
They are also victims many times over because of the circumstances of their deaths and their social standing. Fr. Picardal noted that there were 14 cases of mistaken identity. One hundred thirty-two of those killed were aged 17 and below and were thus minors. The youngest documented was a 12- year-old boy and a nine-year-old felled by a stray bullet. Most were snuffed out in areas considered urban poor and were allegedly involved in petty crimes.
What happened that made it conscionable for Davao to turn its backs on victims who were young, poor and in all likelihood misguided?
Dabawenyos who subscribe to the pledge in the city hymn to be “tapat at totoo” and seek to pass on a city that tries to get closer to “pangarap ay matamo/kaluwalhatian mo/lungsod ng paraiso” cannot be dismissive of the 1,424 lives lost.
Based on the City Wide Social Survey (CWSS) Series 6 undertaken by the Ateneo de Davao University from October 28 to November 3, 2016, Dabawenyos still consider drugs and drug trafficking to be the greatest threat (36.35 percent) followed by terrorist threats/bombings (32.8 percent).
Drugs also came in second to poverty in Dabawenyos’ appreciation of the top three problems of the city. Further, it ranked next to corruption in the reckoning of top five social issues.
When asked if they were aware of the existence of illegal drugs in the community, 56.98 percent of respondents said yes. Only 31.11 affirmed awareness of presence of drug users in the community, while 57.78 percent said no; 19.84 percent were aware of the presence of drug pushers while 71.59 percent were not.
According to the late lawyer Dory Avisado, pending cases in the two drugs courts in Davao were close to 4,000 at the end of 2015. Data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology indicated that the Davao City Jail occupancy from 2012 to 2015 was at 2,900 which was 600 percent of capacity.
Simply put, for Dabawenyos, illegal drugs is still a top problem despite nearly two decades of aggressive campaigns against it, including extra-judicial killings.
Had the killings happened in another locale and not Davao City, would there be more readiness to recognize them for what they are—that they are the brutal manifestations of an extra-judicial strategy that may have short-term success but cannot be endorsed as a long-term effective solution?
In terms of favoring the manner of solving illegal drugs 87.46 percent of Dabawenyos said yes; 64.4 percent strongly agreed with Oplan Tokhang, and 19.21 percent agreed with it.
But it is not as if Dabawenyos have become accustomed to killings. The sixth CWSS also indicated that killings (31.27 percent) was the third greatest threat for Dabawenyos. When asked about knowledge of EJKs, 76.35 percent admitted knowledge of it. On whether they favored alleged EJK, 15.4 percent said they strongly agreed with it, and 30.32 percent agreed, while 6.51 percent strongly disagreed and 24.6 percent disagreed. But 33.17 percent refused to answer.
In terms of perceived perpetrators, 20.95 percent ascribed it to drug syndicates, 20.32 percent said vigilantes are responsible, and 12.22 percent said it is done by the police.
Because Dabawenyos are aware of and concerned with EJKs, how then can we do right by the 1,424 killed and thus deal with human rights violations that cannot even be said to be of the past because they are still very much part of our present?
I hope Dabawenyos reflect on this question and endeavor to answer it, lest we end up being a city whose sense of security is built on the blood and bones of victims.
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