President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines
President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines

The Philippines is gripped in a new wave of killings targeting priests and local officials, adding to the fear and loathing of the government’s lethal war on drugs campaign and fueling speculation of possible state-sponsored killings

Three priests and as many as 16 mayors and vice-mayors have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took over office in mid-2016.

He has since overseen a blood-stained campaign of violence that has far exceeded the number of killings under former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. Until now, there has not been a single conclusive investigation into the perpetrators or true motivations behind the targeting of clerics and officials in recent months.

Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, has played down the escalation of lethal violence

“We’ve had this problem of extrajudicial killings since the time of GMA [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo], so the extrajudicial killings can’t be blamed on [Duterte’s] war on drugs,” said Roque, in describing the new surge in killings across the country as essentially normal.

“It’s been there in our society. Whether or not we have the war on drugs, the killings would have happened especially now that we are nearing elections,” the spokesman continued.

Mourners view the remains of General Tinio Mayor Ferdinand Bote who was assassinated by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles during his funeral wake, July 4, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/Ezra Acayan/NurPhoto 

The killing of four local government officials within a span of a week has sparked a nationwide panic, with the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) asking for a direct meeting with the president to address the issue.

They are concerned in particular with Duterte’s notorious “narco-politicians list”, a ledger LMP says has effectively made many local officials open targets for extrajudicial killings by state forces, personal rivals or political opponents.

“Our mayors on the list have become more afraid. They are also pitiful, they said, ‘mayor, we are not involved with the drug trade, why were we included in the drug list?”, a representative from the LMP lamented on national radio.

In a separate statement, the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP) called on the government to “review and properly validate” the narco-list. “The names on that list deserve to be heard and given due process [at] the soonest possible time,” the group said.

No one knows for sure how Duterte’s list was compiled and how many individuals are on it. Key government agencies, namely the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), have denied any involvement in its compilation.

There are concerns that Duterte’s method for making the list may have been highly arbitrary, selective and subjective, if not totally erroneous, serving as a dangerous recipe for political intimidation and widespread violence.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes at a National Heroes Day commemoration, August 28, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters 

The July 2 assassination of Tanauan City Mayor Antonio Halili, who was shot and killed in broad daylight in front of his constituents by a likely professional marksman received particular attention across the country and on international media.

The mayor was long known as an ally of Duterte’s administration, notorious for his naming and shaming drug suspects in the city by parading them around for the cameras.

After his assassination, with so far no suspects identified by the police, Duterte sung a different tune about the mayor’s anti-crime credentials. He effectively accused the mayor of being involved in drug trade, thus implying his murder was inevitable.

“Earlier, Halili in Batangas. He pretended to shame addicts by parading them, but he was involved, it was him,” exclaimed Duterte shortly after his killing. “I suspect he was into drugs. I just suspect,” he said.

He likened Halili, without providing corroborating evidence, to other major alleged narco-politicians, including Rolando Espinosa of Albuera, Leyte and Reynaldo Parojinog of Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental, who were killed by security forces last year and appeared on Duterte’s notorious list.

The family of Tanauan Mayor Antonio Halili weeps during his funeral wake in Tanauan township, Batangas province, Philippines, July 2, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/Ezra Acayan/NurPhoto 

Halili’s family, however, categorically rejected the president’s accusations.

“What I can say is…the President is a very intelligent man. He can speak for himself…I can only blame the people who’s making these false allegations about my father,” Halili’s daughter said in response to the allegation while defending her father as a supporter of the war on drugs.

What has proven even more shocking in the Philippines conservative Catholic-majority society is the rising brazen murder of priests, with some even killed while inside chapels and during processions.

As prominent Filipino sociologist Randy David points out, the killing of clergies “represent an alarming development in our nation’s life,” which “crosses a line that generations of Filipinos have respected even in revolutionary times.”

Consistent with his frequent tirades against the church and its supposed hypocrisy, Duterte accused one of the slain priests, Father Mark Ventura, of having an extra-marital affair.

Catholic nuns in a healing protest calling for an end to killings across the country held in Manila, November 5, 2017.  Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Duterte also alleged that the priest was a “heavy drinker” who “had a child with a still unidentified woman.” According to him, the priest’s recovered cellphone “contained intimate exchanges of messages” between the priest and a woman.

“There is a big possibility that the first motive, the love triangle, is the main reason why Father Ventura was liquidated by still unidentified persons because of so many women who were believed to be linked to him,” Duterte said.

“These women are wives and daughters and paramours of big time businessmen, politicians,” he claimed, citing police reports and investigations.

Critics see the murders as either extrajudicial killings perpetrated by security forces against progressive-leaning priests, some of whom may have worked with or were sympathetic to leftist communist insurgents, or even more radically as a state-sponsored assault against the Catholic church as an institution.

Since his election, Duterte has openly challenged the once-powerful church, accusing its leadership of hypocrisy and corruption. He has even quipped about the creation of a rival alternative institution, Iglesia ni Duterte (Church of Duterte), to end Vatican-led institution’s centuries-old moral hegemony in the Philippines.

Duterte rose to power on an electoral promise to get tough on crime and firm up law and order but is now paradoxically overseeing an unprecedented period of anarchic violence nationwide. As the body count grows higher and the president’s popularity still running strong, many now wonder how and when the killings will ever stop.

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