Murderous Philippine President: I Was Joking About Throwing People off Helicopters

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Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

A man lies dead on the ground after being shot by motorcycle riding men on December 23, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has said he wanted the Constitution amended to allow Philippine leaders to wield martial law powers without judicial and congressional approval.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has led a campaign of extra-judicial assassinations in his country that has claimed the lives of thousands and has confessed to taking part in individual killings himself, walked back recent statements that he had thrown men out of helicopters in an interview with CNN aired on Thursday.

Duterte, whose campaign of state-encouraged police and vigilante violence has taken the lives of children of as young as 5-years-old, had previously threatened to toss officials he accused of corruption out of helicopters.

“I will pick you up in a helicopter to Manila, and I will throw you out on the way,” Duterte said on Tuesday, according to a report in the Washington Post. “I’ve done it before. Why would I not do it again?”

The president’s spokesman had told CNN that this apparent helicopter murder had occurred. But in his own interview with CNN, Duterte—known for his colorful hyperbole and his campaigns of mass violence—said it was an exaggeration. “We had no helicopter; we don’t use that,” he told CNN.

“I am playing you,” he added. “Your team knows I really want to say jokes.”

Earlier this month Duterte repeated claims that he was personally involved in the campaign of extra-judicial violence he led as a provincial mayor and has now transferred to a national scale since taking office earlier this year.

“I killed about three of them because there were three of them,” Duterte told reporters at the time at a news conference in Manila, the capital, of men he had killed as mayor. “I don’t really know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies.”

“It happened. I cannot lie about it,” he said.

Duterte told CNN that the men were kidnappers who had fought back when he killed them.

That previous confession followed comments earlier that same week that he had patrolled the streets of Davao City when he was mayor essentially hunting for people to kill.

“And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble, also,” he said. “I was really looking for a confrontation, so I could kill.”

The admission prompted a call from the United Nations high commissioner for human rights for Duterte to be investigated for murder.

Those killings would “clearly constitute murder,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said of the “about three” comments. “It should be unthinkable for any functioning judicial system not to launch investigative and judicial proceedings when someone has openly admitted being a killer.”

Since Duterte came to office, the Times reports that about 2,000 people have been killed by police and the country has had more than 3,500 unsolved killings.

In August, a five-year-old named Danica Garcia was killed while eating lunch after assassins targeting her grandfather fired shots into her house. A lawyer who had represented drug traffickers was also shot and killed that same month, the New Yorker reported, along with a teenage girl who was in the car with him.

Last month, the New Yorker’s Adrian Chen documented Duterte’s campaigns of killing—part of an obsessive war on drugs that targeted small-time users for execution at the hands of death squads. The portrait of life in Duterte’s Philippines is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some key sections that explain the levels of violence he has wrought in his time as mayor and president:

In 1996, in a press conference, Duterte announced a crackdown on petty crime. According to a journalist named Editha Caduaya, soon afterward, seven alleged criminals—drug dealers and purse snatchers—were killed in one day. Some of the bodies were dumped, along with a cardboard sign that read “Solugoón Sa Katawhan” (“Servant of the People”). Between 1998 and 2009, Human Rights Watch reported a total of eight hundred and fourteen killings, mostly of teen-agers, street kids who were small-time drug dealers or petty thieves. The killings were attributed to a shadowy vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the D.D.S. often worked in a style known in the Philippines as “riding in tandem”: two men on a motorcycle ride up to a target, shoot him with a handgun, and speed off. D.D.S. members told H.R.W. that they worked off a list given to them by police officers and were paid between five thousand and fifty thousand pesos ($104 to $1,041) per target. One member said that the police had established a bidding process to choose among various cells of hit men. “If several cells want the job, they would discuss which cell can do it better,” he said. Duterte has frequently spoken approvingly of the killings and intimated that he had a hand in the D.D.S. When Caduaya asked him about his role, he told her, “I am a lawyer and I will not do the extra-judicial thing, but I will clean the city for my people to live in peace.” Caduaya told me, “We know he is there, but you cannot see him.” A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reported that Duterte had “all but admitted his role” in the D.D.S. to the Commission on Human Rights. When the commission’s regional director pleaded with Duterte to stop the killings, he reportedly responded, “I’m not done yet.” [An] overwhelming number of those killed in Duterte’s drug war have been poor. When asked recently about criticism from anti-poverty groups, Duterte explained that poor people are easier targets. Rich people do drugs on private jets, and “I cannot afford the fighter planes,” he said. Jose Manuel Diokno, a human-rights lawyer, told me, “Those who have a name or have some influence or hold some position who are implicated in the drug trade are given an investigation, they’re given due process. But poorer people whose names appear on the list are just simply killed.”

As Chen reported, the first three months of Duterte’s presidency saw the deaths of more than 1,400 drug users at the hands of police and vigilantes. In September, a man claiming to be a member of the death squads testified in the country’s Senate that Duterte had ordered multiple killings of personal enemies and fired an Uzi into an agent from the National Bureau of Investigations. Duterte called this perjury.

Duterte anti-drug campaign purportedly targets the country’s large methamphetamine trade. As Chen wrote, “the regional director of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights had claimed [according to a Wikileaks cable] that one of Duterte’s sons had a history of drug abuse” and that this had motivated his campaign of brutality. Earlier this month, Duterte said he was on the powerful painkiller fentanyl for chronic back pain and migraine headaches.

clipperarctic/Wikimedia Commons

A plane identical to the one that crashed with Vesna Vulovic aboard.