TWO Philippine mayors were killed in separate back-to-back shootings within two days, fueling more fears in the country as it deals with the publicized problem of extrajudicial killings stemming from the administration’s war on drugs.
One of the mayors was previously said to be linked to illegal drugs.
Mayor Ferdinand Bote, 57, of northern General Tinio, was riding an SUV in the northern Nueva Ecija province on Tuesday, July 3 when he was shot by a man riding a motorcycle, police said. He was pronounced dead at a hospital. No clear reason for his murder was immediately known, as of press time.
A day before on Monday, July 2, Mayor Antonio Halili of Tanauan was shot by a sniper during a weekly flag-raising ceremony. The 72-year-old mayor was notorious for rounding up criminals and parading them around his city on “walks of shame,” but was also accused of being involved with drugs.
Since coming into office in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign has reportedly left thousands dead with Philippine police claiming the death toll to be roughly over 4,200 resulting from clashes with law enforcement. But human rights groups hold the death toll higher, with estimates past 10,000.
Duterte has made clear that his war on drugs would not exclude public servants, including mayors, judges, and police officers. Shortly after becoming president, Duterte revealed a list of 150 judges and politicians he said were linked to drug trades.
Just days before Halili’s death, Duterte jokingly told an audience in Bohol, “The earlier you do away with your mayor, the earlier you become the mayor also.”
Following his death, he said he suspected it to be related to drug involvement.
“Kanina si Halili sa Batangas. Kunwari ipa-procession ang mga addicts, siya pala — siya ‘yun. (Earlier, Halili was in Batangas. He pretended to shame addicts by parading them, but he was involved — it was him),” said Duterte.
Halili, who once called himself the “Duterte of Batangas”, had his powers to supervise local police taken away in November 2017 as a result of being linked to illegal drugs.
According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Bote was not on any drug suspect list. The government of Nueva Ecija has offered a P1 million bounty for leads to his killer.
Calls to action
Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes said the killings came as a result of the president’s “culture of violence” in what he said was the “murder capital of Asia.”
“Duterte’s culture of violence is upon us,” said Trillanes. “No one is safe now. Regardless of whether Mayor Halili is involved in the illegal drug trade, nothing justifies this murder.”
“Now for someone who promised to restore peace and order in our country during the campaign, it is ironic for a lot of people that Duterte has actually turned the Philippines into the murder capital of Asia,” he added.
Other senators also voiced out concerns of whether killings were becoming normalized in the country.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said in Filipino, “We strongly condemn all forms of violence and killings in the country. The worsening violence in our society is truly alarming, with killings committed left and right, even in front of the public.”
Like Trillanes, Aquino said, “No one is being spared. Government officials, priests, loiters — no one is safe anymore. No one is safe anywhere, no one is safe.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III pointed to the country’s history of killings which have been documented in past administrations.
“Criminality in the country has always been alarming, that’s why we want the government to come down hard on the criminals and not contradict efforts. [Criminals] have always been bold,” said Sotto.
Senator Panfilo Lacson on his part said, “The killing of priests, prosecutors, and former and incumbent local officials in broad daylight and in full view of the public may be suggestive of the impunity and brazenness of those responsible for such acts.”
Being a former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, he further urged the PNP to buckle down on their efforts, and called on them to enact stricter gun control.
“The Philippine National Police should feel challenged, if not taunted. And they must immediately consider stricter firearms control strategies before similar killings could reach ubiquitous levels,” he said.
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara also pushed the PNP to get to the bottom of the killings.
“We condemn the killing, whatever the motive may be, and we ask the PNP and the DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government) to exhaust all means to bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Angara.
To TIME, Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said that the mayor killings have made fearful the “politicians, especially in the provinces, who are then forced to toe Duterte’s line.”
He said that strongmen in the country have long turned to assassination as a way of maintaining control, and suggested that Duterte’s war on drugs and normalizing of killings may be a cover up to go after political opponents.
“An illustration of this is the fact that most local politicians hitherto aligned with the Liberal Party are now with Duterte’s party,” Conde told TIME.
At least 10 mayors are said to have been killed since Duterte entered office.
Mayors themselves have spoken out as both the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) and the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP) said they found the recent killings alarming and are hoping to engage in dialogue with the president.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that the government was confident in PNP Chief, Director-General Oscar Albayalde’s ability to conduct “a fair and thorough investigation and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
“We assure everyone that we would discharge the state obligation for every murder. We will spare no effort in getting to the bottom of this latest violent crime,” said Roque.