Friday, August 11, 2006

Street Justice

There's much to be said for the Davao City of recent years. What was once a notorious haven for criminals and NPA rebels is now one of the cleanest and most disciplined cities in the country. It's a status recognized by the Asian Institute of Management which voted Davao as the most competitive city of 2005.

Yet behind this bright and gleaming surface is a dark shadow that stalks Davao's reputation like an inescapable specter. At what price did Davao's much vaunted peace and order come? Some people credit it to Mayor Rodrigo Duterte's iron hand. Some people, in barber shop talk, credit it to a vigilante group known as the Davao Death Squad.

Officially, the local government denies the existence of any such organization. No arrests of any vigilantes have been made, and there doesn't seem to be any effort on the part of local police to investigate. Mayor Duterte blames the attention to an overactive press. But hard figures bear it out: in February alone of this year, 45 people were shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen in plain clothes.

There's minimal outrage, and it's not surprising: almost all of the victims are known criminals and drug dealers. In fact, there's an air of smug satisfaction among the people I talk to. The general sentiment is: "Finally, something's being done."

And this is the part that disturbs me: extrajudicial killings seem to have become a fact of life in Davao City. If it traces its heritage to a more violent past, it doesn't bother people nowadays. There's a cold-blooded pragmatism at work: it's ridding society of undesirable elements, and therefore it must be acceptable, even good.

But it's not good, and by no means should it be acceptable. These extrajudicial killings, rather than strengthening society, are in fact weakening it. Street justice is in itself the sign of the breakdown of order.

In the first place, vigilante justice is an indication that the normal modes of enforcing law and order no longer function. It means that the police are unable to apprehend criminals; that the courts are not able to prosecute them; and that the penal system able to hold them. Thus springs the justification for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.

In the second place, the unwillingness to investigate and prosecute vigilantes is indication of further breakdown. When the authorities turn a blind eye to these activities, there is tacit approval that borders on complicity. It's either that, or evidence of police and court inutility.

And finally, when ordinary people deem this as a desirable solution, it means that they, too have lost faith in the proper system of justice as administered by the law. It's a poison that's worse than any drug because it distorts our sense of values. Where does one draw the line?

Street justice is a quick solution, yes. That is its primary virtue. That is its only virtue. The main problem with street justice is that it is arbitrary -- that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't also very permanent. Who makes the decisions on whom to eliminate? Who decides what crime is deserving of the penalty? Who are the vigilantes beholden to? And that's exactly the point: you don't know and I don't know.

We might applaud now that because the targets are criminals, but what happens when the gun is pointed at us? Who's to say that it ends with drug dealers and thieves? Who's next? Journalists? activists? political opponents? business rivals? Who's to say that the loaded chamber won't stop at our turn one day? You don't know, and I don't know.

If the so-called death squads were limited to Davao City, it would only be a theoretical problem for the rest of the country. But it's not. Death squads have become such a successful means of creating a veneer of peace and order -- much applauded by way of a deafening silence -- that it's being exported to other cities.

Dumaguete, if last week's reports are to be believed, has just become a recipient.

Be outraged, be very outraged.


  1. I may be wrong but i think the death squads started with the 'Alsa Masa' anti-communist vigilantes back in the 80's. Thanks for highlighting this issue. I think it's another example of the banality of evil.

  2. I agree.

    But nature loathes vacuum...

  3. Truly hope not. About Dumaguete importing the technique from Davao. Maybe by way of Cebu, whose extra-judicial elimination of "criminals" is one of the pet peeves of Inquirer columnist Juan Mercado?

    Not that I condone it, but the singular virtue of this approach was the topic between me and the taxi driver I hailed from Centennial to Commonwealth. Turns out he has a wayward friend who started doing drugs in Davao, but had to immediately return to Manila after being "warned".

    But you nailed the downsides to it, Dom. And the perverse irony is that Davao's success is further magnified by the lawlessness happening mostly all around, with police officers and the AFP directly or complicitly involved!

  4. What would Dumaguete need a death squad for? It's one of the most peaceful places in the country.. Is Bimbo Lagahit still your City Administrator there?