The southern city of Davao used to be the salvaging capital of the Philippines during the 1980's and 90's. The coastal town's booming economic growth lured a mix of rich and poor migrants that included everyone from farmers, Chinese businessmen, and dirty politicians to ex-Maoist and Islamic militants who became guns-for-hire. The more ruthless entrepreneurs terrorized the wealthy elite, stole cars from the middle class, shot street kids, and turned Mindanao's largest city into an urban war zone. Clandestine paramilitaries fought members of the Communist New People's Army in the squatter neighborhood of Agdao while street gangs brawled over turf in Bankerohan. Someone was getting rich, but many more people were dying.
By the mid-1990's Cotabato City in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao replaced Davao as Mindanao's most undesirable city. I've spent lots of time in both places, and Davao is definitely a far cry from what it used to be, and from what Cotabato is now. While Cotabato continues to slide further into economic disarray, Davao teems with optimism. At least on the surface. The city of one million boasts several large shopping malls, well-equipped hospitals, a smoking ban in public areas, disciplined taxi drivers, an international airport terminal, and a clique of city administrators who don't mess around when it comes to enforcing the law.
In 1991, Davaenos elected Rodrigo Duterte as their mayor. Duterte, a charismatic, rather unorthodox politician who used to be a policeman, promised to clean up the city's tough streets. The Harley-riding, sunglass-pimping leader not only cleaned up the streets-he purged the house. Incidents of theft, kidnappings, and drug trafficking dropped significantly during his first and second terms.
By his third term, however, the rate of unsolved murders soared. Motorcycle-riding gunmen began executing thieves and dealers with alarming efficiency and impunity. Davao eventually became safe for anyone who had never stolen a wallet or smoked shabu. For anyone who had rubbed shoulders with the law, it was another story. Petty and hardcore criminals found little comfort in the dank alleys of Davao. They knew that if caught kidnapping, extorting, robbing, killing, raping and loitering, the infamous Davao Death Squad would come after them with a vengeance.
And that it did.
In 2003, I worked on a short book project about girls who belong to the city's burgeoning street gangs. During the 10 months that I photographed them and wrote about their lives, I ran into Duterte a couple of times, once during an interview where he tacitly approved of the extrajudicial murder of street children and small-time stick-up artists. Duterte told me that if anyone dared to break the law in his town, they better get out of dodge or face his wrath. He never admitted to directly ordering the street-side executions, but rumor had it that sadness over the behavior of his drug-addicted son drove him to support shadowy vigilante groups who killed bad guys for money. A former NPA assassin told me that he received cash from Duterte's office to rub out drug dealers, car thieves, cell phone snatchers and anyone who looked like a hoodie.
In 2002, UNICEF called Davao the most child-friendly city in the Philippines. It's more than a little ironic because of the 120 documented summary executions that occurred between 1998 and 2003, 20 of them involved minors.
I write about this today because I've just returned to Davao, an alleged oasis on an island of conflict, and learned about some very tragic news. I ate dinner with Pilgrim Bliss Gayo, the former director of Tambayan Center and co-producer of my photo book about the girl gangs, who informed me that Nanay Clarita's fourth son Fernando.was stabbed to death one month ago. He was 15 years old. Her three other sons, all of whom had rubbed shoulders with Duterte's version of the law, had died gruesome deaths at the hands of knife-wielding assassins in 1999 and 2000. Clarita still lives in a wooden hovel inside the Bankerohan market and suffers from anxiety and extreme poverty, not too mention total despair.
Poloy, a former DDS hitman, was also killed a couple of weeks ago on a botched assassination job. I interviewed him in 2003 but he wouldn't go on record. On the day that he agreed to write an affadavit about his experiences as a DDS member, Poloy was killed in a shootout with a local politician's bodyguard whom-in an ironic twist of fate-he was paid to kill. A tragic turn of tables. Even assassins have to watch their back.
Finally, a journalist friend informed me that a woman with whom I had once worked closely had been physically abused by her husband for many, many years. I can't believe some men and husbands continue to assault those whom they are supposed to love and care for. Infidelity and spousal abuse are ripe in a land where divorce is not legal nor sanctioned by the Catholic church. The week before a 10-year-old boy in Basilan asked me about my life in America and rather casually inquired about how many girlfriends I had. And you wonder where kids learn how to be assholes!
As if the world of Davao didn't seem dark enough, a fierce thunderstorm swept across the city at 9pm. As my taxi left Matina Town Square, both the driver and I began to see the floodwaters rise in front of us. Four-wheel drives and trucks began to stall in knee-high water. Yet my driver barreled forward, dodging pedestrians wading in a nasty water-sewage combo and children pushing their father's cars to the side of the flooded road. At one point, the wake from oncoming traffic poured into our open windows. The taxi finally died at Victoria Plaza which happened to be nearby my hotel. The ordeal wasn't quite over. I had to wade through thigh-deep water for several blocks to get to a warm shower.
If only I had known to leave the restaurant as soon as it started raining instead of an hour after the storm began.
Once my shoes dry, I'll be on my way to Cotabato to visit old friends and try to access the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It was nice to be in Davao for an evening in spite of the bad news and floodwaters. It was my home for 7 months. Davao's new airport is nicer than Cotabato's. The local mall's movie theater has never been bombed and you can eat pasta on a rooftop Italian restaurant.
Yet Davao's streets are tougher, darker, and until tomorrow morning, a lot muddier than they were three years ago.