The first glimpse I have of President Rodrigo Duterte in the city where he was mayor for more than two decades is a traveller’s bag on the airport luggage carousel. The case bears his trademark motif: a clenched fist aimed at the viewer.

Over the following few days in Davao, the third-largest metropolis in the Philippines, I see images of the president emblazoned on T-shirts, posters and banners. A local entrepreneur makes “Duterte” perfume, while life-sized cardboard cutouts stand, eyes glaring, in businesses around the city. It’s the kind of personality cult one might expect in a dictatorship rather than a democracy.

Since his surprise election victory in the Philippines last May, when he took almost 39 per cent of the vote in a five-horse race, Duterte’s signature policy — a bloody national war on drugs — has led to the killing of more than 7,000 people by police and others.

A life-sized cardboard cutout of Duterte at a gift shop in Davao
A life-sized cardboard cutout of Duterte at a gift shop in Davao © Sonny Thakur

In the past year, the 71-year-old has likened himself to Adolf Hitler; boasted of his willingness to slaughter millions of people; joked about not getting the chance to rape an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and murdered in Davao in 1989; and responded to criticism from then President Barack Obama and Pope Francis by calling them “sons of whores”.

Amnesty International said this week that the thousands of extrajudicial executions under his rule might amount to “crimes against humanity”.

Far from alienating voters, however, the unorthodox behaviour of the man some call the “Trump of Asia” appears to have cemented his position; an independent poll in December found that 77 per cent of people were satisfied with his performance.

Davao is a good place to understand why. The coastal city of more than 1.6 million people, on the southern island of Mindanao, served both as a springboard and a template for his extraordinary presidency. The Davao era is also a crucial part of the legend that propelled him to power.

“Davao was Duterte’s exhibit A,” says Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst at De La Salle University in Manila. “The whole perception, and some would say myth, of him as a man capable of overhauling the country overnight was precisely based on the claim that he turned Davao from a Wild West into a relatively prosperous and stable haven in the conflict-ridden island of Mindanao.”

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Regional politicians have long prospered in the Philippines, an archipelago of thousands of islands that was under Spanish control for three centuries and then, for about half a century, the US. After independence in 1946, the country elected its own governments until President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972. Thousands of his opponents were killed under his regime.

After Marcos was toppled, stories of authoritarian excess, notably his wife Imelda’s vast shoe collection, made headlines worldwide. An official report later concluded that Marcos and his associates had looted $10bn from the country. Since then, the Philippines has been a rare example of democracy in an autocratic Southeast Asian region.

Duterte was born in 1945 on the island of Leyte, and moved to Mindanao as a child. His father Vicente was an ambitious politician who became provincial governor of Davao and later a cabinet minister in Marcos’s first government. Vicente died in 1968 aged 56, leaving Rodrigo the eldest son of five siblings. Duterte’s mother Soledad, whom he has often cited as a great influence, was a teacher and social activist. She died in 2012, aged 95.

After training as a lawyer, Duterte became a prosecutor in Davao. He was appointed vice-mayor in 1986 after the revolution that drove Marcos from power and, in 1988, was elected mayor. He ruled there for almost 30 years, intermittently assuming the posts of vice-mayor and congress member when forced to by constitutional term limits.

When Duterte entered politics in the 1980s, the southern Philippines was racked by a bloody decades-long struggle with armed groups, including communists, Muslim separatists and criminal gangs. Davao was known as the country’s “murder city”, and Duterte became mayor on a pledge to restore law and order.

Duterte sporting an Uzi submachine gun in the 1990s
Duterte sporting an Uzi submachine gun in the 1990s © Reuters

A former diplomat recalls an early glimpse of Duterte’s style on a visit to his Davao office 15 years ago. The “line of supplicants” snaking out the door showed the mayor was “obviously the go-to man” in the city. “He had a gold-plated revolver on the desk. It showed he was the head local honcho. It was just sat there — ready to use.”

Duterte introduced a number of steps welcomed by residents: a curfew for unescorted minors, a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol at certain times, a public smoking ban and fines for noise nuisance. 

But the drop in official crime rates under Duterte’s watch was accompanied by a disturbing pattern: a growing number of extrajudicial killings. Victims were usually killed by two or three men on motorbikes carrying .45-calibre handguns or butcher’s knives, according to Human Rights Watch. The group found evidence of complicity “and at times direct involvement of government officials and members of the police in killings by the so-called Davao death squad”.

Activists say that more than 1,000 people were killed in this way during Duterte’s time in charge. Many were petty criminals, drug pushers and users; others were street children.

Policemen gather over the body of a suspect killed during an anti-drug operation at an informal settlers' area near a port in Manila on November 10, 2016. 
		Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs and other crimes took he office on June 30 has claimed 4,447 lives, according to official figures made available by police on November 10. / AFP / TED ALJIBE        (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen gather over the body of a suspect killed during an anti-drug operation at an informal settlers' area near a port in Manila on November 10, 2016. © AFP/Getty Images

Duterte has at times denied the existence of death squads, while at other times he has boasted of his complicity in killings. In February 2009, he told reporters: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”

In 2015, he said that an Amnesty International report claiming he was responsible for 700 deaths during the anti-drugs campaign in Davao had actually underestimated the true number by 1,000. Duterte’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

Whatever the death toll, it has become a widely held belief that Davao is today the safest place in the Philippines. This, and the glamorisation of the former mayor’s alleged enforcer role, with the media nicknaming him “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry”, helped drive support for a national version of the crackdown on drugs.

In Duterte’s final campaign rally before the election, he promised to do “just what I did as mayor” if he made it to the presidential palace. “Forget the laws on human rights . . . You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you.”

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Rizal Park, beside the City Hall in Davao
Rizal Park, beside the City Hall in Davao © Sonny Thakur

Duterte’s Davao today is not a place to question authority or step out of line. Outside the imposing City Hall, where young boys do backflips under the gimlet eyes of stone eagles, two soldiers mill on a busy shopping street. They’re from Task Force Davao, which patrols the city and runs checkpoints coming in and out of it.

The city’s long intermittent conflict has left people with a higher tolerance of a security state than might otherwise be the case. “We are not afraid of our policemen and our soldiers, because they are not here to harm us,” says Jose Cacho, who has a stall selling sunglasses. “They are here to protect us. It’s for our own security that they are around.”

Philip “Sonny” Dizon, a businessman and long-time confidant of Duterte, owns a crocodile park outside Davao; after the election, the president-elect held a victory party there. “When you clean up dirt, the dirt has to be thrown away,” he says, when I ask him about the casualties of the drugs war.

Dizon himself has the air of a rancher, in jeans and crocodile-skin belt. He simultaneously delights in and plays down the idea that he’s influential now that his friend is in the presidential palace. He can’t resist letting me glance at text messages on his phone from people close to the leader.

Philip Dizon, a Duterte supporter
Philip Dizon, a Duterte supporter, holding a young crocodile at the crocodile park he owns near Davao © Sonny Thakur

It’s no surprise to hear a Duterte loyalist endorse the president’s drugs war. But then Dizon reveals that he is a campaigner for medical marijuana and that he once used to take shabu, or crystal meth, a drug he now describes as “evil”. Methamphetamine has spread like wildfire across Asia, available for as little as a few dollars a dose and popular with everyone from clubbers to long-distance drivers who want to stay awake. It’s the commodity at the centre of the Philippines’ war on drugs.

Dizon’s own experiences don’t seem to have given him much empathy for the drug users caught up in a campaign of killings described by Amnesty International as “carnage” and by Human Rights Watch as a “calamity”. 

As we chat in front of an enclosure where a pair of saltwater crocodiles doze in the muggy midday heat, Dizon is very relaxed about who exactly is being targeted. “I don’t know who is killing who . . . Like the president says: order the policeman, ‘Whenever you feel that your life’s threatened, fight it out and kill your enemy.’”

Security outside Davao City Hall
Security outside Davao City Hall © Sonny Thakur

According to rights groups, the lists of those to be targeted are drawn up by local officials, leaving all sorts of scope for parochial scores to be settled. The due process, such as it is, is known as tokhang, a warning from the police to surrender and “reform”. But relatives of those killed say police have in some cases opened fire during tokhang operations. Family members of four men allegedly gunned down by police in August launched a legal challenge last month to the tokhang system.

As the extrajudicial killings have gathered pace in recent months, an increasing number of people without involvement in the drugs trade have died — including cases of mistaken identity, unlucky bystanders, and the friends and children of the apparent target. In a report published this week, Amnesty described the killings as “not a war on drugs, but a war on the poor”, saying the police were systematically targeting “mostly poor and defenceless people across the country while planting ‘evidence’, recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they kill and fabricating official incident reports”. 

The police have previously denied wrongdoing and say they only kill in self-defence. But Duterte called this week for the army to assist the drugs war and detain wrongdoers in a police force he branded “corrupt to the core”. Police suspended their own anti-narcotics operations amid outcry over the role of some officers in the killing of a South Korean businessman.

Pressed on how tokhang targets are selected, Dizon replies that it’s a “big puzzle”. What if even more people are killed? “So . . . be it,” he says, seeming a little irritated by such an obvious question. “Because they [the supposed drug dealers and users] are destroying the next generation.”

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Duterte has traded successfully on the idea that he is an anti-establishment outsider. Stocky in build and pugnacious in manner, he has a homespun style, preferring casual shirts to sharp suits. He still spends many weekends in Davao and sometimes hosts visiting dignitaries there. In January, he was pictured showing the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe around his townhouse.

But, as with other “anti-elitist” politicians, it is not as straightforward as that. The president is deeply entrenched in the political and business elite of Davao. City Hall is now under the control of Duterte’s daughter Sara, the mayor, and his son Paolo, vice-mayor. Another family member still in the city is the president’s sister Jocellyn. She is clearly enjoying the celebrity that her brother’s rise has brought. A nephew scurries around after her, acting as her personal assistant.

Duterte’s sister Jocellyn
Duterte’s sister Jocellyn © Sonny Thakur

Jocellyn, who is 68 and has had a varied career ranging from advertising to real estate, admits to a “love and hate” relationship with her older brother. She says she used to be a critic. “The mayor has a very authoritarian manner. I think the opposition thinks he is going to be a dictator.”

But she says she changed her mind about her brother when she returned to Davao after many years away and was impressed with how it had changed from the “killing fields” she left behind. Perhaps, Jocellyn goes on, Filipinos were due a dose of authoritarianism. “We can talk about democracy, but before we can go to democracy I think we should have discipline,” she reflects. “And I think that’s what the Filipino needed. And that worked in Davao.”

Hard numbers on the city’s supposed transformation from cesspit to haven are elusive. Philippine police crime statistics are patchy and sometimes contradictory. The Davao police, who are openly pro-Duterte, did not respond to a request for crime figures.

A presentation by the force last year reportedly said there were 363 murders (plus 252 other unlawful killings) in the first half of 2015 — a slight rise on the same period in 2014 and more than the much larger New York City had in the whole of last year. It’s not clear whether the Davao statistics account for the “liquidations” by police of suspects often reported on the city police Facebook feed, complete with pictures of the dead in pools of blood.

The Duterte family mausoleum in Davao
The Duterte family mausoleum in Davao © Sonny Thakur

Other questions loom over the management of the Davao bureaucracy. Anecdotally, business people — many of whom have made money in the city — say the Duterte administration was reasonably efficient administratively and less prone to petty corruption than some other authorities.

But opponents of the president have raised the possibility that the city had a number of “ghost workers”, who received salaries for doing nothing. A Commission on Audit report in 2015 said fewer than a quarter of the 14,499 people on the city’s payroll held regular, verifiable positions. The commission raised concerns about the lack of documentation, including daily time records and attendance logs, that could prove people were doing what they were paid for. A Duterte spokesman has previously denied wrongdoing and dismissed the claims.

Duterte’s reputation as the rescuer of Davao is also complicated by the bigger national story behind the ebbing violence of the Mindanao rebellions. While he played a part in this — he is known and trusted by important insurgents — it was the previous national government that struck a 2014 peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest rebel group. The situation also remains precarious, as shown by a bombing that killed 14 people at a Davao market in September.

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Duterte’s presidency hasn’t been solely about death and drugs. He’s shaken up foreign policy, seeking investment from China and declaring his country’s “separation” from the US, its long-time ally — although he later played down those remarks. He has also announced a programme to distribute condoms to six million women, an initiative that may yet bring him into conflict with the church in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic.

His critics worry that his tenure will lead to the erosion of democratic institutions. Duterte said in November that he might look to suspend habeas corpus if the country was too lawless and, last month, he raised the possibility of introducing martial law. Meanwhile, Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice minister who led an inquiry into the extrajudicial killings, is being targeted by a criminal complaint from the president’s congressional allies.

Benedicto Villero, a rickshaw driver in the old Spanish colonial Intramuros district of the country’s capital Manila, tells me he has mixed feelings about Duterte. He likes the president’s promises of tough action, but not the killings. Some people who are dying were barely involved with drugs, he says. He tells the story of a man he knew when they both worked as janitors in a convenience store. The man was a small-time drug user. He was kidnapped from a bingo hall and two days later his body turned up, wrapped in a black sack. His face was covered in packaging tape and a note attached to his corpse said he had been killed because he was a drug addict.

“There is a lot of killing in the Philippines and many families suffer,” Villero says. “Maybe one day they will knock on your door and all the men that they see, they will put in a car.”

Father Amado Picardal was a priest in Davao for 16 years
Father Amado Picardal was a priest in Davao for 16 years © Sonny Thakur

Villero drops me at the office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. I have come to meet Father Amado Picardal, a priest in Davao for 16 years who witnessed the drugs war up close (one person was shot in a parking lot outside a church while he was conducting a service).

For many years, he and fellow activists examined the activities of the death squads that operated in the city. “For a period from 1998 to 2015, we monitored 1,424 killings perpetrated by what we believe were members of the Davao death squads,” he tells me, while seated in a courtyard in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary. “Many would believe this has been inspired, supported and even organised by Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.”

Duterte has never given a clear account of how his crackdown on crime in Davao worked. He denied allegations aired at a Senate hearing in September, where a self-described Davao hitman claimed he was part of a death squad that killed about 50 people under Duterte’s orders — including one who was fed to a crocodile. But Duterte also told an audience of business people in December that he used to personally hunt down drugs suspects to kill when he was mayor.

Picardal’s critique goes deeper than accusing Duterte of complicity in mass killings. He says that the Philippines’ drugs problem, while serious, is “highly exaggerated”. While Duterte has claimed there are 3.7 million drug addicts in the country, the Office of the President’s Dangerous Drugs Board in 2015 estimated the number of users at 1.8 million and said significant numbers of those were either very occasional users or took only marijuana. 

Some analysts have also made critical comparisons between the Duterte campaign and Thailand’s war on drugs during the early 2000s. Thousands were killed then but the country still has a thriving drugs trade today.

“It seems to me that all of these things are a myth, the myth of Duterte,” Picardal says. There is an even bigger myth now, he adds: “That what he did for Davao, he will do for our entire country. There is a belief among so many people that President Duterte is a saviour of our country.”

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Friend and political donor Sammy Uy
Friend and political donor Sammy Uy © Sonny Thakur

Despite growing outrage among rights groups and western countries over the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have taken place in the past six months, loyalty to the president remains strong in Davao.

More than 30 years ago, Duterte used to visit Sammy Uy’s video-rental store. Uy had gone to school with one of Duterte’s younger brothers. “I noticed he is a very sincere person,” says Uy, now 63, in his messy office at the back of his family’s furniture shop. “So I tell him — you don’t have to pay me [for the videos] because of our friendship. That’s where our friendship started.”

According to Uy, the future president liked action films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also loved movies about justice; Walking Tall, a hit 1973 film starring Joe Don Baker, was apparently a particular favourite. It’s based on the true story of Buford Pusser, a Tennessee man who is beaten up by gangland thugs and later becomes a sheriff who launches a violent, but popular, crackdown on crime.

Uy is now a businessman with a number of assets including a poultry farm, a stake in a cockfighting venture and an interest in a Honda dealership. In October, he attended the president’s first meeting with Shinzo Abe. Uy was one of the biggest donors to Duterte’s election campaign last year, giving 30m pesos (about $600,000) in cash and in kind, according to election agency figures. He says he has helped the president out with money over many years, although he denies that the donations have bought him any political favours.

I ask Uy why he thinks Duterte enjoys films such as Walking Tall so much. “Because he always said to me that evil will prosper if good men do nothing. That’s what he is doing now. He is doing things just to lessen the evil.”

Michael Peel is the FT’s Bangkok correspondent

Photographs: Sonny Thakur; Reuters

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