(Advisory: Strong language in paragraph nine)
By Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall
MANILA (Reuters) - In the past eight months, a death squad known as the Bonnet Gang has gunned down more than 60 drug suspects in the Philippine town of Pateros. Mayor Ike Ponce has had enough.
He has put up banners across Pateros, in the southeast of Metro Manila, to denounce the gang, which is named for the hoods its motorbike-riding gunmen wear to hide their identities.
Extrajudicial killings are “not the right process to stop the proliferation of illegal drugs,” read the banners. “We value human life and adhere to the rule of law.”
Ponce knows his actions could anger not just the Bonnet Gang but also someone far more powerful: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. More than 8,000 people, mostly petty drug users and dealers, have been killed in the “war on drugs” pursued by Duterte since he took office on June 30.
Ponce is the only one of Metro Manila’s 17 mayors to publicly oppose the violence. In many cases, local politicians have worked with the police to draw up lists of drug users and dealers, who then often end up dead at the hands of police or vigilantes.
He is, though, a symbol of increasing resistance from parts of society, including the country’s influential Catholic Church, which has called the campaign a “reign of terror.”
Duterte has put local politicians and officials under unprecedented scrutiny and pressure. Police have accused those who lack enthusiasm for the campaign, or object to its violent methods, of protecting or profiting from drug traffickers.
Duterte has publicly brandished a thick list of what he says are thousands of “narco-politicians” and warned mayors involved in the drug trade to resign or die.
“Son of a bitch, if your name is there, you have a problem,” he said in January. “I will really kill you.”
Still, Ponce questions Duterte’s methods, even as he repeatedly stresses his support for Duterte’s goal.
“He is really trying his best to solve the drug problem,” he told Reuters. “The manner in which it’s being executed - that’s what we oppose.”
In March, a former policeman testified in the Philippine Senate about his role in vigilante-style killings in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor. Duterte has denied ordering killings, either as president or mayor.
Police say they have shot dead 2,555 suspects in anti-drug operations. Human rights groups also blame thousands of vigilante-style killings on the police or people associated with them, a claim the police and government deny.
Police operations were halted for much of February after it emerged that an anti-drug unit had killed a South Korean businessman but last week they resumed.
Pateros has only 63,000 people, but they are densely packed into a warren of shops, houses and shacks radiating from a 200-year-old church.
The Bonnet Gang terrorizes the town with apparent impunity, picking off targets in slick operations usually after dark.
Mayor Ponce blames it for all of the 64 vigilante-style killings in Pateros since the drug war began, including three in February.
Supporting the president while decrying the violence his policies have unleashed is not Ponce’s only dilemma.
He must also try to reassure fearful constituents, many of whom say they believe the Bonnet Gang is secretly run and staffed by police.
“Why? Because from day one ... we have not arrested anyone,” he said. “That is why people are thinking they are police officers.”
Joven Gatpayat, a city councilor who heads Pateros’s anti-drug abuse council, said the killers carry out operations like professionally trained men.
“They don’t run, they don’t panic,” he said.
Ponce has urged the police chiefs of Pateros and the Southern Police District “to do something” about the Bonnet Gang.
Pateros police chief Joel Villanueva told Reuters that one suspected gang member had been arrested and 11 others identified. He attributed the killings to “a feud among drug lords” and denied police involvement.
“We are appealing to the public, if the culprit is one of us, to give us information,” said Jenny Tecson, a spokesperson for the Southern Police District.
“We try to clean up the ranks,” she said. “There is no place for evil here.”
“WE‘RE STILL SCARED”
One evening in December, Kim, a call-center worker, saw four masked men on two motorbikes stop on a crowded Pateros street, shoot two people and speed away.
“I was shaking when I got home,” said Kim, 23, who wouldn’t give her second name. “We’re still scared. We don’t know who will be next.”
Michael Almeda, 39, was sleeping when eight hooded men on four motorbikes arrived outside his family’s wooden house at about 2.30 a.m.
The men kicked in the door, dragged Michael outside and shot him eight times, said his brother Rey.
“The last bullet was in his head,” Rey said. Michael died on the spot.
Ponce said he attends the wake of every Bonnet Gang victim to comfort the bereaved and explain that “we cannot control these things happening right now.”
A lawyer by training, Ponce said mayors haven’t been shown Duterte’s list of narco-politicians, which is kept by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).
“I assumed if my name is there they will call on me and invite me to the office,” he said.
Joel Egco, a DILG undersecretary, said the list was treated with “utmost confidentiality” and he had no way of finding out whether Ponce was on it.
Ultimately, says Ponce, only Duterte has the power to halt the activities of the Bonnet Gang. “Whoever these people are,” he said, “it’s still in the hands of the president to stop this.”
Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Howell