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Ex-Officer in Philippines Says He Led Death Squad at Duterte’s Behest

The New York Times logo The New York Times 20/02/2017 FELIPE VILLAMOR
A retired police officer, Arthur Lascañas, center, said at a news conference on Monday that he led a death squad on the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City. © Bullit Marquez/Associated Press A retired police officer, Arthur Lascañas, center, said at a news conference on Monday that he led a death squad on the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City.

MANILA — A retired police officer who once denied that President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines had sponsored death squads as mayor of the southern city of Davao retracted that statement on Monday and declared that he had led the group of hit men who murdered people suspected of crimes and drug use, including two of his own brothers, on direct orders from Mr. Duterte.

Edgar Matobato at a safe house in Manila in September. Mr. Matobato has been in hiding since last year, when he linked the president to extrajudicial killings. © Jes Aznar for The New York Times Edgar Matobato at a safe house in Manila in September. Mr. Matobato has been in hiding since last year, when he linked the president to extrajudicial killings.

The former police officer, Arthur Lascañas, said at a news conference that he had decided to tell all because he was weighed down by his conscience.

At least 3,600 people, and possibly thousands more, have been killed by the police or vigilantes since Mr. Duterte became president in June. Rights groups have said that the police may have ordered the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users, a charge that officials have denied. Mr. Duterte’s spokesman, Martin Andanar, on Monday dismissed Mr. Lascañas’s allegations as “part of a protracted political drama” intended to undermine the president’s leadership.

Mr. Lascañas, 56, said that he was the leader of the Davao Death Squad, a group that he said Mr. Duterte had formed to go after small-time drug dealers and petty criminals but that later evolved into a force to eliminate political opponents.

He is the second person claiming membership in the squad to speak out against Mr. Duterte, bolstering the explosive testimony of a professed hit man, Edgar Matobato, who has been in hiding since last year, when he linked the president to the killings. On Monday, Mr. Lascañas broke down in tears and said Mr. Matobato’s accusations were true.

“We started the salvaging of people when Mayor Duterte first sat down as mayor in Davao City,” he said. “The people we targeted are criminals and were into illegal drugs. We were implementing the personal orders of Duterte.”

“Salvaging” is a euphemism in the Philippines for summary executions.

Mr. Lascañas said members of the squad were usually paid $400 to $1,000 for the killings “depending on the status” of the target.

“All the killings that we committed in Davao City, whether they were buried or thrown in the sea, were paid for by Mayor Duterte,” he said.

Mr. Lascañas said that he received an allowance directly from Mr. Duterte’s office and that he had led the group for a long time. He said his earlier testimony, made before the Senate last year, was “all lies.”

He said that two of his brothers — whom he identified as Cecilio and Fernando — were among the group’s victims and that he had concealed the details surrounding their deaths from the family until Monday.

“They were involved in illegal drugs,” Mr. Lascañas said. “Now my nephews know that I was instrumental to the murders. In my belief about the campaign, I had committed this.”

He also confirmed Mr. Matobato’s earlier statement linking Mr. Duterte to the murder of Jun Pala, a radio commentator critical of the former mayor and a known supporter of a vigilante group in Davao guarding against Communist guerrillas. Mr. Lascañas said he was paid about $60,000 to get rid of him.

“We planned and carried out the assassination of Jun Pala,” he said. After Mr. Pala survived an ambush, Mr. Lascañas said, he met with Mr. Duterte, who told him to take his time in killing the broadcaster.

Mr. Pala was shot by gunmen near his home in 2003, in a killing that the police attributed to a Communist rebel hit squad.

“This is the real truth in the Pala murder case,” Mr. Lascañas said. “I am one of those who murdered him.”

Mr. Lascañas also said that he and other members of the squad killed a kidnapping suspect, his pregnant wife, his father-in-law and two servants. He said the victims were seized and taken to a quarry, where they were gunned down.

He did not say how the bodies were disposed of, but last year Mr. Matobato testified that victims were chopped up and then their parts taken to sea to be scattered.

It was not immediately clear what Mr. Lascañas would do next, but he has been under the protection of the Free Legal Assistance Group, an organization of rights advocates and lawyers who have criticized Mr. Duterte’s deadly campaign against drugs.

The group said that Mr. Lascañas had drawn up a sworn affidavit and was ready to testify before any government body, including the Senate.

Mr. Lascañas’s statements on Monday were in line with Mr. Matobato’s testimony last year. At the time, he said he was one of the first civilians Mr. Lascañas had recruited into the death squad, originally known as the Lambada Boys, that was responsible for kidnappings, killings and the bombing of a mosque in Davao. He said the squad answered to Mr. Duterte and his longtime lieutenant, Ronald dela Rosa, now director general of the Philippine National Police.

Mr. Andanar, the president’s spokesman, said in his statement on Monday: “Our people are aware that this character assassination is nothing but vicious politics orchestrated by sectors affected by the reforms initiated by the Duterte administration.”

“Bringing change is not an easy task,” he added. “The Duterte administration has disturbed, disrupted the establishment. However, we remain undistracted in delivering goods and services to serve the people, not just the interest of the few.”

Senator Antonio Trillanes, who has been feuding with Mr. Duterte and who supported Mr. Matobato when he made his accusations last year, said that Mr. Andanar’s statement was intended to divert attention away from “ the issue of the president’s complicity” in multiple murders.

Senator Risa Hontiveros called Mr. Lascañas’s allegations a “direct stab at the credibility” of the president that undermined his “moral capacity to lead.”

“They strengthen suspicions that the death squads responsible for thousands of unsolved extrajudicial killings are state-sanctioned,” Ms. Hontiveros said. She called on the Senate to investigate Mr. Lascañas’s accusations and respond to what she called the “public’s clamor for truth and accountability.”

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