The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Duterte keeps admitting to killing people. His supporters keep shrugging it off.

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Who is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives for a meeting with Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. On Wednesday, the Philippine justice secretary says President Rodrigo Duterte often exaggerates killings of criminals he supposedly carried out to send a chilling warning to lawbreakers. Vitaliano Aguirre II told reporters that Duterte may have been resorting to hyperbole when he suggested in a recent speech that he used to go around his southern city as mayor on a big motorcycle to look for criminals to kill so policemen would emulate him. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

It should have been a shocking admission.

On Monday, Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, bragged about killing people. He said that when he was a city mayor, he used to hunt suspects on his motorcycle, shooting people on the spot. The goal, he said, was to encourage police officers to do the same.

“In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show to the [police] that if I can do it, why can’t you?” he said.

“I [would] go around in Davao with a motorcycle … and I would just patrol the streets and looking for trouble also. I was really looking for an encounter to kill,” he said.

This was not the first time that Duterte appeared to admit to murder — nor would it be the first time his supporters dismissed his remarks. On Wednesday, Vitaliano Aguirre II, his justice secretary, said that the president “exaggerated” and that although Duterte said he went “looking” to kill, he actually “must have been forced.”

All of this fits a pattern: Duterte calls for killing alleged criminals and then denies a personal or government role. It's a strategy that helped get him elected and that keeps him popular as his self-proclaimed “war on drugs” claims thousands more.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says he has personally patrolled the streets of Davao on a motorcycle looking for criminals to kill. (Video: Reuters)

To understand why a sitting president might admit to murder, consider that Duterte has done all of this before. During his two-decade tenure as the mayor of Davao, a city in the southern Philippines, he earned the nickname “the death squad mayor” because of the teams of hit men that stalked the streets, shooting petty criminals and government critics.

When rights groups investigated him, he claimed he played no role. But when he ran for president, he promised to replicate the Davao model on a national scale. His government would “kill all” the criminals; there would be death and death and death, he said, until the fish “grow fat” from feeding on their bodies.

This apocalyptic vision has proved popular. Having weathered colonial plunder, a kleptocratic dictator, and then rule by a corrupt and feudalistic elite, many Filipinos see him as a savior, the type of leader who would bleed the system clean.

People are also incredibly fed up with rampant crime in their communities, and they do not think the country's overburdened and inefficient courts can deliver the justice they crave.

Since Duterte took power June 30, at least 5,900 people have been killed in his "war on drugs." The police say that 2,086 were shot dead in raids and that 3,841 were gunned down “vigilante-style” by unknown attackers.

Independent reporting on police operations in the “war” has found troubling inconsistencies and strong evidence of excessive use of force. The government claims these “vigilante-style” killings are out of its control, but a recent Washington Post investigation found one such killing was actually staged by high-ranking cops — a dark echo of the “death squad” days.

International condemnation has done little to stop the violence. Local critics rightly fear speaking out.

Duterte is promising more death in 2017. We can't be shocked when he delivers.

Read more:

Duterte blames 'vigilantes' for killings. These vigilantes had police badges.

Here’s how one man survived when a death squad came after him

Duterte: Hitler killed millions of Jews. I will kill millions of drug addicts.

Before Duterte was the Philippines’ president, he was ‘the Death Squad mayor’