The Punisher

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Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City, is sitting in his favorite bar, After Dark, a glass of brandy in front of him, a .38 pistol tucked in his waistband. He's wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt loudly adorned with wine bottles and bunches of red and green grapes — the same outfit he wore to work. While other guests take turns singing along with the piano player, Duterte tells a strange and disturbing story. In 1993, Davao's San Pedro Cathedral was hit with three grenades during an evening Mass. Six parishioners were killed. The attackers were Muslim militants, the sort easily found in Davao, a time-honored haven for kidnappers, bandits, communist rebels and roaming private armies. Four of the attackers were quickly arrested. Just as quickly, Duterte relates, "They went missing." Disappeared. Dead. "Then," the mayor says flatly, "it got ugly." Further killings? "More like assassinations," he says. The targets — other militants — didn't receive the courtesy of arrest, much less a trial. Were they dispatched on his orders? "Oh no," he responds. "I don't believe in state-sponsored killing." A pause. "I can't say any more, but I taught them a lesson."

The island of Mindanao remains troubled. A Muslim separatist rebellion has raged there for decades. Al-Qaeda members have roamed the island. Foreign businessmen and missionaries must constantly be on guard there against kidnappers. But Davao, a sprawling port city on the southern coast, has emerged as the exception — an oasis of peace in the middle of the Philippines' lush center of chaos.

Residents have a simple explanation: the mayor. First elected in 1987, Duterte was returned to office twice until term limits made him to move to Manila as a Congressman. Last year he returned, running for the Davao mayoralty on his eternal platform: to bring peace and order the Duterte way. The city's 1.3 million residents swept him back into office, and no wonder. On his watch, Davao's per capita crime rate has sunk to the nation's lowest. The local tourism board calls it "the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia." People once fled the place in fear; now they flee other trouble spots in the Philippines — for Davao.

"If we had 20 more mayors like Duterte," says Fred Lim, an ex-mayor of Manila who is no stranger to tough tactics, "the peace and order situation in the Philippines would improve." That's one way of looking at it. Others say Duterte has achieved his results at a grim price, disregarding due process and anointing himself legislator, judge, jury — and possibly executioner — all at once. Justice in Davao, says Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a highly decorated former armed forces chief, is "not about following the law; it's about who's willing to go further."

Duterte is unapologetic about his willingness to venture beyond what legal niceties might permit. Criminals and rebels, he says menacingly from his perch at the bar, "do not have a monopoly on evil." A long, hard stare leaves little doubt that this is not idle talk. One day his methods might be unnecessary, he says. But for now, he insists on what most people from this town have also come to believe: "The only reason there is peace and order in Davao is because of me."

The convoy rolls down San Pedro Street, with Duterte in the lead on one of his beloved motorcycles. He is followed by two other bikes and a pickup bearing M16 toting bodyguards. Now and again, he lets loose a siren, in part to clear traffic, in part to signal that the mayor is on the prowl. Some people stare. Others wave. A few duck swiftly into the shadows. Duterte says he "patrols" twice a week, usually late at night, stopping at precinct houses to see who's in the holding cells and why, and to make sure his police are doing their job. He has made a policy of doling out groceries to cops as a way of curbing their temptation to elicit bribes, but that doesn't mean he's always in a benevolent mood. When he finds a cop drunk on duty, Duterte admits, he personally doles out a thrashing.

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