The Philippine government has struck a long-overdue blow against the country’s epidemic of unsolved extrajudicial killings by filing murder charges against the tough-talking former mayor of Mindanao’s Tagum City, Rey “Chiong“ Uy. The National Bureau of Investigation has linked Uy – who was Tagum City’s mayor from 2004 to 2011 – and 28 co-conspirators to the murders of at least 80 people by a city government-backed death squad.
The allegations against Uy, announced March 4, won’t come as a surprise to his former constituents. In a May 2014 report, Human Rights Watch exposed the existence of the Tagum death squad as a salaried arm of the municipal government, organized, financed, and directed by Uy, and linked to hundreds of killings. Many of the victims included street children – who Uy dismissed as “weeds” – often killed with extreme brutality. They included 9-year-old Jenny Boy “Kokey” Lagulos, who local residents found dead on a Tagum City side street on April 12, 2011, his body a bloodied heap punctured by 22 stab wounds.
Extrajudicial killings and the activities of shadowy death squads acting as anti-crime vigilantes are nothing new in the Philippines. But the level of government complicity with the Tagum death squad was front-page news, even in a country long-accustomed to street violence. That pressure likely assisted Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s efforts to bring charges in the case. Uy’s prosecution also marks a welcome shift from President Benigno Aquino III’s previous failure to tackle death squad killings in places like Davao City and Cebu City and his tolerance for local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage extrajudicial means to rid city streets of “undesirables.”
But there’s more to be done. A much-vaunted initiative by the administration to address impunity – the creation in 2012 of a so-called superbody to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases of extrajudicial killings – has remained largely inactive even as new cases are reported by Philippine human rights groups. Local politicians with “private armies” and state security forces have been implicated in killings of journalists, leftist activists, environmentalists, and tribal leaders. With rare exception, no one has been prosecuted for these killings, certainly not the masterminds.
Aquino has a great opportunity to demonstrate that Rey Uy’s prosecution marks the beginning of sustained government action against extrajudicial killings, rather than the exception to the rule.