Culture of impunity: Attacks on local officials in first year of Marcos admin

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 6) – The country witnessed a spate of attacks against local government officials that claimed at least 38 lives over the past year.

The assassination of Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo highlighted the brazen assault - successful or otherwise - on former and sitting local officials since June 2022.

“It was shocking. I couldn’t believe that this still happened… Ilan ang pinatay nila walang kinalaman doon sa kanilang gulo, kanilang away [There were people killed that had nothing to do with their mess],” President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said two days after Degamo was killed in broad daylight inside his residential compound.

Marcos condemned the killings and attributed the violence to the proliferation of illegal firearms and the emergence of private armed groups (PAGs). He said some killings were clearly politically motivated.

CNN Philippines takes a closer look at the alarming pattern of targeted attacks during Marcos’ first year in office.

Attempts in numbers

Data obtained by CNN Philippines from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) showed that there were 34 cases of attacks on elected officials, and 38 deaths from June 2022 to June 2023.

The CHR said these figures do not reflect the total number of alleged killings of local officials under investigation and monitored by law enforcement.

Some notable examples:

February 17: Gunmen attacked Lanao del Sur Gov. Mamintal Adiong and his aides in Maguing town. Adiong survived, but four of his aides were killed.

February 19: Gunmen pounced on Aparri, Cagayan Vice Mayor Rommel Alameda and five of his companions on a highway in Nueva Vizcaya. All were killed.

February 24: Gunmen attacked Datu Montawal Mayor Ohto Caumbo Montawal while traveling with a companion on Roxas Boulevard in a van towards Senator Gil Puyat Avenue. The mayor was wounded.

March 4: The most prominent attack was when 10 gunmen entered the home compound of Degamo and opened fire while he met with his constituents. The governor and nine others were killed on the spot, one died two months later.

Culture of impunity?

The violence killed close to 70 politicians annually over the past 15 years, according to a study published last year by Peter Kreuzer, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

“Average annual killings rose from 43.75 during the final four years of the Arroyo presidency, through 54.34 killings per year during the six years of the Aquino presidency to a staggering 90.2 during the Duterte presidency,” Kreuzer said in the report

For Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines President and Quirino Gov. Dakila Cua, the “brazen” attacks on local officials are rooted in a culture of political violence.

“We need to review our policies. We need to find out what’s wrong in our justice system – bakit yung perpetrators hindi takot, saan sila humuhugot ng lakas ng loob, saan sila nakakakabit [why are the perpetrators not afraid, where do they draw courage, who do they work for]?” he said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

However, Cua said it was hard to speculate on the motivation behind the recent attacks. He also did not link the culture of impunity to a specific person or administration.

The CHR, echoing Cua’s sentiment, said it did not want to preempt authorities by making a sweeping assessment on law enforcement agencies even before investigations are concluded.

But if the Philippines had a “swift, uncompromising, accurate, and efficient” justice system, Cua said the perpetrators may have a hard time executing their plan.

Links to private armed groups

Cua said he could not directly answer if the rise in the number PAGs is behind these attacks, but noted that the government sees a link between organized crime and PAGs.

He proposed a system by which authorities could account for people who received combat training.

“The problem really is marami tayong people who receive training in these fields of combat that we feel should be accounted for – not naman kailangan may surveillance sila but kailangan alam natin ano ang kanilang profession and how do they apply this training [not that they need to be surveilled but we need to know what their profession is and how do they apply this training],” Cua explained.

The killers of Degamo on March 4 were former military men. One of the supposed main masterminds and so-called “casting director” behind the killing, Marvin Miranda, was a former army reservist and a long-time bodyguard of Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves, another alleged mastermind.

READ: Remulla: Rep. Teves appears to be ‘main mastermind’ behind Degamo killing

“Is it for their self-defense? Are they registered to the security agency, law enforcers, military? If it is all accounted for, mas may laban tayong alamin kung sino ang kalaban natin or saan sila nang gagaling [We can better counter these attempts if we know who we’re up against or where they come from],” Cua added.

He said he was not singling out police or military personnel.

On May 30, the Philippine National Police (PNP) said it identified PAGs in seven regions.

PNP chief PGen Benjamin Acorda said authorities are monitoring three active and 45 potential PAGs.

Effect on Filipinos, democracy

The killings could leave a lasting impact on the democratic sensibilities of Filipinos, the CHR said.

“Not only does this affect the safety of communities at present time, it also has possible subsequent ramifications on the results of the upcoming elections. CHR emphasizes that free, fair, and non-violent elections are essential components of democratic societies,” it said.

The agency added, “Violence that may be related to politics threatens the credibility and legitimacy of electoral processes. The climate of fear and intimidation can likewise deter citizens from exercising their right to participation altogether.”

CHR noted that targeting elected officials deprives communities of representation they are entitled to.

Cua said the killings and “culture of impunity” erode accountability in governance.

“And when there is no accountability, there is no order. Mahihirapan tayong umahon as a nation kung kakalat yung ganitong culture [We will have a hard time advancing as a nation if this culture spreads]," the governor said."Once we succumb to that culture, dog eat dog na tayo – matira matibay na lang ang mangyayari sa atin [it will become survival of the fittest]."

In June, local leaders in Negros Oriental including Pamplona Mayor Janice Degamo, the governor’s widow, petitioned to postpone the Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections in the province amid the “lingering atmosphere of terror" after the March 4 massacre.