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How Duterte despaired over Lascañas

Bato dela Rosa reacted to the confessions of former Davao Death Squad hitman Arturo Lascañas by saying the latter was lying to concoct tall tales. If that were so, why did Rodrigo Duterte spare no effort to stop Lascañas from spilling the beans on him?

In my face-to-face interviews with him in his country of refuge, Lascañas and his wife disclosed to me how Duterte stepped on the gas using all his powers of the presidency to try to catch the fleeing Lascañas family.

Before the Senate Committee on Dangerous Drugs and Public Order on the first week of March 2017, Lascañas testified under oath that he killed hundreds as DDS operative and that Duterte paid him millions of pesos for his actions. “We were motivated by the reward system, when a killing is ordered and there’s a price,” he said.

In the Philippines, the front-liner in the criminal justice system is the local prosecutor’s office. As counsel of the people, it is the city prosecutor that investigates all charges of crimes, misdemeanors and violations of all penal laws and local ordinances. Remember the Davao city prosecutor’s office? That was the office where Duterte held office from 1977 to 1986. Remember his famous line? “I’ve learned a lot from my prosecutor days. We planted evidence.” Resibo.

On the last week of May 2017, about two months after the Lascañas exposé, the Davao city prosecutor’s office filed charges against Lascañas for the murder of broadcaster Jun Pala that had taken place on September 6, 2003. Recall that the Pala assassination was one of the highlights of the Lascañas testimony. Duterte ordered the Pala murder, he had said.

Duterte of course tried to be swift. But he used his Davao city resources for that, proof that he had the city by the neck including its criminal justice system. Let’s see how the Davao city judiciary submitted under Duterte’s climate of fear.

First, it was mum on the alleged mastermind, Duterte. It zeroed in only on Lascañas when in fact the Pala assassination had numerous accomplices as per the Lascañas testimony, if that was their basis. On the first week of June 2017, Davao Regional Trial Court Branch 10 Presiding Judge Retrina Fuentes issued the following order to the police:

“You are hereby commanded to arrest ARTURO BARIQUIT LASCAÑAS, who is said to be found at Roseville Subdivision, Buhangin, Davao city, or wherever he may be found in the Philippines and who has been charged before me with the offense of ATTEMPTED MURDER and bring him forth before me to be dealt with according to law.”

Was that enough for Duterte? It wasn’t. Judge Fuentes signed three arrest warrants: one for murder and two counts of frustrated murder. The three cases were filed on May 29 and were received by the court on the afternoon of June 1, a Thursday. By Monday June 5, Her Honor signed the warrants. It was overkill plain and simple. And it was swift by Philippine standards.

There was just one big problem for Duterte, a nightmare for him in fact. Sometime early April 2017, Lascañas and family had fled the Philippines to Singapore. They recounted their ordeal to me. From Singapore they explored Malaysia as a possible haven, then Thailand.

With Lascañas now roaming free and contacting the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Duterte administration could not do anything except to cushion the impact. They cancelled all the Lascañas family members’ passports.

That was easy. They key person was The secretary of justice Vitaliano Aguirre. Aguirre himself had an axe to grind against Lascañas. Lascañas recalled to me how he drove Aguirre in Davao city at the time of the Commission on Human Rights hearings led by Leila de Lima in 2009. The bone of contention was the Laud Quarry. The De Lima team already unearthed human skeletal parts numbering by the thousands. It was just the smoking gun needed. There were no Lascañas confessions then, but De Lima secured confessions from other DDS hitmen.

While being driven in Davao city, Aguirre turned to Lascañas: “Tell the De Lima investigators that the bones in Laud Quarry are those of World War II soldiers.” Aguirre had then lawyered for the quarry owner who was also a DDS operative. One can understand now why he was Duterte’s choice for secretary of justice. If his boss was an experienced planter of evidence, Aguirre could weave fantastic tales of embroidery.

Aguirre lost no time. On June 15, 2017, he issued a statement: “I will be formalizing a request with Foreign Affairs Secretary Allan Peter Cayetano for the immediate cancellation of the passport of Mr. Arturo Lascañas.”

Alas by that time, the Lascañas family had finally reached a fourth country where they now enjoy the protection of international law. It was in this country where the International Criminal Court conducted a pre-trial hearing of Lascañas’s confessions on the Davao city mass killings. The hearing was a full court; an ICC-appointed lawyer was on hand to defend Duterte et al.

Away from the country for seven years now, Lascañas received a very unusual communication on December 23, 2022 from Lyon, France. It was from the Interpol. It said that the General Secretariat of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) certified that Lascañas was not the subject of an Interpol notice or diffusion. An Interpol Diffusion is an alert that notifies law enforcement authorities that another country seeks the arrest of a specific person. Did the Duterte administration attempt to seek Interpol’s help in arresting Lascañas? If it did, it rebuffed him.

Arturo Lascañas is a free man. Precisely because of that he is Rodrigo Duterte’s No. 1 catastrophe – a man who knows the inside story of Duterte’s killing orders. After him, some DDS insiders were emboldened to also come forward with their testimonies. These will be heard at the ICC. In the meantime, Duterte shudders at the thought. The ICC will be his shame before the world. He can rage and rant but the truth will catch up with him.

He can find comfort in the very words of Vitaliano Aguirre when he said of Lascañas’s escape:

“If he believes in his innocence then he should welcome his arrest as a chance for him to clear his name and get on with his life. When a crime goes unpunished, the world is unbalanced and the heavens will look down on us in shame. We cannot allow it. We will be remiss in our duty. We are equally guilty if we do so.”

Must it also apply equally to Rodrigo Duterte, Bato dela Rosa, Christopher Go, Sara Duterte, and yes to Vitaliano Aguirre himself and all the other accused in the ICC complaint of crimes against humanity.

Welcome your arrest, Digong.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.