A man of many names: Davao’s controversial, colorful Mayor Duterte
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A man of many names: Davao’s controversial, colorful Mayor Duterte

THEY call him ‘Dirty Harry’. TIME magazine once featured him as the motorcycle-riding, gun-toting mayor, for which he was labeled ‘The Punisher’.

Davao folks call him Digong. His ham radio call sign is Charlie Mike (for city mayor). But to many who know him up close and personal, he is simply Rody.

Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City is now on his third round of duty as mayor of the Philippine’s biggest city, having served as chief executive of Mindanao’s premier political and financial hub in 1988-1998, then again from 2001-2010 before his daughter Sara took over his post in 2010 to 2013.  Last year, Sara quit politics, paving another comeback by Digong.

Well, sort of.

Duterte never left politics since he was appointed OIC vice mayor by the ‘revolutionary government’ of the late President Corazon Aquino following the ouster of the despotic Marcos regime.  When he was not mayor in 1998-2001, he served as member of the House of Representatives representing the city’s first congressional district.  And when his daughter was mayor, Duterte was her vice mayor.

Duterte was, however, a virtual ‘non-entity’ prior to the 1986 EDSA revolt when the likes of Luis Santos, Elias Lopez and Manuel Garcia formed the powerful troika of Davao politics.  Among the younger Turks then, there were Zafiro Respicio, Danilo Dayanghirang and Diosdado Mahipus. 

Duterte lived a very colorful adolescent life, jumping from one school to another before he could finish his high school.  At a very young age he preferred to hang around with Davao City’s toughs.  Twice expelled, he finally graduated from high school in a nondescript school (Holy Cross of Digos) in now Digos City, some 57 kilometers away from Davao.

Not that Duterte is intellectually challenged.  In fact, he went on to earn a law degree, passed the bar then become a city prosecutor (who were then called fiscals).

He has the most colorful, thought-provoking and meanest language in this part of the world, so much so that his weekend talk show had to be taped in order to bleep out the expletives Duterte regularly spews out against anyone or anything that piques him – not least one of his bitterest political rivals, former House Speaker Prospero Nograles.

It was Duterte’s low-key prosecution of captured communist rebels and high ranking cadres of the underground movement that would later play an important role in his transformation into a tough-talking, pistol-packing city mayor.

Politics runs in the blood


Controversial but colorful Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.Pic by Edwin Espej

Andy Lambo, a former aide of Duterte during his OIC days, said destiny was written all over the tough-talking city mayor.

“Every man has his own time.  Every time has its own man,” he philosophically said of Duterte’s ascent to local politics.

Duterte’s late father was the governor of the then undivided Davao who once served as general services secretary of the country.  His late mother Soledad was an active civic leader.

The colorful mayor often says during campaign rallies that his father, then the health officer of a Cebu town, had to flee to Mindanao because of politics.

It looks like Mindanao was a true place of refuge. It is now Rody’s comfort zone.  In fact, his influence extends all over Mindanao and beyond that. If the presidential elections were to be decided in the island’s 22 provinces alone, Duterte would win hands down. In fact, many are egging him to give the presidency a run, a thought he dismisses outright.


Duterte is probably the only local chief executive who burned the flag of another country.  He did this when he expressed solidarity with the rest of the country by torching the Singaporean flag in the city’s Rizal Park when Flor Contemplacion was executed in Singapore.

He spurned overtures by the US to include Davao as a venue for joint US-PH Balikatan exercises.  And he once publicly berated the US FBI for spiriting out from the San Pedro Hospital an American national whose limbs were severely damaged after a bomb exploded inside his hotel room in downtown Davao City.

At least four presidents were said to have offered him the post of interior and local government secretary.  He was drafted to run for senator in both administration and oppositions slates.  He rejected them all.

A story is still going around about how he pushed one drug trafficker from a flying helicopter.  Or how he beat a Philippine Army soldier so badly that the poor guy lost both his front teeth.

Duterte can be tough with friends, too.  It is well known in Davao City that he turned his back on a friend who tried to intercede in behalf of an arrested drug trafficker.  That friendship is now gone.

And yes, among, criminals, he abhors most the drug dealers and anything that has to do with illegal drugs.

“It is like an alum, chew it and in no time your mouth will burn with holes,” Duterte often reminds slum dwellers of the dangers of drug abuse during campaign sorties.  Duterte is at home speaking English, in which he is very articulate, or in his native Cebuano tongue, in which he is even more colorful.  He knows the language of his people – the masa.  It pays he grew up with neighborhood toughs and street smarts.

He once slapped a youth activist only to invite him to dinner after.  They made up, of course.

Duterte always has the feel of the people.  He often drives a taxicab incognito.  Yet submits himself to traffic rules, like when he was flagged down for not wearing a helmet.  He went to same barber shop along Palma Gil until it eventually closed shop.  He often spends his time in his favorite karaoke bar where he will surprise waiting taxi drivers with dinner.

Leftist connection

Duterte became mayor in 1988 by a margin of a little over 7,000 votes against then OIC Mayor Zafiro Respicio.

A former activist, Respicio rode on the wave of anti-communist movement in Davao following years of bloody reign of NPA partisans or ‘Sparrow Unit’ and the roiling dissension in the rebel ranks that coincided with birth of the Alsa Masa phenomenon in the city and many urban centers in Mindanao.

Duterte however stayed away from the political and ideological wrangling between Respicio and the above ground Left during the 1987 elections.  That was enough for the Leftists to throw their support behind the budding politician whose staff include top aide Leoncio ‘Jun’ Evasco Jr, a former high ranking CPP leader (now mayor of Maribojoc in Bohol), and Lambo, a known ally of the underground Left and also a former political detainee.

The vote difference between Duterte and Respicio was about the same number of votes the late Erasto ‘Nonoy’ Librado, secretary general of Kilusang Mayo Uno-Mindanao, got when the latter first ran.  That began the long-running political bond between him and the Left in the city.

In 1992, then running for re-election, Duterte defied Davao’s political triumvirate, his former political benefactors, and included Librado in his slate to the consternation of then re-electionist congressman Jesus Dureza, a known anti-Left politician.  Librado won became councillor in the first district and so did Nenen Orcullo (2nd District), widow of activist Alexander Orcullo and member of Gabriela.  A third Left-leaning candidate lost in the 3rd district. 

Duterte would continue to accommodate Left-leaning candidates in his city council slate in succeeding elections where he ran for mayor.

But his repeated forays into ‘Red territory’ and constant role in the releases of government soldiers held captive by the New People’s Army are what galvanized his image as a polarizing as well as an endearing local chief executive.

Human rights

Many human rights activists do not dare to go against the city mayor who is publicly perceived as supportive if not behind the rise of extrajudicial killings of known criminals and drug pushers in Davao.

Davao was once a laboratory of the dreaded urban partisans of the NPAs, whose welcome eventually wore out just as Duterte was starting to warm his seat in city hall.  The strategic retreat of the NPAs from the urban centers in the late ’80s and early ’90s was followed by the rise of politically-motivated slayings of activists and human rights workers.  Then came the rise of the latent killings that apparently target the felons and dregs of Davao’s urban jungles.

After almost four decades of all shades of extrajudicial killings, the city has seemingly grown immune to these deaths, leading many to rue that Davao and extrajudicial killings have essentially become intertwined and inseparable. Some say they are indispensable.

This however did not escape the scrutiny of Commissioner Etta Rosales of the Commission on Human Rights who has repeatedly targetted Duterte not only for the almost daily murders and assassinations.  She also is accusing the mayor of not lifting a finger to solve these murders.

This also prompted UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, Philip Alston, to single out Davao City where the culture of impunity reigns unabated.


Duterte however has grown immune to such political discourses although, at one time, he tendered his resignation when son Paulo (now his vice mayor) punched a hotel security guard.  His resignation, addressed to the interior secretary, was rejected.

The city mayor appears to find comfort in the fact that Davao City residents are behind him.  He has never lost an election in the city where he has reigned for close to four decades now.  Duterte is now in his record 20th year as the chief executive of the city, also serving as vice mayor twice (1986-1988 and 2010 -2013) and as congressman (1998-2001).

Nobody else has served as mayor of Davao longer than 11 years, with only the late Carmelo Porras equaling his three consecutive undefeated terms (1956-1967).  But Porras did it only once.  Duterte appears to be heading to his third three consecutive 3-year undefeated terms.

He endeared himself to the progressive block by supporting issues such as ban on aerial spraying in banana plantations and signing an anti-discrimination ordinance.

Regional State Prosecutor Antonio Arellano, a former anti-Marcos activist, however succinctly sums up Duterte’s uncommon vibe.

“He brought back common sense to governance,” Arellano said.

In return for the support residents have given him, Duterte transformed Davao into one of the better places to live by establishing many firsts among urban centers in country.

Davao was first to introduce two-way radios on passenger taxis.  The first to fully implement a no-smoking ordinance in public and enclosed places, which has since been expanded.  The first Philippine city to adopt an effective emergency call system via its US-inspired 911 Emergency Center.

But Duterte can also be a spoilsport to some of man’s enduring vices and excesses.

Now, Duterte is starting to take on reckless motorists by strictly implementing speed limits in the city.  In addition to the city-wide liquor ban when the clock strikes at 1am, Duterte also banned firecrackers in the city.

Many say Davao City is now dour – life is quiet and slow – but only a few are complaining.

After all, they feel a sense of security walking around the city at any time of the day (and night).  Unless they see themselves as targets of the infamous assassination squad.