"It was Superman's command," said Arturo Lascanas (main picture) as he faced a Senate inquiry on Monday, March 6, and detailed how he and a group of contract assassins known as the "Davao Death Squad" (DDS) killed petty criminals and drug suspects on the orders of Rodrigo Duterte whom the group referred to as "Superman."
The Senate inquiry was reopened to look into the DDS after Lascanas made a public confession last February 20.
Lascanas estimated that he had killed about 200 people on orders of Duterte who was then mayor of the southern city of Davao.
The DDS, he said, was first ordered to eliminate those labeled as a "social menace" - drug pushers and petty thieves - and made to believe that they were doing it for the "welfare of the majority."
Later, the DDS mandate expanded to include killing political opponents and critics of Duterte, Lascansas claimed, noting that it included the killing of broadcast journalist Jun Pala who lambasted Duterte nearly every day on his radio show.
Lascanas said he was in a group of gunmen who killed Pala in 2003, and that Duterte personally gave him a reward of 1 million pesos ($19,800).
The DDS were allegedly handsomely compensated for their efforts to help clean up the streets. Lascanas revealed that he received a monthly allowance of $2,000 apart from a "bonus" for each kill which went up as much as $20,000 for a high-profile target like Pala.
Additionally, the DDS was allocated an "operational fund" ranging from $4,000 to $10,000 to buy unlicensed firearms and conduct surveillance operations on an assigned target.
Lascanas also pointed out similarities between the DDS-style killings and the bloody drug-related killings that have been happening every night since Duterte assumed the presidency in July 2016.
"There is the riding in tandem, the calling card and the use of packaging tape," said Lascanas referring to the cardboard sign that labels the dead as a drug pusher or user. "They (suspects) are also usually shot in the head," he added.
A divided Senate
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a fierce critic of the president, said Duterte used local government funds and took from a payroll of "ghost government employees" to fund the operations of the DDS.
"We have documents on this and it is now filed in the Ombudsman," Trillanes told DW after the senate hearing. "We are looking at plunder, murder and conspiracy to commit murder - a bunch of high crimes that could be used as basis for filing for impeachment."
Other senators, however, were wary about Lascanas' testimony. Senator Panfilo Lacson and presidential allies Senator Alan Cayetano and Manny Pacquiao called Lascanas's testimony "weak," pointing out that he had appeared before a Senate panel last September after another self-confessed DDS triggerman, Edgar Matobato, implicated him. At that time, Lascanas denied the existence of the DDS.
"Those saying that (Lascansas') testimony is weak are allies of the president. His testimony is so solid (because) he is an insider. You cannot get a bigger witness than Lascanas at this point," countered Trillanes.
Another Duterte critic, Senator Leila De Lima, released a handwritten statement from her detention cell where she is being held for allegations that she accepted bribes from drug traffickers while she was secretary of the Department of Justice.
"No doubt that Lascanas' testimony, like that of Matobato, is credible. Both Lascanas and Matobato are actual and direct participants in many incidents of killings as ordered by then Mayor Duterte."
Senator Panilo Lacson called for a "reality check," saying that Lascanas should have come out with his confession earlier, when Duterte was still mayor. It is difficult to prosecute Duterte now that he is president and the highest official in the country.
"How can the Philippine National Police investigate Duterte when he is now their commander in chief?" questioned Lacson.
But even before the testimonies of DDS hitmen, in March 2009, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), then chaired by De Lima, launched a series of public hearings looking into the DDS.
Sworn statements of key informants, the transcripts of stenographic notes, and official records and documents from the CHR, as well as reports of other state bodies and rights groups should have moved the story about this alleged group of assassins beyond the conduct of public hearings, reported the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
"But dithering and unfocused action by the concerned public officials and state agencies, a tragic lack of witnesses carefully consumed by fear of retaliation, and the exceedingly slow court processes have resulted in fits and starts in the multiple official efforts to investigate allegations about the DDS and those behind it," read a PCIJ report released on Monday.
In 2012, the CHR issued an en banc resolution that found that there had been "a systematic practice of extrajudicial killings by a vigilante group dubbed as the DDS from 2005-2009" and recommended that Duterte be investigated.
"If it is about demanding proof, what about the 206 killings documented by the CHR in 2012? (It's not) as if there must be a memo giving kill orders on a DDS letterhead," Joel Sarmenta, a communications officer for the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, told DW.