A ‘murder city’ transforms

Amid all the cacophony surrounding Davao as the incubator of an alleged ‘death squad,’ Resurgent contributor Aurelio A. Peña tells the story of how the city evolved from the madness of the Eighties.

 If you’ve heard stories from oldtimers about Davao in the mid-1980’s, most of them are probably true. No one would even want to touch this southern city with a ten-foot pole.

Just name anything that will force people here to pack up their bags and leave this city during those days, this city had it : killings, robberies, thefts, rapes, kidnappings and even urban warfare between cops, soldiers and communist guerillas.

Those were the years of living dangerously during the last remaining years of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos before “People Power” revolt yanked him out of power in February 1986. Many months before this took place, urban guerillas called “Sparrows” were killing Davao cops on the streets almost daily in broad daylight.

This earned Davao during those days the notorious distinction as “Asia’s murder city” (by Asiaweek magazine) and the monicker “Nicaragdao” for the numerous killings in one of the city’s districts, Agdao — which has become today one of the city’s most peaceful.

For many oldtimers, it’s almost unbelievable that Davao over the years fought hard to wipe out all kinds of criminals from the city led by a tough fighting  mayor Rodrigo Duterte  who completely overturned its notorious image as a crime-ridden city—–turning Davao into one of the country’s most liveable places today.

Although human-rights critics are still biting their finger nails and taking potshots at Duterte’s methods in dealing with crime, this didn’t stop the international Time magazine from featuring the motorbike-riding mayor as “The Punisher” and pushed him into the global limelight.

Reports by critics of “salvagings” or extra-judicial killings of drug pushers, killers and notorious criminals are topics that don’t cause any anxieties among the city’s officials and local businessmen— even most Davao residents— as long as the city is free of crime and they can walk the city streets without being mugged and robbed like they do in New York.

So, don’t be surprised if you meet someone in this city who tells you that it’s safe to walk around here because “Davao is much safer than New York.”

Unlike in the past when cops were easily terrorized by urban guerrillas or criminals with impunity, now it’s the other way around. You won’t even believe this —Davao cops have now become the country’s most professional law enforcers, getting the most national awards for “best police force” in the country.

Even the city streets and the traffic during those early days were some of the country’s worst with no semblance of order anywhere. But today, this booming southern city boasts of having one of the country’s most modern traffic systems and a sense of order can be felt and seen almost everywhere across the city.

If Davao has become a favorite of many event organizers in the country for national conventions, conferences, and trade exhibitions, it’s probably because the city’s image has finally arrived at this point when visitors, travelers, and tourists are now looking at the city in a much different way— compared to that image in the mid-eighties.

It was even much worse in the 1970s, during those turbulent years leading to Marcos’s declaration of Martial Law, when student riots broke out in the city streets after many weeks of tumultuous demonstrations against the strongman seated in Manila’s Malacañang Palace. This memorable event that saw bloody street fighting between angry students and Davao cops was as deadly as the riots that were spreading in Manila that led to authoritarian rule beginning in September 1972.

Today, the only image problem bogging down Davao once in a while, is the spill-over “war-torn” stigma that the island of Mindanao has been carrying all these years. It’s a tourism promoter’s nightmare to see a glaring headline in national newspapers about an outbreak of new fighting in Mindanao because this really scares off a lot of visitors and travellers.

When some fighting breaks out between Army soldiers and rebels somewhere in an isolated jungle in Mindanao, the story usually hits the front pages of global newspapers like the New York Times— giving the wrong impression that the entire island is a battlefield.

That’s why some visitors and travellers cancel their flights and hotel bookings to Davao when coming across this type of stories—- when the truth is, most of Mindanao’s provinces and cities, including Davao of course, are actually peaceful and much, much safer than New York City.

One strong sign that this “peaceful image” has caught on are the ever increasing flow of foreigners by the hundreds, into the city not only to work as consultants or as new investors running new businesses, but also to marry a local girl and settle down to retire in some nearby village.

Whether this has something to do with an Asiaweek cover story about “Asia’s most liveable cities” several years ago (that also featured Davao), we don’t know. What is known and visible to visitors are the many foreigners now living here permanently after buying up new homes for Filipina wives and mingling with the populace— lining up in supermarkets, strolling in the malls, spending weekends at the beaches, inviting neighbours to their parties, etc.

Visitors who fly here from Manila or from some foreign cities come for many reasons—- family reunions, personal, business prospect, work, conference, honeymoon, etc. No matter what, some things around might surprise them on their first day in the city.

There are a lot of “No Smoking” signs everywhere that list down the penalties if you’re caught. Yes, this city is deadly serious in enforcing a local law forbidding smoking in this city, making Davao the first and only city in the country to pass a no-smoking law.

But it’s really nothing to worry about if you’re not a smoker. If you can’t help puffing one, there are always areas in the hotel where you can join others who can’t help it. This is one of the things that makes this city unique in some ways, without mentioning the fact that people in Davao are generally friendly, courteous, hospitable and genuinely helpful—- a special trait among local residents that you can’t find in many big cities.

If you can walk the streets, taste its food, feel the pulse of everyday life of Davao and making new friends, perhaps one day you’ll fall in love with this city like so many others who came to visit several times----and finally never left.