Rodrigo Duterte has announced he personally killed suspected criminals when he was mayor of his home city of Davao in the Philippines, cruising the streets on a motorcycle and “looking for trouble”.
The country’s president made the comments in a speech late on Monday night as he discussed his campaign to eradicate illegal drugs, which has seen police and unknown assailants kill around 5,000 people since he became president on 30 June.
“In Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can’t you,” he was quoted as saying by AFP, talking of his two decades as mayor of the southern city of 1.5 million people.
“And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also.
“I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”
On Wednesday the justice secretary of the Philippines, Vitaliano Aguirre II, said Duterte often exaggerated his rhetoric to get a message across to criminals. “The president always resorts to hyperbole; he always exaggerates just to put his message across,” Aguirre told reporters.
The former mayor was nicknamed “Duterte Harry”, after the fictional and ruthless police inspector played by Clint Eastwood, for his support for vigilante death squads that killed hundreds of suspected criminals.
Duterte previously has both denied and acknowledged his involvement in the Davao death squads.
Since taking his bloody anti-crime campaign to the nation level, he has been criticised by the United States and United Nations, whose concerns have drawn only angry rebukes.
“If they say that I am afraid to stop because of the human rights and guys … including Obama, sorry, I am not about to do that,” Duterte said in English during his speech at the presidential palace this week.
Duterte has a better relationship with US president-elect Donald Trump, who he said had praised his war on drugs during a phone call this month. This was not confirmed by Trump’s team.
As president Duterte has publicly encouraged civilians to kill drug addicts and said he will not prosecute police for extrajudicial executions. But he has also said he and his security forces will not break the law.
In October Duterte compared himself to Adolf Hitler and said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts.
He later apologised for the Hitler reference but said he was “emphatic” about wanting to kill the millions of addicts.
Since his election, police have reported killing 2,086 people in anti-drug operations. More than 3,000 others have been killed in unexplained circumstances, according to official figures.
Often masked assailants break into homes and kill people who have been tagged as drug traffickers or drug users. Human rights groups have warned of a breakdown in the rule of law with police and hired assassins operating with impunity.
A report by the Guardian in October cited a senior officer in the police force who claimed he led one of 10 special operations teams, each with 16 members, tasked with killing suspected drug users, dealers and criminals.
The officer claimed the hit squads are composed of active police officers and that the murders are conducted in such a way as to make them appear to be perpetrated by “vigilantes” to deliberately obscure police involvement and preclude investigation.
The report was later denied by the chief of police. Duterte has insisted police are killing only in self-defence while gangsters are murdering the other victims.
But he has also said he will not allow any police officers to go to jail if they are found guilty of murder in prosecuting his war on crime.