Rodrigo Duterte: From ‘Punisher’ to Philippines President

Story highlights

Blunt former mayor Rodrigo Duterte was elected Philippines President in June 2016

Since entering office, he has waged a brutal war on drugs in the country

CNN  — 

He’s caused outrage with inflammatory comments on the rape and murder of an Australian missionary, called US President Obama a “son of a bitch” and told police they can kill drug dealers if they fight back.

Controversial former mayor Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in a landslide victory on May 6, winning almost twice as much of the vote as his nearest rival.

Since he won, more than 1,900 people have been killed, including 700 during police operations, as part of a vicious drug war being waged on Duterte’s behalf on the streets of the Philippines.

But who was the hardline Philippines leader before he became president?

‘The Punisher’

As mayor of Davao City, a metropolis of 1.5 million people on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Duterte first made his name nationally for his no-nonsense approach to crime.

He advocates a hard-line approach to criminals and claims to have drastically reduced Davao’s previously high rates of violent crime.

But along with this reputation came allegations that he was connected to extrajudicial killings by a well coordinated group of vigilantes, earning him the moniker “The Punisher” by Time Magazine in 2002.

Duterte himself confirmed the claims during a regular live weekly TV show broadcast locally in the Philippines last year.

“Me? They are saying that I’m part of a death squad? True, that’s true,” he said in a mix of English and Visayan, a language spoken in southern Philippines, before threatening to kill thousands more criminals and dump them into Manila Bay if he was elected president of the Philippines.

He later retracted that statement in a press conference, telling reporters there were “no Davao death squads,” but the allegations remain and numerous local and international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized his record.

Last year the New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 1,000 people had died in Davao since the 1990s under Duterte’s leadership and urged the Philippines government to investigate the killings.

Before he stepped down as President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III described him as a “threat to democracy.”

When it comes to women, it’s complicated

Duterte came under fire for his flirty behavior on the campaign trail, as well as the large number of women in his life.

He has three children from his first marriage to Elizabeth Zimmerman, a partnership that has since been annulled, and currently has a common-law wife, Cielito Avancena, who is better known as Honeylet. Far from monogamous, he has publicly admitted to having as many as three girlfriends.

Duterte’s relationships and his public behavior – he has faced allegations of sexual harassment, after photos of him kissing women seated on his lap during the election campaign started circulating locally – have led many to question his attitude to women.

Several local women’s rights groups filed a complaint against Duterte at the the Philippine Commission on Human Rights on April 20, accusing him of violating the Philippine Republic Act 9710 that protects the rights of women.

He has since dismissed the complaint as “silly” and told supporters at a campaign rally that members of the women’s group that filed the complaint can “go to hell.”

Duterte says he has a constitutional right to freedom of expression and denied that he objectifies women in response to a question from an audience member during a recent CNN Philippines Town Hall.

“Not ever. I have a mother, I have a daughter, I have a wife. Why would I do it? It’s not an object [sic] simply because I am separated from my wife,” he said.

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Curses ambassadors and the Pope

Duterte has featured in the Philippines press throughout his political career but made international headlines before the election with comments he made in a YouTube video on the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary.

“I was angry she was raped, yes that was one thing. But she was so beautiful, I think the mayor should have been first. What a waste,” he said of the attack, which took place in Davao City.

He has repeatedly refused to apologize for the comments and told the ambassadors of the United States and Australia, two of the Philippines’ closest allies, to “shut their mouth” after they criticized his “joke.” He has also disowned an apology that was issued on his behalf by his political party.

He can show remorse, though, sending a letter of apology to the Pope last year after he cursed the Pontiff for the traffic he caused during a January visit to the country.

“We were affected by the traffic. It took us five hours. I asked why, they said it was closed. I asked who is coming. They answered, the Pope. I wanted to call him, “Pope, (swear words), go home. Do not visit us again,” he said.

In a response that was leaked to the press, the Pope acknowledged the apology and offered Duterte his prayers.