An unidentified sniper assassinated Mayor Antonio Halili of Tanauan City in Batangas, Philippines, on Monday morning during a flag-raising ceremony as the national anthem played. Mayoral staff caught the killing on video.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made fighting illegal drug crime his flagship political policy, had listed Halili as one of many politicians allegedly tied to the illegal drug trade; the federal government stripped Halili of control over his police force in response to the allegation.
Prior to the government’s accusing Halili of having ties to illegal drug traffickers in 2017, Halili had established a policy of “walks of shame” throughout his city–parading people arrested on drug trafficking charges.
Duterte’s presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters the president believes Halili’s killing is related to the illicit drug trade.
Halili was hosting a flag raising ceremony early Monday, broadcast on Facebook live, when the video camera (not pointed at Halili) caught the sound of a gunshot and the shouting of the crowd. The incident occurred around 8:10 a.m. local time. Multiple reports confirm the gunman shot only one bullet, killing Halili. The perpetrator remains at large at press time:
“It was extraordinary, that could not have been done by a common person,” Police Chief Renato Mercado told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday. “His abilities can be compared to a trained sniper.”
Presidential spokesman Roque described Halili as “a strong supporter of the President’s war on drugs” and a “competent mayor,” lamenting his death as “a loss not only for Tanauan people but for the entire nation.” He said, “We promise his family and constituents justice.”
The Philippine news site ABS-CBN notes that Roque’s description of Halili as a supporter of the war on drugs contradicts Manila’s decision to list him as a “high-value drug target” and accuse him of profiting from trafficking. While he did not appear on the original 2016 list of politicians tied to the drug trade that was published by the Duterte government, a year later, his name did appear on a list. By 2017, Duterte’s government no longer trusted Kalili to run his own police force and took mayoral supervision of the police department away from him.
Halili denied any drug ties upon losing control of the police, adding then, “I did not lose a thing because I did not really control and supervise local PNP [Philippine National Police] in my city because they are doing their job and I believe I’m not the better person to run, control, or supervise.”
Of the drug charges, Halili had said, “I have been doing ‘walk of shame’, I’ve been sending letters to suspected drug personalities, even before I have been doing my local version of tokhang [law enforcement]. Even before Duterte became president.”
“We have an intelligence report that the mayor was involved in drugs. And the mayor came to know of this report when the resolution was implemented,” Regional Chief Superintendent Edward Carranza told reporters later Monday, adding that police are also investigating the possibility that he was killed as a result of his public stunts against drug crime, such as humiliating drug suspects by parading them around the city to be jeered by locals.
The most popular event of this kind that Halili held was on the Philippine holiday Flores de Mayo, which he renamed “Flores de [Drug] Pusher,” in May 2016. “They marched in line and even had makeshift archs with streamers to mimic a legit Flores de Mayo parade,” the Philippine site Coconuts reported at the time.
Duterte told an audience during a speech Monday that he did not believe Halili was clean of ties to drug criminals. “His procession of drug suspects was just a front,” he said, later reportedly “walking back” his comments because police had not concluded this to be true.
“I don’t know who killed him, but I told you don’t [engage in illegal drugs],” he added.
In January 2017, Duterte explicitly warned that mayors tied to drug crime would be shot to death in public. If a mayor engaged in drug trafficking, Duterte told more than one thousand mayors he convened in Manila’s Malacanang Palace, “I will ask the chief of police to shoot you.”
“I might go down in history as the butcher. It’s up to you,” he suggested.