Manila: On the morning of August 15 last year, a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter was shot to death by riding-in-tandem suspects at Ulas Hi-Way in Davao City, in southern Philippines.

A month later, on September 22, more than a dozen armed men wearing balaclavas and black shirts stormed the Ocean View Resort in Samal Island, the beach of Davao City, just before midnight, kidnapping three foreign nationals and a Filipina from the resort.

On November 14, 2015, an employee of Grand Regal Hotel was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Davao's Barangay Lapu-Lapu, Agdao District. 

Police records show Davao City's crime rate is, in fact, higher than either Sorsogon City or Cebu City.

How did Davao bag the title as one of the world's safest cities, topping even Dubai and Abu Dhabi?

In terms of "index crimes" -- such  as murder, physical injury, theft and robbery -- Davao recorded 39 per 100,000 per month (100kpm), compared to Cebu's 38 per 100kpm, police records show (see below).

In 2014, the police in Davao City (population 1.49m) posted on Facebook showing a total of 18,119 crimes recorded for the year, of which 6,548 (36 percent) were "index crimes", which translates to one index crime every 80 minutes, and one non-index crime every 11 minutes.

Davao police record

Davao's claim to safest-city fame has in fact been bolstered by crowdsourcing survey site Numbeo.

In Numbeo's June 2015 ranking, Davao's crime index went up to 18.18, from 19.31 from the previous survey (lower number means lower crime rate). Numbeo's "safety index" for Davao, on the other hand, was at 81.82, from 80.69 in a previous survey (higher number means higher safety level). 

Surprisingly, the Numbeo ranking came from less than 500 users or contributions.

Under the watch of former Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who ruled the city for 20 years, Davao City has earned a reputation for emplyoying vigilante death squads, to which some 800 summary executions had been attributed.

Hot-button issue

In the runup to the May elections, Davao City's crime rate has become a hot-button campaign issue.

So do Duterte's attention-hogging statements sprinkled with swear words, in response to Filipinos' growing frustration over a perceived rise in criminality.

Crime is a regular fodder for primetime TV news and most of the crime footage shown by news networks come from increasingly ubiquitous CCTV cameras all over the country.

The gun-totting politician's headline-grabbing one-liners have drawn a huge public appeal (like, "They say I am a dictator, so be it"). In May last year, Duterte threatened to turn the body of suspected criminals into fishfood in Manila Bay. He had also called for convicted criminals to be punished by public hanging.

Duterte, 70, who is running under the Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino (PDP-Laban), has also stated that within three to six months of his presidency he would ask Congress to add 30 more courts to try drug-related cases.

With his strong anti-corruption stance and his reputation as a tough local executive, Duterte had unseated former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas in the No. 3 spot of a poll that tracks voter sentiment.

Roxas, head of the Philippines' Liberal Party, had been handpicked by out-going President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to succeed him. Vice President Jejomar Binay and Senator Grace Poe are the two other presidential survey front-runners.

Many Filipinos pin their hopes on Duterte, dubbed by Time magazine as the "punisher", to solve the country's ills.

Some critics say, however, point out a huge difference between expletives-ridden tough talk and reality -- and that curbing crime requires hard work.

Others fear Duterte has the markings of a dictator who would then institutionalise a "culture of death".

Duterte himself had predicted that, if elected and allowed a freehand in running the country, he may end up being assassinated by rogue military officers.

With such bold pronouncements and the uncertainty around his unorthodox style, critics say he may be a well-meaning leader who could end up undoing the longest period of economic growth, record-low interest and jobess rates achieved under President Benigno Aquino.


Comparative crime rates in select Philippine cities

*Jan-June 2015
**Jan-March 2014
*** Non-index crimes are violations of special laws, such as those against illegal drugs and local ordinances.