(Paragraph seven contains language that may offend some readers)
By Martin Petty and Manuel Mogato
DAVAO, Philippines As mayor of the Philippine city of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte has secretly rented a taxi and cruised crime-infested streets with a pistol by his side, hoping robbers would target him.
He has joined armed police raids on drug dens, negotiated in hostage incidents and advocated vigilante killings, making him a hero in a once lawless town he has run for 22 years
Duterte is known in the Philippines as "the punisher", an uncompromising provincial tough guy, whose profanity-packed speeches and death threats to drug gangs are now resonating far beyond Davao ahead of the May 9 presidential election.
A late entry into the race for the presidency, Duterte is now on the cusp of victory, surging in popularity after his promises to wipe out crime within six months.
Even the mere mention of crime gets him worked up.
"I will not let drugs and criminality destroy my country, I simply cannot accept that," Duterte told Reuters last week, surrounded by fans and posing fist-clenched for photographs.
"If everyone sits on their ass, we'll let criminals have their way," he said. "We have to stop fucking our people."
Duterte’s crime-busting platform has tapped into concerns that growing drug usage among Filipinos has caused crime to skyrocket. Reported crimes in the Philippines soared five-fold from nearly 218,000 in 2012 to 1,161,000 in 2014, according to official data. Roughly half of those were serious crimes.
Duterte is stretching his lead in opinion polls and eclipsing traditional candidates Vice President Jejomar Binay and Manuel Roxas, whom outgoing President Benigno Aquino backs. Two surveys this week put Duterte between seven and 12 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Grace Poe.
His brashness and his rapid rise from outside of the political establishment has seen him likened to Donald Trump, as has his outrageous comments and refusal to act presidential.
The former prosecutor is indifferent to the 1,424 suspicious murders since 1998 documented in Davao by rights groups, which say "Davao death squads" operate with impunity on Duterte's watch. "Duterte Harry", as he is known, denies ordering extrajudicial killings, but he doesn't condemn them
"You talk about summary killings? I'm sorry, bad guys were killed. But what about the people who were abused? Who takes care of them?" he said.
Duterte, 71, was in hot water recently over a remark about an Australian missionary killed in a 1989 Davao prison riot. He said inmates had lined up to rape her and as mayor, he should have been first.
He is a self-confessed womaniser who lives modestly and typically dresses in jeans, polo shirts and loafers. He doesn't own a suit and said he has no plans to wear one as president.
Those who work with him tell the same stories of an unpredictable, hot-headed maverick who is charitable, but brutally strict.
Duterte banned smoking in Davao and threatened to kill a restaurant customer who refused to put out his cigarette. He made him eat it.
He has pulled over traffic violators and made them run laps around a park and has forced land-grabbers with forged documents to eat them, and tell him they tasted delicious.
"I'm sure he can be eloquent and savvy, but right now, that's not who he is," said Trisha Corpus, station manager at ABS-CBN TV radio Davao, where Duterte had a weekly show.
"Because of his simplicity, he's underestimated."
Live on air, Duterte cursed angrily and read out names of criminals, some of whom wound up dead days later. Many left town. Pressured by regulators, ABS-CBN had to pre-record his programme and bleep out expletives that averaged 30-40 per show.
Critics scoff at his plan to take his crime-busting model nationwide. Those who know him say it's not impossible.
"He's instilled fear among criminals," said one senior Davao policeman. "If his subordinates obey him, then it'll be easy."
'ROUGH AND SIMPLE'
Former congressman Jesus Dureza grew up with Duterte and offers a perspective that belies the mayor's thuggish image.
Dureza describes him as an accomplished lawyer who studies economic research papers, follows foreign affairs and regularly consults his policy teams.
"He's much deeper than what he wants people to see," Dureza said. "He comes across as rough and simple, shoot from the hip, but he wants to keep it that way."
He doubts Duterte ordered extrajudicial killings but said it wasn't in his interests to distance himself from them.
"He cashes in on that image," he said. "The hits aren't Duterte."
But not everyone is convinced.
Clarita Alia, 62, lost four teenage sons in Davao street killings between 2001 and 2007 and blames vigilantes she is certain Duterte has links to.
"When I see posters of him, I see the devil," she said. "I pray he won't win."
Father Amado "Picx" Picardal, a Catholic priest who documents the Davao killings, is worried Duterte will stay true to his word on crime.
"I don't think this is just hyperbole to win votes," he said. "He believes extrajudicial killings are justified and I expect what he promises, he'll try to do it."
(Reporting by Martin Petty and Manuel Mogato. Editing by Bill Tarrant)
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