Gunmen killed a candidate for vice mayor in the northern Philippine province of Pangasinan, but one of the assassins was wounded and captured after a gunfight with police officers, officials said Monday, in the latest eruption of political violence ahead of elections next year.
Three suspects gunned down Benjamin Okulto, 47, outside a Catholic Church in Santo Tomas town Sunday morning, regional police head Chief Superintendent Romulo Sapitula said.
“The victim died at the hospital,” Sapitula told reporters. “We are looking into politics as the motive in the killing.”
Police were looking at the possibility that the murder was the result of a heated political rivalry, Sapitula said. Okulto, one of the town’s councilors, had filed his candidacy for vice mayor.
The assailants were on a parked vehicle and appeared to have waited for Okulto, who had just finished attending Mass when he was shot dead, investigators said.
Policemen who were assigned near the church responded and traded shots with the suspects, one of whom was wounded and captured. Police said they recovered an M-16 rifle from the suspect.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte warned candidates in next year’s local and national polls not to “terrorize” voters amid the wave of violence.
“Whether you are from the government, whether you belong to my party or you are my rival in politics, do not terrorize, do not intimidate, do not create fear in the voters,” Duterte said. “If you do that, I will go and arrest you myself. I will drag you and tie your neck to the wheel of an airplane.”
In May next year, Filipinos will elect 12 of the 24 seats in the Senate, 297 seats in the House of Representatives and 18,000 local positions across the country.
Last month, gunmen waylaid a convoy in the northern province of La Union, killing two people, including a vice mayor. Eight others, including his daughter who had succeeded him as a mayor, were wounded.
The latest attack makes Okulto the 20th local official killed since Duterte became president two years ago and launched a brutal anti-narcotics war that has killed thousands. He had publicly accused many local officials of being involved in narcotics trafficking, without giving any proof. At least three mayors who were on the list had been killed.
Rights groups say that many local officials may have used Duterte’s drug war to attack opponents by attacking rivals and alleging that they were connected to narcotics. None of the allegations against the slain politicians have been proven.
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato City contributed to this report.