In Filipino-English, “salvage” is a wicked word. It means “extrajudicial killing” or “summary execution” of criminals and subversive elements. The perpetrators are usually cops, crime syndicates, urban vigilantes or communist hit squads. Unidentified bodies are referred to as “salvage victims.”

How “salvage” came to mean what it means in Filipino urban vocabulary is a mystery. Journalists have theories. One, it was derived from the Filipino word “salbahe,” an adjective which means “naughty” or “abusive.” It is rooted from the Spanish word, “salvaje,” which means “wild.”

When conjugated as a verb, “salbahe” becomes “sinalbahe,” which means, “violated.” The bastardization of the word was typically attributed to the cops, who must have thought the English translation for “salbahe” was “salvage.”

Another theory seems quite more related to the true meaning of the word. “Salvage” means “to rescue (a wrecked or disabled ship or its cargo) from loss at sea.” Since most of the unidentified corpses are fished out of the waters, I assume “salvage victim” is an abbreviation for “salvaged body of a murder victim.”

Philippine tabloids have since adopted the adulterated meaning of the word, often writing such as headlines as “Salvage Victim Found in Pasig River,” or “Military Accused of Salvaging Communist Rebels.”

The new meaning of the word has eventually caught on that even the respectable broadsheets began using it in their headlines, but often in quotation marks. The purists in the newsrooms, however, won’t accept it, threatening to “salvage” editors who would use “salvage victim” in the headlines.

Some say it was during martial rule that “salvage” came to acquire its Filipino meaning. I doubt this claim, though. During the martial law period, the media were controlled by the Marcos regime and no story about the “salvaging” of dissidents by the military ever made the news. The desaparecidos were not accounted for. The phrase “human rights violation” didn’t appear in print until toward the decline of tyranny. In 1986, the Filipinos salvaged democracy – in the true meaning of the word – from the bloody sea of dictatorship.

Thirty years later, the world “stares at history with irony.” (I’m borrowing that phrase from Troy Torres). The pulse of the Philippine electorate – and the result of the recently concluded elections, for that matter – was as ironic as the word “salvage.”

Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City, is about to claim the Philippine presidency after a landslide win in this week’s elections. Nicknamed “DuDirty Harry” and “The Punisher,” the self-confessed socialist ruled his city with an iron fist – reminiscent of the tyrannical government that the 1986 People Power revolution overthrew. He imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied minors, a 9 p.m. curfew on raucous karaoke and a 1 a.m. ban on drinking and smoking in public places.

Amnesty International has raised concerns about the “Davao death squads,” the vigilante groups under Duterte’s control, which are believed responsible for more than 1,000 “salvagings” of petty criminals in the city.

On the campaign trail, Duterte vowed to eliminate crime in the country in three to six months. His pugnacity is the source of his unlikely charisma. He speaks the language of the masses. His speech is raw and unguarded. He says aloud what your id is thinking: “I wish those criminals dead.”

His victory anchored on this zero-tolerance approach to crime fighting. Officially sanctioned vigilantism was apparently the Filipino voters’ preferred alternative to an ill-functioning criminal justice system run by hoodlums in robes. But to the rational thinkers, that option is as perplexing as the corruption of the word “salvage.”

Duterte wasn’t the best or most ideal candidate. Neither was any one of four others he beat – the thief, the sick, the liar and the puppet. But the voters know what DuDirty Harry may be up to. That classic cliché: better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

It can be scary. But one may be assuaged by the international human rights community’s alert status; and consoled by the fact that Filipinos have 30 years of rehearsals at democracy. Filipinos may have repeatedly made mistakes at the polls, but they have learned when and how to salvage their freedom when it is in danger of drifting away.


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