People here love to tell stories about the man they call "our mayor".

One time, when a tourist ignored no-smoking rules, our mayor stormed a restaurant with a revolver and forced him to eat the butt. Our mayor patrolled the streets on his motorcycle. Our mayor saved us from thugs.

The mayor they speak of is Rodrigo Duterte, who ran this coastal city on the island of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, for more than two decades before being elected president in June.

Since taking power in Manila, Duterte has made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. His call to "kill all" the country's criminals has unleashed an extraordinary wave of violence. Police have shot dead more than 1000 people, and plainclothes assassins have dump an even greater number of bodies on the streets.

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When President Barack Obama raised the issue, Duterte lectured him about US colonialism and used a slang term that translates, roughly, as "son of whore". When the European Parliament issued a statement condemning deaths, Duterte said, "F*** you" - and gave them the finger for good measure.

His sharp tongue risks turning him into a pariah abroad, but only serves to help him at home. Despite the violent deaths of 3000 Filipinos in less than three months, Duterte remains popular in the Philippines, with high approval ratings and strong legislative support.

As the political class falls in line, the cost of crossing him grows. When a longtime Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, opened a senate investigation on extrajudicial killing, he publicly urged her to hang herself.

When she presented a witness who claimed he killed for Duterte in Davao, once feeding a man to a crocodile, she was ousted from her role as chair of the Senate Commission on Justice and Human Rights.

The senator has since been publicly accused of taking bribes from drug dealers and sleeping with her driver. Her personal number and address were broadcast on national television, leading to threats.

"She was not only screwing her driver, she was screwing the nation," the president joked.

She's not laughing. "The truth is, I'm not safe," she said.

Election officials observe voters on May 9 near a polling station during the presidential elections in Davao. The cult of Rodrigo Duterte is strong in this city. Photo / Veejay Villafranca, Bloomberg
Election officials observe voters on May 9 near a polling station during the presidential elections in Davao. The cult of Rodrigo Duterte is strong in this city. Photo / Veejay Villafranca, Bloomberg
An attendee holds a sign on May 7 in support of a Rodrigo Duterte, who was at the time mayor of Davao City and a presidential candidate. Photo / Taylor Weidman, Bloomberg
An attendee holds a sign on May 7 in support of a Rodrigo Duterte, who was at the time mayor of Davao City and a presidential candidate. Photo / Taylor Weidman, Bloomberg

"The Death Squad mayor"

In most contexts, earning the nickname "the Death Squad mayor" would be a political disaster. To Duterte and his fans, it's a source of pride.

Dogged by questions about extrajudicial killings in Davao, Duterte has not shied away from his bloody record. "Am I the death squad? True," he said in May.

The fact is, millions of Filipino voters look at Davao's transformation with envy - whatever it cost.

The city, like the Philippines as a whole, was mismanaged for centuries. It was occupied by the Spanish, seized by the United States, held by the Japanese - and plundered at every step.

When Duterte entered politics in the mid-80s, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was out, but no power had replaced him. Davao, nicknamed "Murder City", was plagued by rival insurgencies and ceaseless crime.

Rodrigo Duterte, speaks during a campaign rally in Manila, the Philippines, on May 1. He was nicknamed
Rodrigo Duterte, speaks during a campaign rally in Manila, the Philippines, on May 1. He was nicknamed "the Death Squad mayor". Photo / Taylor Weidman, Bloomberg

The mayor set out to change that - by force. When Filipino journalist Sheila Coronel and a colleague toured Davao with the newly elected mayor in 1988, he bragged to them about pulling the plug on a still-alive drug kingpin and pushing a dealer out of a helicopter, she wrote in the Atlantic.

Stories by Filipino journalists and reports by rights groups point to a pattern of extrajudicial violence in Davao that is strikingly similar to what's unfolding nationwide today.

During much of Duterte's tenure as mayor, suspected criminals were summarily executed by police or gunned down by plainclothes assassins riding on motorcycles. Few cases were ever investigated.

To the families of the victims and critics of the president, that constitutes an appalling abuse of power. But to Filipinos fed up with a sclerotic justice system and exhausted by crime, Davao is proof that, with some bloodletting, things can change.

In Davao, those who dared speak about their former mayor insisted that, on his watch, only "bad guys" get hurt.

"If Duterte doesn't do those killings, there are a lot of victims, especially the young generation," said Chris Yaco, a rice vendor. "Be a good person in Davao and the mayor will help you."

The whole nation is hoping against fear that he's right.

"Rody Duterte," reads a sign in Davao, "The People's last hope."

John Dimacutec contributed to this report.