Philippines’ ‘Dodge City’ Starts Over : Southeast Asia: The port city of Davao was marked by crime and violence. Civic leaders hope trade and business will take their place.


Now that crime and violence have been cleaned up, government leaders are striving to shed this southern port’s image as the “Dodge City of the Philippines.”

Their goal is to attract investment and build Davao into a major business center, based on its good location for trade with Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations.

The task is not easy.

Until a few years ago, this port of 1 million people on the southern end of Mindanao Island, about 610 miles southeast of Manila, was awash in guns and gunmen.


Communist rebels held such a firm grip on the Agdao slum district that it was nicknamed “Nicaraguagdao.” Gunmen from the pro-government Alsa Masa (Masses Arise) militia patrolled the streets. Common crime was rampant.

The result was a devastated economy. Business stagnated so much that the construction of a single cement plant in 1993 represented a 3,420% increase in investment over the previous year. The official jobless rate is 10%, but private economists estimate that about 40% of the area’s workers do not have full-time jobs.

All that is changing.

The Communist influence has waned because of both the vigilantes and factionalism in rebel ranks. Alsa Masa gunmen no longer patrol the streets, and the city bustles with activity unseen only a few years ago.

Davao is in the midst of a construction boom, and traffic clogs the streets. The city recently introduced a fleet of new radio-equipped taxis. In October, the national government approved a $114-million, five-year plan for expanding and improving the city’s airport to encourage traffic with neighboring nations.

“Our skyline is changing every month,” Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said. “The city is peaceful now. We have been able to restore infrastructure and provide stability for our investors.”

Despite the relative peace, Davao is hardly Singapore, the serene business hive of Southeast Asia. Last Christmas, suspected Muslim extremists hurled grenades into the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, killing seven people and wounding dozens of others.


Kidnapings are an ever-present danger throughout Mindanao, an underdeveloped island of about 16 million people. Still, residents interviewed said they feel safer now that Duterte has cracked down on street crime in Davao.

The U.S., Japanese and other embassies no longer discourage their citizens from visiting Davao, although they advise caution.

To promote its new image, the city has launched an “Invest in Davao” campaign, highlighting opportunities in transshipment of goods within the region, tourism, light industry, agribusiness and processed foods.

The city faces some of the western Pacific’s leading fishing grounds, and important banana, pineapple and coconut plantations are nearby. It also is close to Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, and to Malaysia, where the economy is booming.

“We want to project Davao,” said Syvelyn Tan, project manager of the city’s Private Investment and Trade Opportunities office. “Our problem was one of unfair perception. We want to show the good side of Davao.”

The city is putting finishing touches on a three-story Business Center, financed in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development, where investors will be able to get computerized information on opportunities.


“A lot of changes are taking place,” Duterte said. “It’s not really an economic takeoff, but it’s definitely an upswing.”

Foreign interest remains limited. In 1988, when Davao’s image was at a low point, the city organized an ambitious trade promotion conference and planned to invite U.S. President George Bush, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca.

But after consulting the Department of Foreign Affairs, city officials scratched the heavies and instead invited all foreign ambassadors accredited in Manila. Only one, from Australia, attended, and he showed up incognito.