Biography of Filipino Politician and President Rodrigo Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends the orchid naming ceremony at the National Orchid Garden on December 16, 2016 in Singapore.

 Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Roderigo Roa Duterte (born March 28, 1945) is a Filipino politician, and the 16th president of the Philippines, elected by a landslide on May 9, 2016. 

Fast Facts: Rodrigo Roa Duterte

  • Also Known As: Digong, Rody
  • Born: March 28, 1945, Maasin, Philippines
  • Parents: Vicente and Soledad Rao Duterte
  • Education: Law degree Lyceum of the Philippines University
  • Experience: Mayor of Davao City, 1988–2016; President of the Phillippines 2016–present.
  • Spouse: Elizabeth Zimmerman (wife, 1973–2000), Cielito "Honeylet" Avanceña (partner, mid-1990s to present) 
  • Children: 4
  • Famous Quote: "Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you. I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there."

Early Life

Rodrigo Roa Duterte (also known as Digong and Rody) was born in the town of Maasin, in Southern Leyte, the eldest son of local politician Vicente Duterte (1911–1968), and Soledad Roa (1916–2012), a teacher and activist. He and two sisters (Jocellyn and Eleanor) and two brothers (Benjamin and Emmanuel) moved to Davao City when their father was made the governor of the now-defunct Davao province. 


He attended high school at the Ateneo de Davao, where he has said he was a victim of sexual abuse by Rev. Mark Falvey, an American Jesuit priest who died in California in 1975—in 2007, nine of his American victims were paid $16 million by the Jesuit church for Falvey's abuse. Duterte was expelled from school for retaliating against another priest by filling a squirt gun with ink and spraying the priest's white cassock. He skipped classes and has told audiences that it took him seven years to finish high school. 

According to his own report, Duterte and his siblings were frequently beaten by his parents. He began carrying a gun at the age of 15. Despite the hardships and chaos of his younger life, Duterte studied political science at the Lyceum of the Philippines University, obtaining a law degree in 1968. 

Marriage and Family 

In 1973, Duterte eloped with Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former flight attendant. They have three children Paolo, Sara, and Sebastian. That marriage was annulled in 2000. 

He met Cielito "Honeylet" Avanceña in the mid-1990s, and he considers her his second wife, although they have not married. They have one daughter, Veronica. Duterte has no official first lady but said during his presidential campaign that he had two wives and two girlfriends. 

Political Career 

After graduation, Duterte practiced law in Davao City, and eventually became a prosecutor. In the mid-1980s, his mother Soledad was a leader in the Yellow Friday Movement against the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. After Corazon Aquino became the Philippine leader, she offered Soledad the post of vice-mayor of Davao City. Soledad asked that Rodrigo be given the position instead. 

In 1988, Rodrigo Duterte ran for Mayor of Davao City and won, eventually serving seven terms over 22 years.

Death Squads  

When Duterte took over the mayorship of Davao, the city was war-torn, the result of the Philippine Revolution leading to the ouster of Marcos. Duterte established tax breaks and pro-business policies, but at the same time, he founded his first death squad in Davao City in 1988. A small group of police officers and others were selected to hunt down and kill criminals; the membership eventually grew to 500.

One of the men who has admitted to being on the squad reported that there were at least 1,400 or more people killed, with their bodies dumped in the sea, the river, or a different city. The man said he received 6,000 pesos for each of the fifty people he personally killed. A second man said he received orders from Duterte to kill at least 200 people, including political rivals, one of whom was journalist and outspoken critic, Jun Pala, in 2009. 

Presidential Election 

On May 9, 2016, Duterte won the Philippine presidential election with 39 percent of the popular vote, far outweighing the four other candidates. During his campaign, he repeatedly promised to bring the practice of extrajudicial killing of drug users and other criminals to the country as a whole, and he has fulfilled that promise. 

Philippines War On Drugs Ahead Of Duterte's Inauguration
Social workers and police round up minors at night during curfew on June 8, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. Dondi Tawatao / Getty Images

According to the Philippine National Police, from the time he assumed office on June 20, 2016, to January 2017, at least 7,000 Filipinos were killed: 4,000 of them were killed by police and 3,000 by self-described vigilantes.


Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and others such as the International Criminal Court, the former U.S. President Barack Obama, and Pope Francis have been vocal in their criticism of Duterte's death squads of suspected drug users and pushers and other criminals. 

As a result, Duterte has lashed out at those critics, in what are vulgar and racist terms. However, according to a recent biography by British journalist Jonathan Miller, his supporters call him "Duterte Harry" (a play on the Clint Eastwood character in the "Dirty Harry" movies). He currently has at least the tacit support of China and Russia. 

In general but not entirely, Duterte is popular in the Philippines. Political journalists and academicians such as American political scientist Alfred McCoy consider Duterte a populist strongman, who like Marcos before him offers a promise of justice and stability, and one who is clearly not subject to the West, in particular, the United States.


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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Biography of Filipino Politician and President Rodrigo Duterte." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). Biography of Filipino Politician and President Rodrigo Duterte. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Biography of Filipino Politician and President Rodrigo Duterte." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).