Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s office appears to be backing away from his Nov. 27 threat to form “death squads” to murder Communist rebels after talks have broken down, rights organizations are warning that all too often, such ideas take real form.
When they do, they are all too often – as they have been in a long and depressing history of the country – a simplistic and depressing attempt to answer to problems too severe to solve without a real commitment to reform – a bad education system, lack of opportunity, a weak justice system and a corrupt police. Death squads, either a misguided attempt to solve its drug problem or to quell insurgencies, do nothing about the root problems of Philippine society. It has been going on since the onetime strongman Ferdinand Marcos condoned extrajudicial killings in his own 'war on drugs.'
Salvator Panelo, Duterte’s chief legal counsel, told reporters on Nov. 29 that the creation of a “death squad” to counter insurgents is only an idea, adding that “He’s floating that idea and some are responding—others for, others against. Let’s see how it develops.”
Duterte reportedly has been frustrated by the collapse of preliminary peace talks between the NPA rebels in 2016, followed by a rise in violence with the end of a unilateral ceasefire in January 2017, particularly on the islands of Samar and Negros and in the Bicol region of Luzon. On Nov. 27 he ordered additional government security personnel deployed in those areas to “suppress lawless violence and acts of terror.”
Opposition members and leftist groups called the deployment “fear-mongering” and a “trademark dictatorial move.”
Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said the threat of death squads is “sadly no surprise. If there was a death squad Olympics, Duterte would be on the victory stand. Yet his murderous policies continue to make the people of the Philippines the losers. His statement is a declaration of open season against rebels, leftists, civilians, and critics of the government.”
Chito Gascon, the chairman of the Philippine Human Rights Commission, said such death squads are prohibited under all circumstances. Duterte’s own defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana warned that there might be “great danger of abuse or mistakes.”
Nonetheless, the death squad threat is part of a larger, ominous tendency on Duterte’s part to lean toward authoritarianism, and to go ahead with such ideas despite virulent criticism. Virtually since he was elected in 2016, the president has been on a campaign to rid the political sphere of his critics, first ordering the arrest of his most distinguished opponent, former Attorney General Leila de Lima, on charges of complicity in drug deals that international critics allege are specious after, as a member of the Senate, she attempted an investigation into his infamous drug war.
Most recently, he has been attempting to revoke the amnesty against coup charges granted to Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who took over as Duterte’s chief detractor after the jailing of de Lima. Trillanes was arrested on Sept. 24 and bailed out. He has proved to be Duterte’s most vocal opponent, accusing the president and his son of corruption and of their own involvement in illegal drugs, which Duterte has denied. Duterte was thwarted, at least temporarily, when a Makati judge refused to reverse Trillanes’ amnesty. The government is continuing to appeal the judge’s ruling. Most recently, his administration has filed new criminal charges against Maria Ressa, the head of Rappler, the country’s most respected news site, for its critical stories.
Duterte came into office condoning the use of violence by police and paramilitaries against drug users and sellers, resulting in a death toll that by some estimates has risen to 5,000 at the low end and 20,000 at the top.
“Duterte once again affirmed extrajudicial killing as his administration’s official policy against government critics,” Human Rights Watch said. “Given how easy it is for the authorities to accuse anybody of being a rebel or a ‘communist sympathizer’ and declare them as “enemies of the state,” Duterte’s announcement is abominable and should be rejected by Filipinos, human rights defenders and the international community.”
Just how grisly Duterte’s policies are, and how ad hoc justice can backfire, was demonstrated on Nov. 29 in Caloocan City, when three policemen were sentenced to life in prison for murdering a 17-year-old high school student named Kian delos Santos during a 2017 drug sting. Although the police officers said delos Santos had resisted arrest and had a weapon in his possession, witnesses and a CCTV camera showed the officers dragging the youth from his house to an alley where he was murdered.
The witnesses said they heard Delos Santos begging for his life. “Tama na po, may exam po ako bukas, (Let me go, I have an exam tomorrow)” he pleaded before he was shot.
Duterte after the delos Santos killing described it as “really bad. That was really not performance of duty. Do not commit a crime,” he said. But it is inescapable that among the 5,000 or 20,000 killings in Duterte’s drug war, depending on who's counting, thousands of them described by police as having "resisted arrest," untold numbers of them have been vigilante justice dispensed on unresisting victims either by the hit squads or police.
The sad fact is that the Philippines has a long and ugly record of using death squads against purported enemies, either drug users or insurgents of all stripes, and not only by Marcos. Since as early as 2007, Asia Sentinel has carried story after story detailing human rights abuses by death squads, some of them allegedly ordered into being by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who served as the country’s chief executive from 2001 to 2010.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on political killings criticized the government for its refusal to make a report public on the military’s use of summary executions of aboveground leftists after Arroyo’s administration has abandoned earlier policies of reconciliation – as Duterte now has -- with leftist opponents in favor of what she called “all-out war” against the left.
The Philippines has suffered for decades from a culture of impunity that has long allowed well-connected murderers to go free or to spend comfortable time behind bars with amenities that normal inmates don’t have access to. Far too often, witnesses are gunned down to keep them from testifying.
As an example of the dangers of taking on the violent elements in the culture, Human Rights Watch officials who posted a press release asking that the government investigate Duterte during his mayoralty of Davao City requested that their names and contact details not be posted criticizing his espousal of death squads.