Duterte’s Death Squads Were Born in America’s Cold War
The Philippines' new "war on drugs" is claiming thousands of lives. But the culture of vigilante violence started with anti-communism.
The American connection
Retired U.S. Gen. John Singlaub, who ran covert anti-communist operations in Vietnam and provided aid to the Nicaraguan contras, caused a flurry of speculation when he arrived in Manila in 1986. He was officially in the country as a private citizen hunting for the famed Yamashita treasure supposedly left behind by the Japanese during World War II, but many Filipinos believed he was actually organizing support for Alsa Masa and trying to persuade the Aquino administration to take a tougher stance against the communists.
Singlaub held private meetings with high-level officials in Manila and Mindanao. Among them was Calida, who was no stranger to counterinsurgency operations. He had spent a year in the United States training at Fort Lee in Virginia and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where one of his courses included a unit on counterinsurgency warfare.
U.S. Gen. Robert Schweitzer and Col. Alexander McColl, fresh from counterinsurgency operations in Central America, visited the Philippines at the same time as Singlaub’s visit, according to archives at Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a human rights group in Metro Manila. Ray Cline, a former CIA analyst, often accompanied Singlaub.
Stephen Solarz, then a Democratic congressman from New York, even paid a visit to Davao. After meeting Cagay (nicknamed Boy Ponsa), Solarz gave the Alsa Masa recruiter his business card and scribbled a message of praise: “To Boy — A great and courageous friend of freedom!”
There is no conclusive evidence linking these officials to the formation of Alsa Masa or U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the Philippines. But from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Angola to Nicaragua, the United States had already been involved in numerous Cold War-era anti-communist operations. If the United States was involved, it wouldn’t have been the first time the Americans ran counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines. A few years after World War II, U.S. intelligence officers helped the Philippine government fight the Hukbalahap, a communist guerrilla army originally formed to counter colonial Japan.
At the time of the visits by various American officials, Aquino began to embrace tougher measures against the communists. She scrapped her plans for reconciliation and called for increased military action. Alsa Masa increasingly reflected the American low-intensity conflict approach to insurgency warfare — a strategy the United States had used to suppress previous uprisings in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Central America.
Aquino would later fly to Davao to give the ultimate endorsement of Alsa Masa, praising the group for being “the example in our fight against communism.”
Aquino’s legitimation of vigilante violence had dire consequences. Shortly after her visit, death squads inspired by Alsa Masa sprung up around the country, freely roaming the Philippine countryside, committing abuses, and killing with impunity. Not even the central government could control their spread.
“Tolerating or encouraging paramilitaries may initially seem like a useful stopgap measure against an otherwise unbeatable enemy, but these groups can quickly grow strong and weaken the state from within, so that it becomes extremely difficult to eradicate or even restrain them later on,” Benjamin Lessing, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies armed conflict mostly in Latin America, wrote to Foreign Policy in an email.
Groups like Tadtad, Pulahan, and Nakasaka were especially brutal and followed extreme religious rituals. They often beheaded NPA suspects and mutilated their slain bodies. Sometimes they would even practice cannibalism or drink the blood of their victims.
Local political dynasties in the Philippines have long controlled entire villages and towns, and still do. The central government’s acceptance of vigilantism in the 1980s played into the hands of these powerful families, which used vigilantes as private armies to keep power. The consequences of this kind of dynastic politics were underscored in 2009, when armed men connected to a prominent political family in Maguindanao killed 58 people, including journalists and civilians, to prevent an opposing political family from filing papers to challenge its rule in upcoming local elections.
By mid-1987, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines tallied at least 50 vigilante groups nationwide. Extrajudicial killings, massacres, forced disappearances, and destruction of property were widespread. Although Alsa Masa gradually disbanded as the communist threat died down in Davao in the early 1990s, the culture of violence would remain.
Later that decade, a death squad would emerge under Duterte’s watch as mayor of Davao. The Davao Death Squad focused on eliminating street crime and illegal drugs and used Alsa Masa-style intimidation tactics as a sort of social cleansing. Members of the group — allegedly paid and directed by Duterte — did not openly admit involvement like those in Alsa Masa, but they were just as brutal.