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.

DAVAO, Philippines — When a warrant was issued for the arrest of 19 police officers implicated in the murder of Rolando Espinosa Sr., a town mayor accused of drug crimes in the Visayas region of the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte scoffed.

“I can’t leave these officers behind,” Duterte said. “If they are convicted? No problem. They can call me and say they have been convicted, and I’ll tell the judge to pardon them all. … Any policeman or military man charged [with] killing those bastards, they will have my protection. You can charge them with anything.”

Since Duterte launched his “war on drugs” after taking office almost a year ago, he has repeatedly offered protection to police and vigilantes who have murdered thousands of suspected drug users and dealers.

But the Philippines’ culture of impunity toward vigilantism — even celebration of it — stretches back far beyond Duterte, and the United States is a lot more implicated in it than it claims. Today’s drug vigilantes are descendants of Cold War civilian groups that hunted down communist rebels, with the likely assistance of Washington.

Today, the godfather of Filipino vigilantism lives in relative obscurity. Franco Calida no longer arms civilians to hunt down communist rebels. He has removed the 1986 Cobra movie poster that hung behind his office desk, showing Sylvester Stallone brandishing a Jatimatic submachine gun under the caption, “Crime is a disease. Meet the cure.” It’s been replaced by a picture of him meeting Mother Teresa.

The 75-year-old retired general is now the vice mayor of Hagonoy, a provincial southern town. Calida is nostalgic as he parades newspaper clippings from the 1980s, peering at them through his glasses as he recalls all the foreign journalists who used to come to him for interviews. He lays out old photographs, pointing out names like a grandfather introducing his grandson to long-dead relatives.

Franco Calida, founder of the Alsa Masa movement, in front of a checkpoint in an undated photo. (Photo credit: ALAIN NOGUES/Sygma via Getty Images)

‘A dose of their own medicine’

Both Calida and Duterte made their names in Davao, the main city of the southern Philippines — and a killing field in the early 1980s. Communist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA) controlled most of the city, extorting “revolutionary taxes” from residents and indiscriminately killing police officers to obtain their guns.

The NPA was founded in 1969 as an armed faction of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Landless peasants and others angered by government corruption and lingering American colonial influence began a campaign of guerrilla warfare to topple the central government and recover land stolen by powerful landlords and oligarchs. Although confined to the hinterlands in the beginning, the NPA quickly grew and set its sights on Manila, the capital.

Davao became a laboratory for the NPA’s urban warfare methods. The NPA formed hit squads called “sparrow units” to assassinate policemen, soldiers, suspected informants, and other foes. Their name came from their ability to move swiftly and strike precisely. The NPA also enforced strict rules against lumpin, a local term used to describe activities it considered undisciplined, such as gambling, prostitution, and drinking alcohol. Soon the city was known as the murder capital of the Philippines.

By 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos perceived the threat to be so imminent that he declared nationwide martial law. Despite Marcos’s attempts, the NPA only increased in strength, assassinating members of state security forces and bombing government buildings. Marcos used this opportunity to consolidate power and deploy the army to target supposed communists and stifle political dissent. Abuses by the military further invigorated the rebels.

By 1986, the people of Davao had had enough and decided to organize their own resistance. The anti-communist movement they formed was called Alsa Masa, meaning “masses arise” in Filipino.

The origins of Alsa Masa aren’t exactly clear. One version points to a tire repairman in the squatter district of Agdao named Rolando Cagay, a former communist sympathizer who had become disillusioned with the NPA’s terror tactics. In April 1986, Cagay sought revenge for the death of one of his friends and called on the people in his community to rise up against the communists. Three months later, Cagay says, Lt. Col. Franco Calida would come to Davao as the city’s newly appointed military commander and offer support for the movement.

Franco Calida, 75, the mastermind behind Alsa Masa, is currently the Vice-Mayor of Hagonoy, a small, provincial town in the south of the Philippines. (Photo Credit: BRENNAN WEISS)

Calida, however, rebuts that story. He says he could sense the growing anti-NPA fervor when he came to Davao in July 1986 and used Cagay to recruit civilians for a genuine people’s movement against the communists.

“When I organized Alsa Masa, I was thinking that it should not be a military project actually,” Calida told me. “I thought we had to look for a civilian and place him there as a leader. I was telling [Cagay] what to do.”

It’s likely, however, that there is some truth to both versions. What’s clear is that Calida, with funds from the local government, provided eager civilians with guns to defend themselves and threatened rebels with surrender or death. He organized pulong-pulong, community meetings in which he would hand out anti-communist propaganda. Calida says Delfin Lorenzana, then a commander of the Army’s 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion, often accompanied him during these meetings. Today, Lorenzana is the secretary of defense, a member of Duterte’s cabinet, and a loyal ally in the war on drugs.

“The only way to beat the communists was to give them a dose of their own medicine,” Calida told me.

However Alsa Masa started, its image as a movement of the masses was effective propaganda. Calida relied on Jun Pala, a local radio commentator, to intimidate dissenters and threaten NPA members live on air. People in Davao were told that if they didn’t join the movement, they would be considered communists. (Years later, Pala would become highly critical of Duterte, then the mayor of Davao. He was assassinated in 2003, allegedly under Duterte’s orders.) Initially, Alsa Masa was “more closely supervised and substantially less abusive” than the vigilante groups it would later inspire, but its activities still “included harshly coercive practices and several instances of extrajudicial execution,” according to Ronald May’s 1992 account of the group.

The fact that gun-toting civilians openly threatened to kill suspected enemies — and that military and government officials sanctioned such behavior — made Alsa Masa a unique and unprecedented force in the Philippines.

As Calida ramped up anti-communist rhetoric, issuing guns to civilians and empowering them to hunt down rebels with impunity, President Corazon Aquino appeared willing to make compromises with the NPA. Early in her presidency in 1986, she ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners, pursued peace negotiations, and even offered amnesty to rebels. Later, however, she would take a much more hard-line approach — with, Filipino activists allege, the covert backing of the U.S. military.

Left: Fmr. General John Singlaub at a press conference in Washington, D.C. in 1986. (Photo credit: Getty Images); Right: A demonstration against Rep. Stephen Solarz in the Philippines in 1985. (Photo credit: ANDY HERNANDEZ/Sygma via Getty Images)

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.

A message of praise left for Rolando Cagay (alias Boy Ponsa), by Stephen Solarz, then a Democratic congressman from New York, during his visit to Davao in the late 1980s. (Photo Credit: BRENNAN WEISS)

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.

A supporter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, participates in an April 2 protest in Manila calling for the ouster of Vice President Leni Robredo over his drug war criticism. (Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Vigilantism unleashed

Approval for the present drug war is remarkably high at 78 percent, according to a survey conducted in April. Like Alsa Masa, it began in Davao with Duterte’s death squads. Although the group was responsible for more than 1,400 extrajudicial murders of criminals, street children, drug addicts, and political opponents, it was widely accepted. At least the streets are safer, supporters would say.

Today, Calida is a staunch defender of Duterte’s drug war, although he denies that the government endorses extrajudicial killings and calls for those who commit crimes to be prosecuted. Violence is not the solution to drugs, he says.

“It was a different situation in Davao before. Alsa Masa fought the NPA because it was a war. They used violence against the people, killing innocent people,” Calida said.

But inside a culture that embraces vigilantism, the lines of war are blurred. A society that accepts vigilantism “strengthens the hand of leaders, who can then choose between state and extra-state coercive apparatuses without worrying too much about being exposed as having supported illegal armed groups,” Lessing wrote. Like the NPAs, drugs are killing people, too. Duterte, after all, says they’re destroying the country.

Cagay, who allegedly began the Alsa Masa movement, agrees. Now the captain of Barangay (the Filipino equivalent of a subdivision or village) Leon Garcia in Davao, the community’s highest-elected official, Cagay is eager to tell me stories from the 1980s and makes unabashed references to his experiences threatening communists. But these days, his focus is on the scourge of drugs.

Rolando Cagay shows off photos in Davao in April from his days as one of the most prominent members, or as he claims, the founder, of Alsa Masa. (Photo Credit: BRENNAN WEISS)

“Violent solutions could be good in eliminating some problems like drugs because if you’re an abuser, you’re already insane,” Cagay said. “These people shouldn’t be given a chance to live.”

For many people of Cagay’s generation, extrajudicial violence is not inherently wrong, but a legitimate way to fight a greater evil. “This is a population [in Davao] that’s used to the culture of violence and killings,” said John Bengan, a professor in the department of humanities at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

Davao has been subject to insurgencies, bombings, and high levels of homicide and crime. If violence is used to address such problems, people will generally support it, even if it risks unleashing an entirely new dilemma. Such thinking paved the way for Alsa Masa in the 1980s. Today, it fuels support for the drug war. “People are saying they support [Duterte] because for the first time you can walk in the streets without being bothered by a lot of criminals,” said John Castriciones, undersecretary for operations at the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

But as Duterte threatens to expand martial law nationwide, such an acceptance of violence could have even more devastating implications. After clashes broke out between Islamist rebels and the Philippine military in Marawi City in May, Duterte declared martial law in the whole of Mindanao. He has since proposed extending it to other areas should there be a “spillover” of violence, triggering fears of a resurgence of widespread human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, people in Davao remain calm. They’ve been through this before.

“We’ve seen the worst,” said Stella Estremera, the editor in chief of the Sun Star newspaper in Davao. “We know what it takes for the city to be livable.”

Top photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Brennan Weiss is a journalist based in Manila.