Duterte Turns Death Squads on Political Activists
Government-backed vigilantes in the Philippines are targeting farmers and protesters.
Early in the morning of March 30, Philippine security forces set out to execute dozens of search warrants in the remote towns of Canlaon, Manjuyod, and Santa Catalina on the country’s southern Negros Island. Within hours, the operation had left 14 farmers dead. The Philippine National Police says the “Negros 14,” as they are now known, were communist rebels killed after refusing arrest and firing at police officers. Filipino and international rights groups refute this claim. A fact-finding report by a Philippines rights coalition, based on witness interviews, says that police forced family members to stand outside of their homes before entering and killing their targets, planting firearms as they departed in order to claim they faced armed foes.
The chilling report conjures images of the Philippine drug war, known as Oplan Tokhang—“tokhang” translates to “knock and plead.” Drug war tactics, which the country’s human rights commission says could be responsible for as many as 27,000 extrajudicial killings, have become the foundation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s developing counterinsurgency strategy—and rights groups allege its range of targets is growing to include an expanding list of those whom Duterte and his allies consider their enemies.
“There’s this morphing, this fusing of tactics that is very scary,” said Carlos Conde, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “This is just the beginning. I think this is the logical morphing of the drug war.”
Duterte, who insists a supposed communist plot called “Red October” threatens his presidency, recently threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for his critics and unveiled an opposition “matrix” containing supposed links between political opponents, journalists, activists, and communist leaders. Security forces, said Conde, are “no longer making any distinction as to who to target as long as the directive is clear. So they can use the methods of the drug war [to] go after these people.”
Officially, the Negros Island operation targeted communist insurgents—harking back to the origins of death squads in the Philippines during the Cold War. Days after the killings, the regional police chief Debold Sinas said the deceased “really fought. … They were not ready to surrender, because they were hardcore rebels.”
Eyewitnesses directly dispute this, according to the fact-finding report. Franklin Lariosa, a farmer living near Santa Catalina, was allegedly shot three times by policemen as he sat on a bench next to his 4-year-old son. Police then ordered everyone in the house to leave before announcing they had found two .38 revolvers under a pile of dirty laundry, the report says.
In Manjuyod, 20 masked men allegedly entered the home of Valentin Acabal, a de facto village leader, and dragged his wife and three children into the kitchen, where they heard the words “Just do it already!” come from upstairs, followed by three gunshots. Two hours later, police claimed they found a gun while searching the home; Acabal’s family discovered after the search that 37,000 pesos (about $710) were missing.
The presidential palace has maintained these operations were “legitimate” and dismissed reports contradicting its account as “leftist propaganda.” But the world is skeptical. On June 7, a group of United Nations human rights experts called for a probe into what it called a “staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings in the context of the so-called war on drugs, as well as killings of human rights defenders.” Philippines rights groups said they welcome a U.N. probe, while the presidential palace rejected it as “intellectually challenged” and an “outrageous interference” in the country’s sovereignty.
When I visited Negros shortly after the March 30 killings, I encountered an island shaken by fear and distrust, blanketed by a sense that recent attacks bode for a darker future. The Negros killings, and a previous state-run operation in December 2018 in which six farmers were killed, were carried out as part of Oplan Sauron. Named for the Lord of the Rings villain, Oplan Sauron is part of a recently mandated increase in militarization and counterinsurgency operations on the island that share disturbing characteristics with the drug war: killing without due process, planting of evidence, and a growing climate of apparent impunity.
Negros is the hub of the country’s sugar production and a longtime hotspot for labor activism. The island is split longitudinally into two provinces, both governed politically and socially by the island’s sugar haciendas, or plantations. Farmers on the haciendas regularly make between 50 and 70 pesos (96 cents to $1.35) per day, according to Rolando Rillo, the chairperson of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW).
The NFSW is an institution on the island. Established in 1979, it now has around 11,000 members in Negros. Its history of agitating for land reform, and against the labor practices of powerful plantation owners, makes it a thorn in the side of Philippine authorities, who have accused it of being a “legal front” for the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist guerrilla outfit.
Since its founding in 1969, the NPA has served as the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Both were declared terrorist organizations by Duterte in 2017, following the deterioration of peace talks between government and communist leaders. The NPA, which has historically adopted Mao Zedong’s strategy of consolidating power in rural areas, maintains strongholds in agrarian and mountain areas throughout the Philippines, where it has an estimated 3,700 members—paling in comparison to the increasingly expansive membership numbers given by the government.
In October 2018, nine NFSW members on a hacienda in Sagay, a town in Negros, were killed by unknown assailants. Authorities initially filed charges against nine suspects, including two NFSW recruiters; the NFSW and rights groups suspect plantation owners were behind the massacre. Weeks later, an attorney for the slain farmers, Benjamin Ramos, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles.
The killings presented more examples of how Philippine national policy bleeds into local struggles over land and power. State development initiatives have long opened the door for farmers, indigenous and Moro groups, and other marginalized communities to be forced from their land by eager investors, often protected by military units dubbed by one former president as the “investment defense force.” These conflicts have existed under every administration, but Duterte’s inflammatory rhetoric and hard-line counterinsurgency policies are motivating local power brokers to solve their disputes with violence.
The farmers killed in Sagay were engaged in bungkalan, a regular practice of tilling a small section of land to grow their own crops during dry seasons. The NFSW endorses bungkalan as a response to the failures of the government’s ambitious yet ineffectual land reform program, established in 1988 to gradually disassemble the hacienda system, a holdover from Spanish colonialism, and return arable land to independent farmers.
“Bungkalan is an expression of land reform,” said NFSW Secretary-General Butch Lozande, who noted it has been practiced regularly since the 1970s.
But Carlito Galvez, the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said days after the Sagay massacre that bungkalan was a “sinister plot” hatched by the “international community” to take down the Duterte administration. Duterte himself said of farmers occupying idle lands: “Shoot them. If they resist violently, shoot them. If they die, I do not care.”
The president then issued an executive order in November that called for more police and soldiers to be deployed to Negros Island, along with the province of Samar and region of Bicol, to “suppress lawless violence and acts of terror,” under the auspices of the “state of national emergency” Duterte declared in September 2016. It’s this framework that spawned Oplan Sauron, which has left 20 farmers dead in two separate police and military operations, and it leaves rights activists worried this is a test case for the entire archipelago as Duterte aims to consolidate his power. “It’s a mini-martial law,” said Gi Estrada, the media officer for UMA Pilipinas, an agricultural workers’ organization. “Negros is an experiment, a laboratory for the rest of the country.”
Negros residents harbor memories of the horrors of martial law under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the island experienced unrest in the 1980s as the global price of sugar plunged, leaving farmers destitute. In September 1985, 20 protesters were killed by paramilitary forces in Escalante, a town just east of Sagay. Promised land reforms never materialized—but violence has returned. In April, about 500 residents of Escalante protested Oplan Sauron and the militarization of the region, calling for justice for the slain farmers and marching to the local Department of Agrarian Reform. Less than two weeks later, Bernardino “Toto” Patigas, a city councilor and longtime advocate for the region’s sugar farmers, was killed by unidentified gunmen in the town center.
Negros resident Arje Marangga, who works as a secretary for the NFSW near Escalante, attended the April protest despite her own fears. She told me that on one March morning she was at home with her parents and her five children when infantry soldiers knocked on the door at 4 a.m., ordered everyone outside, and began searching the house for an unknown woman. Once they failed to find the woman, she said, they said Marangga herself was under arrest. “I gave them my birth certificate to prove it wasn’t me,” she said. The soldiers eventually left, but their continued searching of the area made the family feel unsafe; her mother and four children have fled to Cebu, and the rest have not returned home since the incident. “I fear for my life,” she said.
The Duterte administration has yet to provide clear evidence of the alleged links between communist rebels and the NFSW, along with other rights groups. Some areas of Negros are NPA strongholds; local media regularly report on clashes between NPA rebels and state security forces, and NPA recruiters often try to draw disaffected sugar workers into their ranks. “When they have nowhere to go, under those difficult circumstances, they will certainly go to the rebels,” Lozande, the NFSW secretary-general, said.
The new strategy of extrajudicial killings, however, leaves no day in court for victims, rebels or otherwise. No distinction is made between the NPA and the rights groups, journalists, and labor leaders labeled as communists by the Duterte administration.
Clarizza Singson, the chairperson of the Negros chapter of the human rights group Karapatan, showed me her photo on a poster hung in public last year urging citizens to report her and other supposed communists to the police. Singson, a noted human rights defender who regularly speaks to audiences abroad, said she receives regular death threats at home for her advocacy on behalf of the island’s sugar workers.
In April, Karapatan and other rights groups filed letters of allegation to the United Nations after the government named several legal nongovernmental organizations as communist fronts and asked the European Union to stop funding the groups. The Philippines military has said some funding has been placed on hold. The EU has said it will probe the allegations after earlier asking the Duterte administration to provide evidence of its claims. Authorities, however, have challenged rights groups to prove they are not affiliated with communists.
Conde, of Human Rights Watch, said central directives serve as a mandate for authorities in provinces such as Negros. “What the drug war methods have done is they not only embolden the authorities, they embolden as well the local leaders who now see the Tokhang [drug war]-type campaign as something they need to support,” he said. “This is going to create a lot of Duterte clones.”
As the lines continue to blur, the Duterte opponents caught in his matrix fear the drug war’s campaign of extrajudicial killings will target them next. The new Philippine counterinsurgency is “Tokhang with search warrants,” said Estrada of UMA, the agricultural workers’ organization. “They plant evidence. We plant crops.”