Death squads: An incomplete history

Vicente L. Rafael

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Death squads: An incomplete history
Rooted in colonial history, their growth was spurred during the periods of transition when state power was up for grabs

Amid all the inconsistencies of President Duterte’s foreign policies, his domestic program has remained consistent, focused on the war on drugs and his signature approach: the use of local government officials to compile lists of suspected users and dealers. Frequently, those on the lists are targeted by police and death squads (the former at times taking on the functions of the latter) for extrajudicial killings. 

What is the history of death squads in the Philippines? Insofar as they usually enjoy the support and protection of the military, police, local and national officials, what role do they play in the formation of the state and the projection of its power? To what extent do they contribute to the making civil society by uncivil means? What follows is a very incomplete history of death squads and their related forms – militias, private armies, vigilantes, and criminal gangs.

Death squads as para-military formations clearly have colonial roots. As far back as the 16thc., the polos y servicios imposed by the Spaniards included forcing native peoples to fight in colonial militias to put down local rebellions and the occasional intra-imperialist war (vs. Chinese pirates in the late 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th century, the British in the 18th century, even the Americans in the late 19th century). By the 19th century, native militias became more organized into the ruthless Guardias Civiles, the very same ones that bedeviled ilustrados and common people alike, chasing Ibarra and killing Elias down the Pasig river in the climactic scene of Rizal’s Noli.

When the Americans invaded the Philippines, the US troops were made up of volunteers recruited from their respective state militias, and given to using the brutal tactics of “injun warfare” adopted by their officers – all veterans of genocidal Indian Wars in the American West. One could argue that American soldiers were a collection of proto-death squads, given to pursuing near-exterminatory violence against Filipino fighters and civilians alike. As with the Spaniards, American troops also used native auxiliaries to put down the Revolution and the various local insurgencies it spawned.

Elections were held quickly to consolidate American rule, at the same time that the colonial government was recruiting Filipinos to pursue remaining rebels. They formed the Philippine Scouts, the forerunner of the Philippine Constabulary as the complement to the First Philippine Assembly. Colonial democracy was predicated on the outsourcing of the state’s coercive power to local officials – many of whom were veterans of the Revolution – and their local followers. This is not so strange since the armies of the First Philippine Republic were also made up of volunteers attached primarily to their local leaders rather than to a national leadership (much to the dismay of Mabini and Aguinaldo who were powerless to curtail the pillaging and plundering of fighters). Patronage and patriotism were indissociable in the case of the Republican army and continued through the US colonial period, blurring the lines between fighters and bandits.

During World War II, guerilla resistance spread, with lots of armed groups operating outside of and in opposition to Japanese state power. They dispensed their own brand of extrajudicial justice against collaborators and often warred against rival factions as much as they did with the Japanese.

After the war, some of these armed groups like the Huks, continued fighting against the injustices they experienced, while other guerillas were recruited into private armies of the restored oligarchy. The transition from war-time occupation to independent republic witnessed the mushrooming of armed bands organized around local warlords, urban gangs, and assorted paramilitary units working for public officials and wealthy private families, who were usually one and the same. Such armed gangs were routinely deployed to terrorize peasant and proletarian dissidents and extract votes during elections. Independence and the expansion of the franchise coincided with the regular use of extra-legal violence and the rise of a culture of impunity to secure social hierarchy. In the midst of the Cold War, the Philippines became a veritable laboratory for “low intensity warfare” that the CIA would wage in Latin America and elsewhere.

When Marcos declared Martial Law, he sought to do away with such private armies by turning the entire AFP into his own big private army. But corruption and favoritism ended up dividing the military (hence, the emergence of RAM, whose failed coup attempt gave birth to EDSA). Meanwhile, the armed might of the CPP-NPA grew and by the end of Marcos’s regime, they directly controlled more than 20% of the countryside and had an extensive network of above-ground organizations in the cities. And the Moro rebels had also grown in power so as to outstrip the AFP’s abilities to put them down repeatedly. Fighting a two-front war and divided within its ranks, the military’s strength was severely taxed.

After EDSA

In the wake of EDSA, Cory Aquino at first sought to break up the para-military units that Marcos had set up while negotiating with the CPP-NPA. But a year after EDSA and a month after the Mendiola massacre of 1987, negotiations with the communists broke down. She then declared all-out war. In the face of a weakened military and far more formidable communist and Moro insurgencies, she and her chief of staff, Fidel Ramos, found themselves eventually authorizing and publicly supporting the rise of vigilante groups that quickly became anti-communist death squads. In the areas where the communists were strong, para-military volunteers flourished, drawn mostly from lumpen proletariats and former rebels. They were usually attached to local police and military commanders, and/or to local oligarchies, receiving funding and protection from them (and indirectly from the US to the extent that it was providing massive aid to the AFP). The most notorious, of course, was the Alsa Masa in Davao City that emerged in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, at the time when Rodrigo Duterte was mayor.

Hence, the ironic history of death squads.

Rooted in colonial history, their growth was spurred during the periods of transition when state power was up for grabs: from Spanish to American colonial rule; from occupation to independence; and most recently, from Marcos to Aquino, that is, from the end of authoritarian rule to the restoration of cacique democracy. Where Marcos could turn to the AFP as his own death squad, the post-EDSA oligarchy needed the aid of civilian volunteers, organized with the help of the police and the military into anti-communist vigilantes. As some scholars have pointed out, such death squads were the other side, the dark side if you will, of People Power. Indeed, that is how Cory herself referred to them when she encouraged them to wage war against the communists.

People Power was originally directed at Marcos. And when he was gone, it was directed at the communists and assorted criminal gangs.

Under succeeding presidents, the police were tacitly empowered to carry out summary executions of suspected communist leaders and gangs, while local elites hired killers to deal with labor leaders, journalists and rival elites. Terror and gruesome displays of violence – severed heads, for example, displayed on roadways, along with mutilated corpses – was the signature of groups like Alsa Masa in places like Davao. 

VIOLENCE. This has become an ordinary scene in Metro Manila after the Duterte administration launched its war on drugs. File photo by Rappler

Duterte, as is well known, made his reputation by negotiating with both vigilantes and communists, absorbing elements of both into his regime. If various reports are to be believed, he, or at least those around him, recruited former NPAs and other lumpen types to serve as para-military forces in dealing with a new enemy: drug lords and drug users. As mayor of Davao, his reputation as “the Punisher” emerged at the crossroads of democratic transition and counter-insurgency, when “People Power” was taken to mean that ordinary people would be empowered to act on behalf of the state and kill its designated enemies. In a way, death squads are the perverse doubles of NGOs as both shared a parallel history in the outsourcing of state functions.

Contradictory course

Things have thus come full circle.

Death squads encouraged by Cory as a much-needed supplement to the military’s counter-insurgency war have now morphed into the death squads used by Duterte in his war against drugs.

Rather than a new development, death squads, vigilantes, para-military volunteers of all sorts have long been a part of the colonial and national state. As with other modern states, the Philippine state has pursued what seems like a contradictory course: it has simultaneously sought to monopolize the use of violence even as it outsources it, using uncivil means to secure civil society. The legal and the illegal constantly blur into one other, as the language of the president often sounds like the rhetoric of a gangster. Indeed, the police double as vigilantes, while convicted felons ally with government officials to silence the latter’s critics.

Extrajudicial killings, sold to the public as a remedy to the inefficient and corrupt legal system, normalize murder even as it foregrounds fear as a primary technique of governing. Public resources are used to forge private armies–a kind of PPP, or public-private-partnership for producing the techniques for the efficient delivery of death. Exercising a kind of bio-political power, the state seeks to secure the life of its citizens. But it does so by way of a necro-political power, whereby the state consigns others as social enemies destined for abjection and disposal.

A final note: there is an interesting way in which the labor of death squads resonates with the most prevalent form of labor among the country’s citizens today. Those who join death squads are essentially contractual laborers. They can be hired and fired for as short or as long as their employers need them. They occupy a very precarious existence, and are liable to be killed themselves. In short, they are like so many millions of Filipinos today working on contractual basis, whether at home or abroad.

Just as the political history of death squads is the “underside” of People Power, especially outside of Metro Manila, its political economy of violence seems to echo the normalized violence faced by workers today. –


(Author’s notes: I’m indebted for these reflections to the works of several scholars, including: Eve Lotta Hedman, John Sidel, Alfred McCoy, Michael Cullinane, Patricio Abinales, Donna Amoroso, Benedict Anderson, Greg Bankoff, Roseanne Rutten, Rico Jose, Mila Guerrero, Achile Mbembe, Michel Foucault, and many others. Of course, I alone am responsible for all errors of fact and interpretation.) 

(Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.) 

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