Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal war on drugs campaign, the tough-talking leader’s signature and most controversial policy, will now be extended to a new enemy target: communist rebels and their alleged sympathizers.
In late November, Duterte announced to soldiers at Camp Rajah Sikatuna in Carmen, Bohol that he intends to form a new special death squad committed to assassinating New People’s Army communist leaders and assassins, in response to recent firefights that have killed government soldiers.
“We’ll hit them, too. I’m announcing that I’ll also create my own Sparrow (unit),” he said, referring to the NPA’s elite Special Partisan Units (SPARU) deployed to deadly effect against security forces at the height of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. “[I am] going to create my own Sparrow: the ‘Duterte Death Squad,’” the leader said.
Marcos famously leveraged the communist rebel threat, including its SPARU units, to impose a decade-long period of martial law spanning the 1970’s and 80’s that saw his regime suspend democracy, severely clampdown on civil liberties and perpetuate widespread rights abuses.
Despite the parallels, Duterte appears to have the support of not only the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has been at the forefront of his bloody drug war that has claimed thousands of lives, but also the powerful Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has long aimed for the total annihilation of the decades-long communist insurgency.
Duterte said in his speech that the new armed group would be sent to transport terminals, eateries and other public places to kill suspected NPA rebels as well as “junkies and loiterers.” “I will match their talent in assassinating people…That’s my plan,” he said.
It is not clear if the “Duterte Death Squad” would be civilian or security force-led, or if it has already been created or deployed.
But the surprise resignation of Duterte’s chief peace negotiator, Jesus Dureza, over corruption allegations has raised new concerns about his government’s will and wherewithal to seek peaceful settlements to various insurgent movements across the country, including the NPA’s rebellion.
The outgoing AFP Chief of Staff, Carlito Galvez, is widely expected to become the latest top general to join Duterte’s cabinet as his new top peace negotiator.
Critics, however, fear that Duterte’s escalating campaign against communist rebels, including his new death squad threat, is a possible pretext for imposing martial law nationwide to reaffirm his grip on power at a time polls show his government’s popularity is sliding.
Others are worried about the increasing militarization of Duterte’s government, with nearly a dozen senior generals currently ensconced in senior government positions, including in Duterte’s Cabinet.
And despite global outcry over his drug war campaign and its attendant extrajudicial killings, Duterte now aims to extend his extra-legal tactics through a potentially politicized new death squad.
The groundwork has been laid for more provincial violence. Citing a “number of sporadic acts of violence” across the central provinces of Bicol, Samar, and the Negros, Duterte issued a November 23 memorandum order to deploy additional troops to “suppress lawless violence and acts of terror” and “prevent such violence from spreading and escalating elsewhere in the country.”
The government has pinned blame on a spate of recent killings in those regions on the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Part of the Philippines (CPP) which has waged a lethal Maoist insurgency for almost half a century across the country.
Much of the insurgency is concentrated in the country’s southern island region of Mindanao, where the government has imposed martial law since Islamic State-affiliated militants laid devastating siege to the town of Marawi last year.
The AFP claims that martial law has strengthened their hand in Mindanao, namely through coordination with other civilian and intelligence agencies that has bolstered the effectiveness of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
Some in the AFP now claim to be confident that the end of the communist insurgency is in sight, though there have been false dawns before. Predictably, Duterte has embraced thee triumphalism, declaring in September that “if God is merciful, this would be over by about the second quarter of next year.”
While boasting of alleged massive defections among the ranks of the communists, Duterte said that he would leverage those who surrender from the NPA to carry out the plan. “A lot have surrendered, they’re in different locations…and I’ll bring them here. An exchange, if you will,” he said in an apparent carrot and stick tactic.
Jose Maria Sison, the chief ideologue of the CPP currently in exile in the Netherlands, has denied the SPARU group still exists. The assassination unit is believed to have gradually ossified and disbanded after Marcos was overthrown and democracy was restored.
Sison has accused Duterte of “giv[ing] himself the reason to form his own death squads,” which can be used against “[a]nyone suspected” of working with the communist movement, who “could be killed because police have the license to kill.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has politely questioned Duterte’s proposal to form a new death squad, emphasizing the need for clear operational guidelines and oversight against abuse. It is believed the military would prefer to conduct any such operations through existing special force units, military insiders say.
“We will study [the proposal] very closely,” the defense chief said in an interview with CNN Philippines. “There is great danger of abuse or mistakes in these undercover operations.”
The military establishment, however, more openly welcomed the reinforcement of government troops in other areas racked by the NPA’s communist insurgency.
Brigadier General Greg Almerol, attached to the Sorsogon-based 903rd Infantry Brigade commander in the province of Bicol, argued that “the incidents of violence recorded in Bicol region is high for the past few months, particularly the attacks by New People’s Army in Camarines provinces,” and thus “we need additional armed forces to address the threats.”
At the same time, Almerol argued that communist insurgents in his area “are almost eliminated, but we really need more troops in order to fasten the time frame in crushing them.”
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a fierce Duterte critic and former naval officer, has questioned the government’s motivation for forming an anti-communist death squad, arguing that Duterte really “wants to strike fear again into the hearts and minds of the Filipinos by forewarning that there would be another round of killings.”
The leftist group Bayan, which is associated with the CPP-NPA movement, also lambasted Duterte’s latest threat and troop deployments as “inciting a killing spree against government critics, human rights defenders and just about everyone else tagged by the government as ‘red.’”
Days after, the government issued a controversial arrest order against several Bayan leaders, including prominent human rights activist and Bayan Muna congressional Representative Satur Ocampo, on charges of kidnapping and human trafficking.
The charges were dismissed by no less than outspoken Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin, who said they were an “idiotic” and politically-charged move aimed to harass left-leaning figures.
Vice President Leni Robredo, who hails from NPA-affected Bicol province, cautioned similarly that: “People are worried that this might be a platform to declare martial law, which we all believe even if there is an ambush here is not necessary.”
The military, however, is in no mood to retreat. On December 12, the Philippine Congress granted Duterte’s request for another year of martial law in Mindanao, giving the AFP greater legal and operational leeway to chase down Islamic and communist rebels.
Rejecting proposals for a Christmas truce, the military seems poised to implement Dutetre’s latest command to “pulverize” the communist rebels, with or without a new “Duterte Death Squad.”