Human Rights Abuses in the Philippines: Shades of El Salvador, Vietnam

Is there a U.S. hand in the current wave of human rights violations in the country? The answer is yes, and this is not just based on the country’s history of state fascism, but also the experience of other countries like El Salvador and Vietnam.


Every Philippine government has resorted to employing death squads every time the people’s movement makes great strides. In the 1950s, while peasant uprisings were on the upswing, there were the “skull squadrons” of Colonel Valeriano that terrorized the people of Central Luzon. Then there were the “Monkees,” “Military Lost Command,” the hit squads of the Military Intelligence Group (MIG), National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) and others during the Marcos dictatorship. Human rights groups estimate that the Marcos dictatorship was accountable for 1,166 killings from 1972 to 1983 alone.[i] This is surely apart from those summarily executed and massacred by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) during military operations and the numerous cases of desaparecidos (disappeared).

During the Aquino administration (1986-1992), death squads like the paramilitary Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) and vigilante groups like the Alsa Masa (Uprising of the Masses) and Nakasaka (United People for Peace) were organized. The Aquino administration’s endorsement of their activities reflects its adherence to a “total war policy” against the progressive movement.

The U.S. is behind the use of death squads in the Philippines as a counterinsurgency measure. Colonel Edward Lansdale, an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), masterminded the 1950s counter-insurgency program of the Philippine government. Lansdale brought his expertise gained from his experience in the Philippines to Indo-China to help implement the brutal counterinsurgency program called Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.

The role of the U.S. in the vicious counterinsurgency program Oplan Lambat-Bitag (Operation-Plan Net Trap) of the Aquino administration is no secret either. The features of the program show that the U.S. tried to replicate its “EL Salvador Solution” to defeat the progressive movement after the ouster of the late President Ferdinand Marcos. This includes installing Corazon Aquino as a pliant instrument to shield the state’s fascism like it did in installing the pseudo-democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte as President of El Salvador to camouflage the atrocious activities of the fascist d’Abuisson death squad gangs that terrorized the people of El Salvador in the 1980s.[ii]

A U.S. newspaper reported that the U.S. government’s involvement in Oplan Lambat Bitag included psychological warfare (psywar) operations and the formation of vigilante groups and other death squads. It pointed to the United States Information Agency’s (USIA) activities in psywar operations like distributing anti-communist films and written materials.[iii] However, perhaps the most direct and concrete evidence linking the U.S. to the death squads was U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s March 1986 approval of increased CIA involvement in Philippine counterinsurgency operations. Following the visit of Vietnam War veteran Major General John Singlaub, the Aquino administration appointed Jaime Ferrer as Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government. Secretary Ferrer justified and encouraged the formation and activities of the death squads and he became their virtual godfather. Aquino also appointed General Rafael Ileto as Secretary of National Defense to oversee the implementation of “total war.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark investigated the activities of the death squads in 1987 and wrote in June that year that “the victims of vigilante violence were overwhelmingly poor farmers, slum dwellers and others who are pushing for significant land reform, wage increase and protection of workers rights, as well as those who oppose U.S. military bases in the Philippines.”[iv]

The persistent campaigns of the progressive organizations and civil libertarians to expose the fascism of the Aquino regime, the people’s militant assertion of their democratic rights and the active support of the friends of peoples oppressed by imperialism abroad like Ramsey Clark, exposed the brutality of “total war.” This forced the U.S. and the local ruling elite to retreat temporarily and reduce the activities of the death squads.

However, beginning from the last quarter of 2004, attacks against members of cause-oriented groups intensified anew under the present Arroyo administration. This coincided with the achievement of extraordinary growth in strength made by the revolutionary movement after years of gradual advance. Kidnapping and murder of known activists, workers, peasants, youth and students, human rights lawyers, members of progressive party-list organizations like Bayan Muna (People First), AnakPawis (Toiling Masses) and Gabriela, journalists and even religious people, occurred almost daily. The brutality of this resurrected terrorism is unparalleled in the country’s history.

Contrary to what the Arroyo regime claims, the pattern of these killings and kidnappings shows that these are related incidents undertaken by “vigilante groups.” The facts show that this is a centralized campaign funded and organized at highest levels of the state’s leadership. The attacks are nationwide in scope and there is tight coordination and clear focus. Arroyo appointed human rights violators of the AFP to areas where the brutal killings are concentrated. The killings immediately intensified right after the said appointments and she remained silent on such brutalities even amidst international condemnation.

Indicators also show that selected members of the AFP constitute the personnel of these death squads. First, the worst killings and kidnappings are in places pointed out by the AFP’s national leadership as priority areas for counterinsurgency. Second, the AFP is pouring its personnel and logistics in these areas. Third, it is also in these areas where the AFP is concentrating its campaigns and operations like in Mindoro and Southern Tagalog from 2001 to 2004, and in Central Luzon starting from the last quarter of 2004. Fourth, intensified intelligence operations, intimidation and anti-communist black propaganda complemented the killings.

The renewed attacks came after the newly-established spy agency Counter Terrorism Center – led by former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines John Negroponte – declared that the Philippines is one of the priority targets of the center’s activities. It also followed U.S. President George Bush’s declaration of the national democratic movement including the legal democratic organizations with national democratic principles and aspirations as terrorists organizations; and that these are targets of the U.S.’ “global war against terrorism.”

The overall pattern of this renewed fascist campaign is similar to Operation Phoenix authored and implemented by the CIA to defeat the national democratic forces during the last years of the Vietnam War.

The aims are similar – to dismantle systematically the “political infrastructure” of the national democratic movement by liquidating and kidnapping those perceived to be sympathizers, supporters, unarmed leaders and members of the movement. During its height, Operation Phoenix targeted the liquidation of 1,800 activists per month.[v] William E. Colby[vi] on 19 July 1971, before a Senate Subcommittee testified that the CIA’s Operation Phoenix resulted in the killing of 21,587 Vietnamese citizens between January 1968 and May 1971.[vii]

Likewise, the structure, pre-determined areas of operations and the secret nature of the hit squads are similar to those of the regional, provincial and district Intelligence Operations Coordinating Centers (IOCCs) secretly organized by the CIA within the ranks of the regional, provincial and district level units of the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) tasked to execute the liquidations and kidnappings.

Another similarity is intensified intelligence operations; the CIA put premium on intelligence operations as indispensable elements of the campaign. The agency established the Combined Intelligence Center to construct a “political order of battle”[viii] and also established clearing houses within the IOCCs to review, collate and disseminate intelligence information to the hit squads. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s forcing Philippine Congress to pass a law requiring a national ID system is without doubt aimed at intelligence gathering targeting those they suspect to be part of the progressive movement.

The regime hopes that this renewed fascism can silence the increasing people’s resistance. The U.S., on the other hand, hopes that this can derail the advance of the national democratic movement. Then again, the people are already fed up with Arroyo’s brutal rule, her subservience to U.S. dictates, the involvement of her family with widespread corruption and the exposure of her theft of the 2004 elections. The escalation of daily rallies against her regime signifies that the people are ready to oust her from power. The termination of U.S. control of the Philippines is sure to follow in the end.



i] Washington Post, 12 April 1984.

ii] Installing pseudo-democrats, christened as “third force,” became the trend in U.S. foreign policy following the rapid spread of anti-imperialist movements throughout the world, especially in countries where the U.S. established dictatorships.

[iii] National Reporter, Fall 1987, pp. 24-31

iv] The Nation, 19 September 1987, pp. 259-60

[v] Ralph Mcgehee, “CIABASE Files on Death Squads”

vi] William Colby was the CIA’s station chief in Saigon and director of the agency’s East Asia Affairs during the Vietnam War. He was later on promoted to become the director of the agency.

vii] Ibid.

viii] Pertains to their estimate on the movement’s organizational structure, including the disposition, number and corresponding ranks of the movement’s personnel.

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