How red-tagging justifies human rights abuses


MANILA – Red-tagging equates to a death warrant.

This is what rights alliance Karapatan asserted after documenting a series of human rights violations under the Duterte regime.

No government is innocent of red-tagging. For many years, the state propaganda on counterinsurgency has been nonstop. Rampant issuances of search warrants against progressive groups and individuals were traced to a small number of judges, infamous of which is Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, who produced most of these warrants, some of which were found by other courts to be defective.

Under Duterte, red-tagging is used as a weapon to silence dissent and as justification for human rights abuses.

These abuses were intensified by the Anti-Terror Law and Executive Order No. 70, which institutionalizes a whole-of-nation approach to end the decades-long insurgency in the country.

The latter led to the creation of the notorious National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which rampantly red-tags and terror-tags critics of the administration.

In its 2012 report, non-profit International Peace Observers Network (IPON) said that red-tagging (then called ‘red-baiting’) is the practice of (mostly) state actors publicly and detractively labeling government-critical individuals and organizations as state enemies, communist terrorists, or members of communist front organizations with the goal of destabilizing democratically legitimized state authority. Furthermore, state actors create an environment of fear in order to instill belief in an internal or external threat to national security so as to gain societal support for the implementation of a legal framework that defines a “state of exception.”

These laws were weaponized under Duterte’s administration to terrorize the Filipino people.

“Since its creation in 2018, the NTF-ELCAC has systematically engendered human rights violations and even war crimes in counterinsurgency operations,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.

Far from its ‘mandate’ to end the decades-long armed conflict and bring about ‘inclusive and sustainable peace, the Duterte government has used the NTF-ELCAC to wage a war targeting human rights defenders, journalists, critics, and anyone who stands in the way of Duterte’s de facto martial law,” she explained.

In the five years of Duterte’s presidency, Karapatan has documented 424 extrajudicial killings, 504 frustrated extrajudicial killings, 1,159 illegal arrests and detention, and 2,807 illegal arrests without detention.

Read: 3 years of Duterte’s counterinsurgency: 250 civilians dead, thousands displaced

In commemoration of International Human Rights Day, Bulatlat compiled its reports of cases of red-tagging that led to killings, enforced disappearances, illegal arrests and detentions, and other forms of human rights abuses under the Duterte administration.

A death sentence label

IPON expounds that in practice, red-tagging generally starts with rather innocuous methods.

A victim’s cell phone, email account, or mail may begin to receive threatening text messages. Every week, an unidentified motorbike driver goes by the victim’s residence at the same time and on the same day. Victims are clearly kept under observation at home and at work, either by technological means such as eavesdropping on phone lines or by informants who are always on the lookout for them.

The most serious effect of red-tagging is that victims may be subjected to torture, enforced disappearances (ED), or extrajudicial killings (EJK). Although it may not always result in these human rights violations, it is present in many EJK and ED cases. Labeling critical individuals and organizations as communist terrorists or subversives is a typical justification for coordinated operations against them. As a result, it frequently goes hand in hand with the criminals’ impunity.

“Accusation as a communist – “red-tagging” – is a potential death sentence, which doesn’t stop some from using it,” Michael Beltran wrote in an article for The Interpreter.

The establishment of the NTF-ELCAC on Dec. 4, 2018 was a pivotal move in intensifying the culture of impunity and red-tagging in the country under Duterte’s regime. Its whole-of-nation approach has killed thousands of innocent lives.

Among those who were red-tagged and killed are long-time peasant organizer and peace consultant Randy Echanis, Karapatan human rights paralegal Zara Alvarez, nine Indigenous Peoples (IPs) leaders, nine Southern Tagalog activists, and Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan with her husband Edwin.

Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis, 72, was found dead at his residence in Quezon City early morning of Aug. 10 last year.

“He was made to suffer before he was killed,” said forensic pathology specialist Raquel Fortun, who examined Echanis’s remains, confirming that he was tortured.

Read: ‘Randall Echanis was made to suffer before he was killed’ – forensic expert 

Zara Alvarez, a paralegal of Karapatan, is the 13th human rights worker from the group who was assassinated in Duterte’s term. Last August 17, 2020, seven days after Echanis was slain, Alvarez was fatally shot inside a private village in Bacolod City.

Both Echanis and Alvarez’s names appeared in a list of at least 600 people which the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked a court to declare as “terrorists” in 2018, according to a statement released by the International Federation of Human Rights.

On Dec. 15 last year, a red-tagged doctor Mary Rose Genisan Sancelan and her husband Edwin were killed in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental. Sancelan is the leader of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases in the said province. Her name was on the hit list of Kagubak, a local anti-communist vigilante group involved in red-tagging various organizations and individuals. Between 2018 and 2019, five other people on the list were killed.

Read: Groups condemn murder of doctor and husband, highlight dangers of red-tagging

Fifteen days after the killing of the Sancelan couple, in a concerted police and military raid in Panay Island, nine farmers and human rights defenders were massacred in separate villages. Indigenous rights defender Roy Giganto was among them and they were all leaders of the Tumanduk organization, a coalition of indigenous communities in the provinces of Capiz and Iloilo tagged by the military as members and supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army (CPP-NPA).

Two days after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the police and military to ignore human rights and unmindfully kill people in an encounter, the biggest one-day offensive of the Philippine National Police (PNP) happened against mass organizers, activists, and human rights defenders.

On March 7, 2021, dubbed as “Bloody Sunday”, nine individuals were killed while six others were illegally arrested in a series of raids conducted by the police in Calabarzon.

The slain victims were Emmanuel Asuncion in Cavite; Chai and Ariel Evangelista in Batangas; Melvin Dasigao, Randy and Puroy Dela Cruz, Mark Lee Bacasno and Abner and Edward Esto in Rizal Province.

Asuncion was the coordinator of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) Cavite; the Evangelista couple were both members of environmental organization Ugnayan ng Mamamayan Laban sa Pagwasak ng Kalikasan at Kalupaan (UMALPAS KA); Dasigao, Bacasno, and the Esto brothers were members of the urban poor organization San Isidro Kasiglahan, Kapatiran, at Damayan para sa Kabuhayan, Katarungan, at Kapayapaan (SIKKAD-K3); while Randy and Puroy Dela Cruz were Indigenous Dumagats.

Read: ‘Bloody Sunday’ spells killings, mass arrests in Southern Tagalog

Enforced disappearances

As of November 2, Karapatan documented 19 involuntary disappearances under the Duterte regime.

“There is no justice for desaparecidos under the Duterte regime, and will remain so, as long as President Duterte pets and coddles those who abducted our loved ones,” said Connie Empeño, Desaparecidos chairperson.

Read: ‘No justice under Duterte’ – kin of desaparecidos

Among the desaparecidos in the last five years, as documented by Karapatan, are Honey Mae Suazo, former secretary-general of Karapatan – Southern Mindanao Region, who disappeared in Davao Del Norte in 2019; Joey Torres, Bayan Muna Central Luzon peasant organizer, who disappeared in 2018; Davis Mogul, who disappeared in Sultan Kudarat in 2016; Maki Bail, who disappeared in Sultan Kudarat in 2016; Saypudin Rascal, who disappeared in Lanao del Sur in 2017; Lora Manipis, National Democratic Front of the Philippines consultant, who disappeared in North Cotabato in 2018;

Jeruel Domingo, who disappeared in North Cotabato in 2018; Res Sr. Hangadon, who disappeared in Agusan del Norte in 2018; Deodicto Minosa of Anakpawis, who disappeared in Aurora in 2019; Argentina Madeja, who disappeared in Samar in 2019;

Jayson Calucin, who disappeared in Quezon in 2020; John Ardi Cacao who disappeared in Quezon in 2020; and Elena Tijamo of the Farmer’s Development Center – Central Visayas, who disappeared in Cebu in 2020. Tijamo was found dead in Mandaluyong last August.

A new addition to the list is Steve Abua, a peasant organizer from Pampanga who went missing last Nov. 6.

Abua is a 34-year old peasant organizer and a University of the Philippines graduate, where he earned a statistics degree, cum laude, in 2007. He was a student activist at the time when the military kidnapped and disappeared Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan.

“Instead of calculating millions for companies in Manila, Steve used his ingenuity to help farmers and Ati in Pampanga calculate the meager income. The community then discovers that they are being deprived of their income. Aside from performing technical tasks, he also actively stands with farmers in Bataan and Pampanga in calling for free land distribution,” artists group SAKA said in a statement.

Read: Another gone missing

Read: Groups press authorities to surface peasant organizer abducted in Pampanga

His wife, Johanna, was contacted and harassed by Steve’s abductors, claiming that Steve is a member of the New People’s Army (NPA). She also received photos of her husband in blindfolds and mouth-covered to keep him muted.

On Nov. 29, Johanna penned an open letter to Vice President Leni Robredo seeking an audience with regards to her stance on NTF-ELCAC’s anti-insurgency mandate saying that, “I wish the vice president would find time to sit with me and discuss what happened to my husband. As a woman like me, I believe she would understand my plight.” Robredo has not responded to Abua’s letter as of this writing.

Read: Wife of abducted activist seeks audience with VP Leni

Illegal arrests and detention

According to Karapatan, the Philippines has a total of 712 political prisoners, 489 of whom were arrested under the Duterte administration alone, of which 133 are women, 99 are sickly, and 64 are elderly.

Red-tagged individuals and groups have been subjected to illegal arrests due to trumped-up charges and baseless accusations by state agents.

Erwin Mangampo, 42, a fisherfolk leader from Albay, Bicol was arrested in the early hours of May 30 while he was returning home from fishing. The police claimed that they found a .45 caliber pistol, magazine, and a hand grenade in Mangampo’s possession. Mangampo is the chairperson of Lakas ng Mangingisda sa Bicol (LAMBAT) and a current village councilor in the area. The fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) denounced this action stating that the reason for the arrest is the “planted evidence and fabricated charges.”

Read: Bicol fisherfolk leader arrested

Among those arrested during the ‘Bloody Sunday’ operations were Nimfa Lanzanas, 61, woman rights defender and paralegal for Karapatan; Esteban Mendoza, labor rights defender and vice president of the Kilusang Mayo Uno trade union; Elizabeth Camoral, a human rights defender and spokesperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan in Laguna; and Eugene Eugenio, a labor rights defender and member of the Rizal chapter of the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE).

These groups have been continuously red-tagged by the administration, branding them as “front organizations” and recruiters of the CPP-NPA, while tagging individual members as part of “Communist Terrorist Groups”.

Months later, 56 individuals from different progressive organizations, tagged as members of the New People’s Army, were arrested by local authorities.

In the early night of October 31, 2019, members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Western Visayas, in coordination with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (3ID), Joint Task Force-Negros, and Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office, raided the offices of groups National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), Bayan Muna Party-list, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), and Gabriela, after obtaining 4 search warrants issued by the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City.

Among those arrested were John Milton Lozande and Danny Tabura of NFSW; Noly Rosales, secretary-general of KMU; Aldrin Dela Cerna from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas-Negros (KMP-Negros); Proceso Quiatchon of Karapatan-Negros; Romulo Bito-on Jr, leader of Bayan Muna party-list, and his wife Mermalyn; Anne Kreuger of the newly established alternative media outfit Paghimutad.

Days before the crackdown, Gabriela Cordillera Council Member Beatrice “Betty” Belen was also arrested for illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Belen was a victim of red-tagging where soldiers from the area told people in Kalinga that she was working as a front of the CPP-NPA.

Last month, the police also arrested Bayan Muna Manila campaign director Ram Bautista, Manila Workers Unity secretariat member Alma Moran, and Kadamay Manila coordinator Reina Nacino.

In addition, during last year’s Human Rights Day, journalist and Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem was arrested during a series of simultaneous raids conducted by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Criminal Investigation and Detention Group (CIDG). Manila Today is one of the media outfits being red-tagged by NTF-ELCAC officials at the Senate hearing last year on Dec. 1.

“Her abduction, on Human Rights Day no less, is another proof of the dangers of the administration’s vile practice of red-tagging,” Altermidya Network said.

Read: Arrest of journalist proves anew the dangers of red-tagging – media groups

A call to defund and abolish NTF-ELCAC

Since its establishment three years ago, individuals and groups from different sectors have been calling for the abolishment of the NTF-ELCAC.

According to Palabay, the NTF-ELCAC’s ‘whole-of-nation’ strategy “operationally blurs military and civilian government functions — effectively militarizing the civilian bureaucracy — and this is reflected in the engagement of the NTF-ELCAC’s officials in red-tagging which deliberately makes no distinction between combatants and civilians in armed conflict. Red-tagging has proven to be deadly, and it has obstructed the exercise of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.”

Karapatan condemns how funds that could be used for aid and concrete pandemic response to address the socio-economic and health crisis is being allocated instead to NTF-ELCAC for the purpose of “targeting human rights defenders, journalists, critics, and anyone who stands in the way of Duterte’s de facto martial law.”

In 2021, the NTF-ELCAC received P19.1 billion, where P16.4 billion were allocated to their “Barangay Development Program (BDP),” through certain barangay projects to clear “rebel influence”. Karapatan revealed that the regions that received the highest budget in the BDP such as Davao, Caraga, Northern Mindanao, Western Visayas, and Soccsksargen were the same areas that tallied the highest number of extrajudicial killings and political arrests.

Read: NTF-ELCAC’s P19-B budget: Pork amid the pandemic?

For the upcoming year, even though the NTF-ELCAC’s fund has been slashed, progressive groups and individuals still denounce the P10 billion budget of the task force because its mandate is “setting futile ground for corruption and violations of people’s rights,” as Palabay asserted.

The call to abolish anti-people policies that lead to the surge of human rights abuses is being put as one of the electoral agendas for the upcoming national elections.

“The NTF-ELCAC should be abolished and its funds should be realigned for public health and basic social services. Furthermore, armed conflict can only be resolved by genuinely addressing its roots and striving for a lasting peace based on justice,” Palabay added. (RTS, RVO) (

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