Thailand earned a well-deserved measure of international opprobrium last year when it noisily embarked on a bloody war against Thai drug users and traders). Thailand's fellow Southeast Asian republic, the Philippines, is trying a different tack. While it, too, has embarked on a loudly proclaimed war on drugs and drug users, its own publicly recognizable police agents have not engaged in their mass murder. Instead, the Philippines government is leaving the killing to shadowy death squads, providing the government with a patina of deniability even as the death toll rises. According to local press tallies, vigilante killers in Davao murdered 97 people last year, and the pace has picked up this year, with more than 30 killed so far.
Beginning on January 17, US Special Forces began a joint counter-narcotics training exercise with the AFP, PDEA, and PNP called Baker-Piston 05-1, according to press releases from US and Philippine military commands. And this week, according to the Manila Bulletin, the PDEA announced that Davao City is about to receive "high technology drug detection devices" courtesy of the DEA as part of that agency's ongoing cooperation with its Filipino counterparts in the region.
The joint training operation is being conducted by the US Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF-West), and according to a Filipino military press release, "will deliver land-oriented counter-drug training in such topics as: counter-drug patrolling techniques, building entry techniques, clandestine lab safety procedures, Philippines legal issues, human rights awareness training, rifle and pistol marksmanship and combat lifesaving."
"The common goal is to wage war on drugs and make communities safer," Lt. Col. Agane Adriatico, Filipino army's chief of the 5th Civil Relations Group for Southern Mindanao, said in a statement announcing the exercise.
The US is keeping a decidedly low profile on both the DEA and the military actions. A DEA spokesman in Washington contacted by DRCNet deferred any comment to the US Embassy in Manila, but despite repeated calls to the Embassy Wednesday and Thursday, press officers were either "out at lunch" or "unavailable" to take the calls, according to an embassy receptionist. The embassy has not returned the calls despite most likely being done with lunch by now. Similarly, DRCNet attempts to get US military comment on the human rights implications of the joint training exercises were themselves an exercise in futility, as we were bounced from the Pentagon to the South Pacific Command in Hawaii to Camp Aguinaldo in the Philippines to a mysterious and unresponsive "Commander Betti" somewhere in cyberspace. (He has a State Department email address.)
A Camp Aguinaldo "Public Affairs Guidance" inadvertently released to DRCNet helps explain why. "The public affairs posture for Baker Piston 05-1 counter-narcotics training is active" for Philippine agencies, but "the US public affairs posture will be passive, directing all inquiries" to the corresponding Philippine agencies, the guidance said. "It is important to preempt opposition media and opposition groups by adopting the following strategy: provide full disclosure of accurate information in advance of the training. Additionally, liberal use of local key communicators to advocate US/RP communications goals is encouraged."
The Public Affairs Guidance also thoughtfully provided a series of talking points for spokespersons to help them stay on message:
This is joint exchange training with a common goal to wage war on drugs and bring peace and stability to Philippine communities.And it included warnings about "Message/Misperceptions to Avoid:"
The appearance that coordination with the local government did not occur or was not a concern.And last but not least, it included a handy series of questions and answers, including:
Q: What type of exchange training is Baker Piston 05-1?Despite the US taxpayer-funded PR effort, the deployment of US troops to Davao has caused concern and suspicion among sectors of the Philippine population already leery of a US troop presence there linked to the "war on terror." But such concerns have carried little weight with the strongly pro-American government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The joint anti-drug exercises and gifts of anti-drug equipment to Davao drug fighters comes as the city is suffering from a bout of death squad killings ostensibly aimed at drug users and the drug trade. (There is some indication that some of the killings may have been directed at political foes or personal enemies of local authorities, who can both eliminate their foes and sully their names as presumed druggies at the same time.) Last Saturday, five people were killed by the death squads, bringing the total for the month so far to 32, according to Philippine press reports. In each case, unknown gunmen attacked and executed the victims on city streets.
As usual, no one has been arrested in the latest killings. As DRCNet has previously reported, the death squads are widely linked to hard-line Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who barely bothers to deny the connection. But while Duterte plays the role of anti-drug strong man, he has not been condemned for condoning, if not initiating, the death squad killings. Instead, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo praised Duterte's anti-drug stance as recently as early this month.
On January 3, President Arroyo hailed Duterte for his "all-out war against drugs" and cited the killing "with extreme prejudice" of six suspects allegedly killed in a New Year's Eve shootout with police. Arroyo singled out Duterte for taking the lead among local government officials to boost the national campaign against illegal drugs in the country. The bloody-handed Duterte had already won favor from Arroyo for his "tough on crime" program, and last month she named him to head the Anti-Terror Watch against Muslim insurgents in the south after a bombing attack in General Santos City on December 12.
While by its very nature, Duterte's exact connection with the death squads remains unclear, he has been criticized repeatedly by Filipino and international human rights organizations and activists for the killings. As the Philippine Human Rights Commission pointed out in a harsh critique of vigilante killings in 2002, Duterte publicly told a crime summit at the Manila Hotel in July of that year: "Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs."
"The practice of summary or extra-judicial executions which also results in disappearance is violative of human rights," the Human Rights Commission noted in a policy paper issued shortly thereafter. "Summary execution, disappearance or 'salvaging,' a term coined by the military for liquidating or disposing of an individual who is considered a threat to national security or public order, is condemned by the domestic and international human rights community as a grave violation of human rights and that the systematic practice thereof is of the nature of a crime against humanity. Summary execution or 'salvaging' is arbitrary in the sense that it is done without fair, solid and substantive cause, that is, without cause based on law."
Last August, Amnesty International mentioned Duterte by name in a letter to President Arroyo criticizing the death squad killings. Duterte bitterly attacked the respected human rights organization in a diatribe whose scandalousness was rivaled only by its lack of geographical knowledge. Saying that Amnesty was a Scandinavian-based organization -- its headquarters are in London -- he then added, "Denmark, Belgium and other countries in the Scandinavian region are known to be the hub of pedophile activity. They should first check on that before checking on us." Duterte failed to mention that the Philippines are also a hub of "pedophile activity." Amnesty had no right to meddle in the city's affairs, he added, especially in dealing with criminal behavior. "This is our problem, and we will solve it my way," he said.
But local progressive activists in Davao City have first-hand information and plenty to say about the murders. In a statement issued last week, the Bayan (People's) movement lashed out against the killings, saying the murders were a means of conditioning people to the idea that just gunning down suspected drug users or petty criminals was acceptable. "Such mechanism was reportedly used to solve the drug-and-crime problems in the society by sowing fear in local communities and nearby provinces," the statement added.
That authorities have been unable (or unwilling) to make a single arrest signals that the killing have official sanction, Bayan said. "While the number of summary execution victims continue to rise, the defense arm of both the national and local governments like the PNP, the TFD (Task Force Davao) and the AFP remain useless as they capture not even one of the perpetrators. Their inutility and tolerance only adds proof that summary killings in the region are state-sponsored," the statement said. The group added that summary executions have become a way to eliminate progressive leaders and movement members.
The movement's concern was echoed by its allied political party, Bayan Muna (People First), which party members described to DRCNet as a "progressive, multi-sectoral political party," some of whose national elected officials are former members of the Communist New People's Army. In a statement from Rep. Joel Virador, the party attacked on principle the holding of joint exercises with the US. "Bayan Muna expresses our party's firm opposition to the conduct of joint RP military exercises not only in Davao City where I reside, but in any part of the country. The holding of such exercises, as our party representatives on many occasions have stood on this floor to point out, is an infringement on national sovereignty. The holding of such exercises flagrantly violates the explicit constitutional ban on the entry of troops in the country," said Virador.
"More importantly -- and I raise this especially as a Mindanaoan -- the exercises place the lives of ordinary citizens in grave peril as some of these are held in communities, as was the case of civilian Arsid Baharon who was 'accidentally shot' by a US soldier last June 21 in Zamboanga City," Virador continued. "These exercises in the island also invite armed confrontations from Muslim separatist groups which, again, will endanger residents' lives. Again, Bayan Muna strongly says no to RP-US joint military exercises in the country. These joint exercises only demonstrate continued foreign intervention especially on crucial issues of national defense and security, and lays claim to the country as America's 'second front' on the war against terror. The Philippines is a sovereign country that must place national interest above all. Much remains to be seen how this can ever be realized under the present administration."
The Special Forces do have a human rights component in the exercise, but even before Abu Ghraib observers might have been forgiven if that fact was not sufficiently reassuring. Meanwhile, the killings continue, the Philippine media treats them as facts of life, and the Philippine government turns a blind eye to the criminality in its midst.