Remember when I warned about the worrying signs that Filipino President Rodrigo “Dirty Harry” Duterte was setting up a police state, including deputizing the public to kill suspected criminals, threatening martial law if the judiciary tried to stop him and endorsing the killing of journalists? Well, to adopt the parlance of the millennial Buzzfeed set, you won’t believe what happened next!
Actually, you will believe it. The Philippines has turned into a police state.
Specifically, Duterte himself had to halt his own self-declared war on drugs earlier this week because (who could’ve guessed it?!) the Filipino police had taken it as carte blanche to go on a kidnapping, murder and theft spree. A new report on the killings alleges that the police “have behaved like the criminal underworld they are supposed to be suppressing, taking payments for killings and delivering bodies to funeral homes.” It goes on to accuse the Filipino “authorities” of a “systematic, planned and organized” campaign of killings that could constitute a crime against humanity.
As if to underscore the point, a new story broke this week of a South Korean businessmen who was killed by a gang of “rogue” police officers. Using a fake warrant, the Philippines’ finest arrested him, dragged him to the national police headquarters, strangled him to death, cremated him and flushed his remains down the toilet.
Bowing to the mounting pressure, Duterte gave a speech earlier this week to announce a dramatic change in plans. “I have ordered the police to stop all operations,” he said. “No policeman in this country anywhere is allowed to enforce laws related to the drug campaign.”
All’s well that ends well, right? I mean, you can’t make an omelette without killing 7,000 people, right? And, after all, at least the man who consciously models himself on Clint Eastwood movie characters had the sense to call an end to the program, right?
Wrong. He’s not ending his war on drugs. In fact, he’s about to make it even worse.
While Duterte is taking the national police off the drug beat, he’s instead handing the reins over to the Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency, who will be acting with the support of the military. Oh, and he’s now threatening to kill even more people and extend the drug war, originally slated to end in March, until 2022, the end of his presidential term. But don’t worry about martial law; he insists that he won’t need to declare it in order to enlist the military in his slaughter.
That a government-sanctioned death squad program has turned into a nightmare of blood, violence, criminality, corruption, mayhem and terror should surprise no one. That we are moving into an era where strong-man authoritarian thugs not only implement such programs but are increasingly lauded for it should, if not surprise, at the very least concern everyone.
I’ve seen it even in my own audience. “Maybe this is just being misrepresented by the lying fake news media,” they say. “Maybe the Philippines needs a tough-talking straight shooter like Duterte to deal with the drug problem,” they argue. Interestingly, none of the people who make these comments seem to actually live in the Philippines, so, presumably, they do not expect to deal with the consequences of Duterte’s undeclared martial law or face the prospect of jackbooted police thugs showing up in the night with a fake warrant to drive them to a holding cell and murder them.
Ask the people of El Salvador what they think of the idea of government death squads to stamp out a nascent “terror problem.” In the 1980s the Reagan administration gave support to the Salvadoran government in its civil war with a left-wing insurgency that had attempted a coup in 1979. Their method of operation, still veiled behind classification but now partially revealed and referred to as “the Salvador Option,” was to fund nationalist death squads to hunt down and kill suspected rebels and sympathizers. Numbers are not certain, but the final report of the Truth Commission set up in the wake of the slaughter concluded that “the death squads in rural areas account for a significant proportion” of the 70,000-80,000 deaths in the 12-year conflict.
Or ask the victims of the death squads in Iraq unleashed by Colonel James Steele, a veteran of the Salvador Option who oversaw the Iraqi Special Police Commandos in 2004. Recruiting Shia fighters from notorious militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army and unleashing them on Iraq’s Sunnis, this “special commando” death squad begat secret detention centers, torture and a wave of sectarian violence that had not been present in the country to that point.
Or ask the victims of the kill/capture program that spawned the Salvador Option in the first place, the Phoenix Program. As listeners to The Corbett Report over the past week will know, the Phoenix Program was the CIA-directed psychological warfare operation during the Vietnam War that pioneered the technique of terrorism-in-the-name-of-counterterrorism, which included interrogation centers, torture, and grisly assassinations of suspected Viet Cong sympathizers (i.e., anyone the Americans or South Vietnamese didn’t like).
And now Trump advisor Erik Prince has suggested reviving the Phoenix Program for use against ISIS, the terror boogeymen du jour who were created, trained, equipped and funded by the US and their allies—and who would fall instantaneously if state support were cut off. Because what could go wrong with a military death squad given free rein to identify, capture, torture and kill anyone they want in one of the most sensitive regions of the globe?
Of course, the idea that the Phoenix Program needs “reviving” is a bit of misnomer. Not only have versions of it been deployed in Honduras, El Salvador, Iraq and now Syria in various forms over the decades, it also served as the blueprint for the US’ own Department of Homeland Security. Phoenix Program researcher Douglas Valentine has an entire section on the Phoenix-DHS connection in his new book, The CIA As Organized Crime, including the modeling of the DHS’ “fusion centers” after the Phoenix intelligence and operations coordinating centers in Vietnam.
After I reported all of this earlier this week, someone bothered to email me with the one-line message: “This is what we need.”
This is 2017 in a nutshell for me (so far, at least): #MakeDeathSquadsGreatAgain.
It’s a strange line of thought for erstwhile freedom advocates to suspect that a government death squad could be the answer to our problems, but such is the renewed authoritarian age in which we’re living. People are looking for a big strong daddy government leader to come in and beat up the bad guys and make things great again. And, increasingly, it looks like that’s what they’re going to get. Well, the beating-up-people part of it, anyway. And killing. Lots and lots of killing.
And here I am in the absurd position of having to actually say that maybe, just maybe, government death squads are a bad idea. Ask the people of the Philippines.