Shortly after taking office as President of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte made his now infamous vow to cleanse his country of the drug menace, the same promise he made during his fierce campaign during of the last few months. “When I become president,” Duterte had said at a campaign meeting, “I will order the police to find these people (involved in drugs) and kill them. Funeral homes will be packed. In September 2016, he made an even more chilling announcement: “Hitler has slaughtered three million Jews…there are three million drug addicts…I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
And he kept his word. During his six-year tenure between 2016 and the start of this year, thousands of people were killed across the country in controversial encounters. Hundreds of people were shot dead by masked gunmen, part of a rogue force formed to wipe out any suspects. Along with suspected mobsters and drug addicts – deprived of any chance of a fair trial – even ordinary civilians who had nothing to do with drugs were caught in the crossfire and killed. While its promise to sanitize society was initially endorsed by the electorate, the state’s human rights abuses made people realize that unbridled use of force without judicial oversight could wreak havoc in the country. Duterte did not contest this year’s election.
This is just one example of governments or law enforcement agencies using their powers as a weapon. Extrajudicial encounters and executions are commonplace and death squads continue to operate in many countries. Often it is with the connivance of governments, sometimes a rogue police or army unit carries out these actions without the knowledge of the authorities for personal reasons and justifies them in self-defense. Often authorities resort to such tactics when faced with threats from within the ruling apparatus. Dictatorships, authoritarian governments as well as immature democracies are often guilty of atrocities against their own citizens. Not that advanced democracies are always an exception. In the United States, at the heart of the liberal democratic order, racial bias among white police against black people continues unabated. Officers are trigger-happy when dealing with black people. The George Floyd incident that rocked America and the world was just one of many in a long line of targeted killings of African Americans. Thus, human rights violations occur in both dictatorships and elected democracies.
Closer to home, encounter killings were a specialty in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and were used by the United National Party (UNP) government against Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgents who posed a threat to the ruling party, with the LTTE. . Faced with a huge challenge, the UNP ruthlessly crushed the JVP. Take the case of a 16-year-old schoolboy in Matara, a champion gymnast arrested by the police for participating in a demonstration organized by the JVP. While he was in prison, the police assured his parents that he would soon be released. They were allowed to bring him homemade food. The parents formed a relationship with the station officer and were repeatedly assured that he would be released as soon as the formalities were completed. Three months passed and he was still in jail. One morning there was a loud knock on their door. A stranger was outside to inform them that in the early morning bodies had been dumped in the village square and burned with kerosene-soaked rubber tires. Some of them were prisoners from the local jail. The father ran to the site to find that one of them was his son. He pulled the half-burned body of his teenage son from the pyre, wrapped him in a sheet and took him home. The local police had played poorly or were perhaps under political pressure. The end result was the same: an innocent young man had become a victim. The burning of the village square was deliberately done to send the message that anyone who dared side with the JVP would suffer a similar fate.
In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte made a chilling announcement: “Hitler killed three million Jews…there are three million drug addicts…I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
The brutality of the forces of the democratically elected government was once again on full display at Sri Lanka’s famous Peradeniya University. The severed heads of 18 students have been laid around Alwis Pond on campus in one of the most gruesome displays of police brutality. It was in retaliation for the killing of an assistant university clerk by suspected JVP gunmen. Unlike in the north, where people kept track of the death toll, in the south no one can say for sure how many were killed. Figures range from 13,000 to 30,000 suspected supporters as well as JVP leaders. Journalist and human rights activist Richard de Zoysa was abducted from his home by a special police team in February 1990. He was tortured and killed, and his body thrown into the sea. the following day. After JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was killed in 1989, the movement died out. The current version of the JVP has renounced violence and is contesting the elections.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Latin America was known for its killing sprees and murder squads deployed against opponents of military dictators. Many right-wing dictators were backed by the United States. It was at the height of the Cold War and the fight against communist ideology was at the center of American foreign policy. In the process, Washington has supported murderous regimes that have committed large-scale human rights abuses against their own people across South America.
One of the worst cases occurred in Chile when socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the CIA. The ensuing reign of terror against Allende’s supporters remains a black chapter in the country. Chilean army death squads, dubbed the “Caravan of Death”, flew from prison to prison across the country and killed prisoners believed to be supporters of Allende’s socialist regime. Often, senior generals led kill squads themselves. The prisoners were first tortured, beaten and their eyes gouged out, their limbs broken and left for dead. The idea was to have each victim die a slow death to send the message to the general public that anyone who opposed the Pinochet regime would meet a similar fate. Reports from the time quote prison authorities saying they were unable to return the bodies as they were unrecognizable with every bone broken. Many were buried in unmarked graves.
Military dictators from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay came together in a plan dubbed Operation Condor to oppose the communists. Death squads from these countries were allowed to operate in each other’s territories – to kidnap, torture and kill political opponents, many of whom had fled their homelands to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Granting easy access to the death squads helped eliminate hundreds of people opposed to the military regime. Operation Condor was dreamed up by Pinochet, the dictator backed by US President Richard Nixon.
These are just a few of the many cases, but unfortunately the encounters, death squads and disappearances continue to this day in various parts of the world.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Caravans of Death”)