By Perry Diaz
President Rodrigo Duterte has a plan that would counter communist assassins. It’s going to be violence vs. violence. It’s going to be an armed civilian group called the “Duterte Death Squad.” And it’s going to kill killers! Instantly, his plan sparked controversy and drew a cautious reaction from his own Defense Secretary, Gen. Delfin Lorenzana who admitted that the plan could lead to cases of abuse.
Duterte was referring to the Sparrow units of the New People’s Army (NPA) that specialize in assassinations. “Now what I don’t have is my own Sparrow,” Duterte said. “So I will create my own Sparrow. Duterte Death Squad against the Sparrow… I will match their talent also for assassinating people. They will have firearms for sure. That’s my plan,” he added. “They will do nothing but look for idlers who are prospective New People’s Army members and take them out,” he said. Kill them!
It must have shocked a lot of people including his allies. The idea was immediately shot down by Duterte’s own political ally, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, president of the President’s ruling party, PDP-Laban. “That cannot be done. I’m sure the President will not create such a squad,” Pimentel said.
Even Jose Ma. Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, has misgivings about the idea. “I think that Duterte is citing them [Sparrow units] as a pretext for organizing more death squads of the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and PNP [Philippine National Police] for the mass murder of mere suspects who are not even the target of any court warrant of arrest,” Sison said. He added, “Sparrow units, active during the martial law years, have not been operational since the 1980s.”
The use of death squads has its beginning in 1946 after World War II ended. One of the largest anti-Japanese guerilla groups was the communist Hukbo Ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon or Hukbalahap (Huks for short). With no more wars or enemies to fight, the Huks took to the hills under the leadership of Huk Supremo Luis Taruc to wage war against the fledgling government.
Under the command of then-Secretary of Defense Ramon Magsaysay, the dreaded Nenita Unit was created under Col. Napoleon Valeriano, whose main mission was to eliminate the Huks. Unconventional tactics were developed with the advisory role of U.S. Major Edward Landsdale, who was then working for the CIA. Working together with Valeriano and Magsaysay, they broke the back of the Huks in two years. With the Huks gone, the Nenita Unit was disbanded in 1950. The anti-Huk campaign propelled Magsaysay to national fame. In 1953 he ran for president against his former boss, President Elpidio Quirino, and won with the support of 68.9% of the voters.
Alex Boncayao Brigade
But that was not the end of the communist movement in the Philippines. In 1968, Jose Ma. Sison founded the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The following year, Sison and Bernabe Buscayno organized the NPA, the guerilla arm of the CPP. In 1984, after serving time in prison, Sison fled to exile in The Netherlands. He’s been there since. But he continues to act as CPP Chairman, directing the NPA from abroad.
The Sparrow units have their beginning when NPA’s Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) was created in 1984 during the martial law era. It was the urban assassination unit of the NPA. In the 1990, ABB broke away from the NPA over ideological differences.
After the ouster of Marcos in 1986, the ABB became more active in assassinating government officials. The ABB was credited with the assassinations of about 200 police officers between 1984 and 1993. The ABB acquired a reputation for viciousness and its hit men were called “Sparrow Squads” for their swiftness and skill in fleeing from the crime scenes. Typically, they operate in tandems using a motorcycle with the second man as the shooter. Due to the traffic jams that inundate the streets of Manila, a motorcycle could zig zag its way around the city; thus, avoiding capture.
In the early 1990’s the ABB was disbanded. In its place, a Sparrow-like unit was created. Known as the Special Partisan Unit (Sparu) under the NPA, it is different from the notorious “Sparrow Squad” of the defunct ABB.
According to PNP Director General Oscar Albayalde, over the last three years, there have been 136 hits on soldiers, police officers, rebel returnees, local government officials, and tribal leaders attributed to the present-day Sparu or Sparrow Unit. He said that they are usually based in rural areas, unlike the former Sparrow Squad who were based in urban areas. [Source: INQUIRER.net, Dec. 3, 2018]
Davao Death Squad
Duterte’s plan has similarity to the Alta Masa and Davao Death Squad, two vigilante groups that were active in fighting lawless elements in Davao City when Duterte served as mayor for two decades ago.
In the 1980s, Davao was known as the “Murder Capital of the Philippines.” Alta Masa was credited for fighting the NPA while the Davao Death Squad was responsible for fighting illegal drugs and criminality. Duterte took credit for cleaning up the city of crime. More than 1,000 were killed as a result of his anti-crime crusade.
In the late 1960s to the 1970s, Tarlac politicians formed a paramilitary group called “Monkees” to fight the NPA, who were called “Beatles” because of their long hair. So, it became a fight between the Monkees vs. the Beatles. Instead of guitars, they used guns. But due to negative publicity, the Monkees were disbanded.
In 1987, the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) militia was created. CAFGU is an irregular auxiliary force of the AFP. CAFGU units are tasked to prevent the re-infiltration of communist insurgents into the villages that have already been cleared of their influence by combat operations conducted by regular units of the AFP. The CAFGU units are armed with weapons and receive monthly stipends. They seem to be effective in keeping the villages safe.
Last February 2018, Duterte reportedly cautioned rebel returnees against going back to their hometowns. Instead he suggested they should join the CAFGU. “I suggest that you stay with the Armed Forces and be a CAFGU. You should be given that first so that you can go back to your hometown. You can’t go back to the mountains anymore unless you kill them all,” Duterte told 238 rebel returnees at a merienda he hosted in Malacanang. He also promised to provide them and their children free education and training, especially since “there is a scarcity of skilled workers even in Manila” for the government’s massive infrastructure program.
And this begs the question: Why doesn’t Duterte expand the CAFGU to integrate the “Duterte Death Squad” mission that he had in mind? By doing so, he’ll avail of the nationwide network and operational structure of CAFGU, which are already in existence since 1987. CAFGU works. Why reinvent the wheel when all Duterte has to do is make it stronger?
Simply put, there is no reason to create the “Duterte Death Squad.” President Duterte has enough firepower to fight the communists. Unless, he was only joking when he said he would create the “Duterte Death Squad.” Like they say in the streets of Manila, “Dyok only.”