International

Encounter Killings: Death Squads Continue To Operate In Many Countries

South Asia has a particularly blood-soaked record of extrajudicial killings as State-sponsored hit squads are always at work, taking out political opponents and critics

Encounter Killings: Death Squads Continue To Operate In Many Countries
info_icon

Shortly after assuming office as the President of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte pronounced his now-infamous vow to cleanse his country of the drug men­ace, the same promise he had made during his high-pitched campaign over the previous few months. “When I become president,” Duterte had said at a campaign meet, “I will order the police to find those people (involved in drugs) and kill them. The funeral parlours will be packed.” In September 2016, he made an even more chilling announcement, “Hitler massacred 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 term between 2016 to earlier this year, thousands of people were killed across the country in controversial encounters. Hundreds were gunned down by masked gunmen, part of a rogue force formed to wipe out all suspects. Besides suspected drug mafia and drug users—denied any chance of a fair trial—even ordinary civilians who had nothing to do with drugs were caught in the crossfire and killed. While his promise to clean up society was initially approved by the electorate, the human rights abuse by the state made people realise that unbridled use of force without the supervision of the judiciary could wreak havoc on the country. Duterte did not contest this year’s elections.

His is but just one example of governments or law-enforcement agencies using their powers as a weapon. Encounters and extrajudicial killings 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 it as self-defence. Often authorities res­ort to such tactics while dealing with internal thr­eats to the ruling dispensation. Dictatorships, aut­horitarian governments as well as immature democracies are often guilty of committing atrocities against their own citizens. Not that advanced democracies are always an exception. In the US, the heart of the liberal democratic order, racial prejudice within the White police force against Blacks continues unabated. Officers get trigger-­happy when dealing with Blacks. The George Flo­yd incident which shook America and the world was just one of the many cases in a long line of targeted killings of African Americans. So, human rights abuse happens both in dictatorships and elected democracies.

info_icon
Death zone Police inspect the body of yet another victim of a suspected encounter killing in Manilla. Photo: Getty Images

Nearer home, encounter killings were a specialty in Sri Lanka in the late ’80s and used by the United National Party (UNP) government against insurgents of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that posed a threat to the ruling party—along with the LTTE. Faced with a massive challenge, the UNP crushed the JVP ruthlessly. Take the case of a 16-year-old school boy in Matara, a champion gymnast who was picked up by police for taking part in a protest organised by the JVP. While he was in jail, the officers ass­ured his parents that he would be released soon. They were allowed to bring him home-cooked food. The parents developed a rapport with the station officer and were repeatedly assured that he would be set free as soon as the formalities were completed. Three months went by and he was still in jail. One morning, there was a loud banging on their door. A stranger was outside to inf­orm them that in the early hours of the mor­­ning some bodies had been dumped in the village square and were being burnt with rubber tyres soaked in kerosene. 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 out the half-burnt body of his teenage son from the pyre, wrapped him in a sheet and carried him home. The local police had played dirty or perhaps they were under political pressure. The end result was the same: an innocent young man had become a victim. The burning in the village square was deliberately done to send the message that anyone daring to side with the JVP would meet 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 by forces of the democratically-elected government was again on full display in Sri Lanka’s well-known Peradeniya University. The severed heads of 18 students were arranged around the Alwis Pond within the campus in one of the most macabre displays of police brutality. This was the retaliation to the gunning down of an assistant registrar of the university by suspected JVP gunmen. Unlike in the north, where people kept track of the numbers of dead, in the south no one can say for certain how many were killed. Figures range from 13,000 to 30,000 of suspected supporters as well as JVP leaders. Journalist and human right activist Richard de Zoysa was kidnapped from his home by a special squad of the police in February 1990. He was tortured and killed, and his body dumped at sea. It washed ashore the next day. After JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was killed in 1989, the movement fizzled out. Today’s version of the JVP has renounced violence and contests elections.

Latin America

During the ’70s and ’80s, Latin American was notorious for encounter killings and murder squads deployed against those opposed to military dictators. Many of the right-wing dictators were supported by the US. This was during the height of the Cold War and fighting Com­munist ideology was the focus of American foreign policy. In the process, Washington supported murderous regimes that committed largescale human rights abuse on their own people across South America.

One of the worst cases was in Chile when socialist President Salvador Allende was deposed in a military coup in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the CIA. The reign of terror that followed against supporters of Allende remains a black chapter in the country. Chilean army death squads, nicknamed the ‘caravan of death’, flew from prison to prison across the country and killed prisoners assumed to be supporters of Allende’s Socialist regime. Often, senior generals would themselves lead the kill squads. Prisoners were first tortured, beaten and eyes gorged out, their limbs broken and left to die. The idea was to make each victim die a slow death to send the message across to the larger public that anyone opposing the Pinochet regime would meet a similar fate. Reports of the time quote jail authorities as saying that they were not in a position to return the bodies as they were unrecognisable with every bone broken. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

Military dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay got together under a plan codenamed 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 homeland to take shelter in neighbouring countries. Granting easy access to the death squads helped to wipe out hundreds of people opposed to military rule. Ope­ra­tion Condor was the brainchild of Pinochet, the dictator supported by US President Richard Nixon.

These are but  a few of the many instances, but sadly, 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")

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement