A little-known feature of the government’s war on drugs is the enlisting of local residents as “police assets” for the purpose of identifying drug suspects, particularly in congested neighborhoods. This practice resurrects a dreaded figure from the nation’s traumatic past — the traitor who betrays his own neighbors, typically wearing a bayong (a native bag woven from buri leaves) to conceal his face, his cowardly eyes peeping through a pair of holes as he points to the individuals on the wanted list.
In the final year of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, this deplorable character — the grim personification of terror in a war-torn society that had lost its moral moorings—was called the “Makapili.” The term is a contraction of “Makabayang Kalipunan ng mga Pilipino” (Patriotic League of Filipinos), the name of a pro-Japanese organization founded by the nationalist poet Benigno Ramos.
Formed from the remnants of the earlier Sakdal and Ganap popular movements, the Makapili was, in the words of Ramos, “the creation of the Filipinos for the Filipinos in order to suppress disorder, to awaken the misguided elements, to ameliorate the food problems of the people, and to aid the Imperial Japanese forces and other Asian nations in the successful prosecution of the war.” Mostly drawn from the ranks of the poor and the least educated, the Makapilis carried in their hearts the conviction that they were fighting to free the country from the clutches of American imperial power. They were affirmed in this belief by the fact that among their leaders were veterans of the 1896 revolution and the Philippine-American War, namely Emilio Aguinaldo and Artemio Ricarte.
But, this meant that their enemy included the vast majority of Filipino patriots who continued the anti-Japanese campaign as guerrillas. The guerrillas carried the burden of prosecuting the war against the Japanese occupation army while awaiting the return of the American forces. It was a complex period. It was not always easy to tell who was friend and who was foe. Nothing was more frightening than for one’s affiliations or sympathies to be exposed by an insider who had been recruited by the enemy. That loathsome role was associated with the Makapili.
And so, even before the dust of the war had settled, the task of settling scores quickly began, zeroing in on the enemy from within who had ruthlessly betrayed fellow Filipinos and given comfort and assistance to the enemy from without. The outcome may be no different when the so-called war on drugs comes to an end. Some people may forgive the wrongs that were done to them, but they will never forget those who lived among them who were responsible for the pain and suffering inflicted on their loved ones.
Perhaps it is this basic fear of reprisal that has shaped the contours of the government’s antidrug war. As the success of the drug campaign has begun to be measured in terms of dead bodies turning up in dark alleys more than in the number of arrests being made, police raiding teams have not only taken to wearing masks, they have also begun to draw their members from places outside the jurisdiction of the local precincts.
There is an intrinsic disadvantage to deploying police killers who are not from the community. They come equipped with a list of names, but they need local informants or assets to put faces to those names.
My brother, Bishop Pablo David of the Diocese of Kalookan, where most of the recent drug-related killings, including that of Kian Loyd delos Santos, have occurred, strongly suspects that the 17-year-old Kian may have been killed for no other reason than his refusal to serve as a Makapili-style asset, a “tagaturo,” for the police raiding team that came to their neighborhood that fateful evening. Kian was not on the police’s list of drug suspects. The police took him from his family’s sari-sari store as he was closing shop for the night. They probably thought that from his strategic position as store minder, Kian would know most everyone in the vicinity. As they pulled him out of the store, they didn’t expect him to panic and resist. And so they shot him.
Others who have been recruited on the spot for the same purpose know better what to do under the circumstances. Bishop Ambo has sent me a photo (possibly taken surreptitiously from a resident’s cell phone) showing a police raiding team in plainclothes, accompanied by two young men who may have been drafted as police assets for that night’s operation.
He writes: “Here is a photograph of a group of able-bodied bonnet-clad men walking through a slum alley. With them are two younger looking boys who seem visibly nervous. One struggles to keep his mask in place, his grey t-shirt all drenched in sweat. They must have been ‘picked up’ too and pressured to come along and cooperate if they wanted to stay alive. All they had to do was to identify the persons the group was after. They must have been instructed to keep their faces covered too so they would remain anonymous.
“One can read horror in the downcast eyes of the boy in white t-shirt. He must be just a teenager. The other ‘tagaturo,’ the one in grey shirt and printed blue shorts, also with downcast eyes and a blank stare, seems to have peed in his short pants. Look closely at the picture. Who would not be horrified to perform such a task? In a way, the fate of the victims might be better than theirs. They would survive this ordeal but these kids would forever be haunted by the anguished faces of the victims they had helped identify. They would see them in their nightmares begging for pity before being shot in the head.”