How the CIA Used the Aswang to Win a War in the Philippines
It’s no secret that the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America will go to great lengths to defeat its enemies—whether at home or abroad. At the height of the Cold War in the ‘50s, they were responsible for overthrowing the government of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, rigging elections in Italy in favor of the right wing, the deposition of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, and supporting Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.
And if history has proven anything, it’s that the agency is not above using creative and often cruel (remember the waterboarding scandal?) tactics to attain its goals, one of which was to shut down rebels in the Philippines in the ‘50s.
It all goes back to World War II. The U.S. granted the Philippines independence in 1946, just 10 months after the end of World War II. But that didn’t mean ít left the Little Brown Brother of Uncle Sam alone. In fact, there was an era when the Americans were still active in post-war Philippines and all its politics.
If the Soviets were experts in disinformation campaigns, the CIA was adept in covert operations, combining psychological, cultural, and political warfare into one. And it was this type of operation that they used as a weapon in the Philippines, using none other than the mythical aswang, a vampire-like creature of Filipino folklore, against the people.
But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.
War veterans turned rebels
As the smoke cleared from the ruins of a charred Philippines in 1945, figures such as Luis Taruc gained widespread admiration as liberators of the people. A hero to the rural masses, Taruc was a guerilla leader of Hukbalahap (Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon), an organization dedicated to fighting the Japanese invaders on Philippine soil.
Once an ally to U.S. forces during the war, the Huks took up arms once again after the war when they were expelled from Congress by then President Manuel Roxas. The Huk opposed the controversial Bell Trade Act, which gave the U.S. vast control over Philippine industries and economy. Their opposition aggravated Roxas and his American allies, spurring him to outcast the Huks and inadvertently lead them to rebel against the Philippine and American governments. The Huks, once veterans of WWII, gained a notorious reputation as rebels and were blamed for the murder of Aurora Quezon, widow of former President Manuel Quezon.
However, Roxas died of a heart attack in 1948, and was replaced by Elpidio Quirino. But he was also ineffective in fighting the Huks, as his administration was marred by corruption and personal scandals. In the absence of a strong figure in national politics, it was the CIA who stepped in to do the dirty trick. And the man it had on the ground was none other than Edward Lansdale, who also coincidentally served as the most trusted confidant of Quirino’s successor, then chief of defense Ramon Magsaysay.
Armed with aswang
Straying away from conventional search and destroy tactics, the CIA thought of an ingenious strategy—to add folklore, specifically the aswang, to its coterie of propaganda weaponry. This psychological warfare took place from 1950 to 1954 in the provinces of Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and Tarlac.
Considering the rural nature of Philippine society in this epoch, belief in the aswang was strong, along with other supernatural entities such as the engkanto and the manananggal. Given the superstitious nature of Filipinos, some would argue that believing in these creatures continue to this day. Thus, the aswang became the perfect candidate for the CIA to take advantage of.
The plan was simple. A pile of dead bodies, usually deceased Huk fighters, would be left by the side of the road in a busy area in the province. And on those mangled bodies, holes were punctured to resemble animal—or aswang—bites. The terrible sight convinced anyone who came across it that it was the nighttime monsters of Filipino folklore that committed the atrocious act.
And surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the plan worked. Reports revealed that the townspeople who were once either indifferent or sympathetic to the Huk cause were undoubtedly terrified. The same pattern of holes, animal bites, and carcasses were seen across the countryside in quick succession.
“To the superstitious, the Huk battleground was a haunted place filled with ghosts and eerie creatures,” said Lansdale.
In his memoir, Lansdale recounted how they would kidnap one Huk, puncture his neck with two holes, hang his body by the heels, drain him of blood, and dump the corpse on a trail that other Huks would pass by. When the Huks discovered their dead comrade, they’d promptly pack up and relocate to a different hill.
Another tactic used by Lansdale and his team was the “eye of God,” which would be painted on a wall facing the house of suspected Huk sympathizers in the dead of night. “The mysterious presence of these malevolent eyes the next morning had a sharply sobering effect,” said Lansdale.
Psychological warfare succeeds
Together with a combination of logistical and factional problems, the Huks began to lose moral support in the areas they once held. With the psychological operation deemed successful, the search and destroy missions of the Army continued and intensified, until Luis Taruc and the majority of the Huks laid down their arms in 1954 to accept a pardon.
The CIA succeeded in its unconventional, psychological aswang operation, which could be perceived as the precedent to its infamous Project MKUltra or the CIA mind control program.
However, pockets of resistance took root in the Philippines just a few years later. Jose Maria Sison would soon form the Communist Party of the Philippines and its paramilitary wing, the New People’s Army. But that’s a story for another day.
The CIA operation played into the narrative of “Godless Communism” or perhaps it was just proof of enduring Filipino culture and folklore. Whatever the operation proved, it did show that even amid rebellions, wars, and political plots, Filipinos—past and present—are still scared shitless by aswang.
Blum, W. (1995). Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II. Common Courage Press. Maine, United States of America.
Francia, L. (2013). A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos. Abrams Books. New York, United States of America.
Kerkvliet. B. (1977). The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press. Quezon City Philippines.
Lynch, F. (1998). The Aswang Inquiry. GCF Books. Manila, Philippines.