3,257: Fact checking the Marcos killings, 1975-1985


3,257 is the number of people alleged to have been killed by the military during President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, specifically over the ten-year period from 1975 to 1985. This widely quoted figure is frequently cited to support the argument that the military under Marcos was guilty of committing gross human rights violations, and that terror and brutality distinguished martial rule. With the return to political prominence of key members of the dictator’s family, especially his son, Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos, who is currently seeking the vice-presidency, the accuracy of the 3,257 figure is now being fiercely disputed. Serious doubt has lately been cast on the sources of the figure while, more generally, the data on torture, killings and disappearances are denounced as fabricated or exaggerated.

How was this number reached and just how credible are the sources?

The man credited for first bringing the figure to public attention is Alfred W. McCoy, an American historian. McCoy is an eminent professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published extensively on the colonial and post-colonial history of state repression, the military, and policing in the Philippines. The 3,257 figure appears in two major books authored by McCoy – A Question of Torture (2006), and Policing America’s Empire (2009). In the latter work, McCoy describes in detail how martial law enabled Philippine police and military forces to operate with impunity and engage in systemic human rights abuses. On page 403, he writes: “Under Marcos military murder was the apex of a pyramid of terror with 3,257 killed, an estimated 35,000 tortured, and some 70,000 arrested.”

Trained historians cite their sources. McCoy’s sources are referenced in note number 26 on page 618. They are: the New York Times dated 11/10/1986; Richard J. Kessler, Rebellion and Repression in the Philippines (1989) and Philippines: testimonies on human rights violations(1986). In the note, McCoy explains the method by which he obtained the number. He writes: “To reach the figure of 3,257 killed under Marcos, Kessler’s enumeration for 1975-85 is supplemented by adding 93 more ‘extrajudicial killings’ in 1984 from data in Rev. La Verne D. Mercado and Sr. Mariani C. Dimaranan’s Philippines: testimonies…[page]89.”

McCoy draws from a table that appears on page 137 in Kessler’s book.The table is titled ‘Human Rights Violations in the Philippines, 1975-1988’. The table has four columns. The first column gives the years, the second shows the number of arrests, the third the number of disappearances, and the fourth the number of extrajudicial killings. The numbers shown under each category corresponds to each year in question.

McCoy’s 3,257 figure is the result of simple maths. He adds up the number of disappearances recorded each year from 1975 to 1985. This produces a total of 737. The same is done for extrajudicial killings. This gives a total of 2,427. He then turns to the Testimonies book which states that, in 1984, the number of “salvagings,” a word that came to be defined as the “summary or extrajudicial execution of individuals by military or paramilitary forces of the government,” was finally tallied at 538 ie. 93 more than indicated in the table shown by Kessler for the same year.

We are now ready to do the sum:

737 (disappearances) + 2,427 (salvagings) + 93 = 3,257

Skeptics accuse McCoy of using data from biased non-academics. But McCoy’s principal source — Kessler in fact obtained his figures from Task Force Detainees Philippines (TFDP), drawing in particular on the monthly issues of Philippine Human Rights Update for the years covered.

The TFDP was established in 1974 by the well-known and highly regarded Catholic body, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) (http://www.tfdp.net/). Among the Association’s many objectives is the promotion of good governance and the provision of “moral and spiritual support” to whistleblowers who stand up against the graft and corruption of government officials (http://www.amrsp.ph/what-we-do/).

The Testimonies book is composed of affidavits, testimonies, and witness accounts from people all over the Philippines who knew murdered and disappeared victims, or were victims themselves of torture and illegal arrest. These accounts were brought together by the Black Book Project Committee convened by the Reverend La Verne D. Mercado, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and Sister Mariani C. Dimaranan, Chair of the TFDP. The collection and compilation of the accounts were the result of a collaborative effort undertaken by several human rights organizations, including Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), Human Rights Desk of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP).

Any historian or journalist worth their salt questions and tests the veracity and accuracy of sources. However, it seems to me that those who doubt the figure of 3,257, and aim to discredit the sources by which it was reached, have motives other than trying to get at the truth. Not only do they distort history, they insult the memory of those thousands of people who were savagely killed.

3,257 is a number that chills the blood.


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  1. Marcos Sr is already dead… if these numbers were true..Ramos and Enrile is still alive and kicking..so why the 2 Aquino Administrations together with HRA did not initiate an investigation on them with their involvement and respective positions at that time. Most Oppositions are barking at the wrong tree…the young Marcos…WHY?….. is it because it’s Election Time?…

  2. Any attempt to malign Marcos now is too late and futile. First, you can’t fool people now because compared 30 years ago, people are more educated. Second, internet has given wide access of information to people and the exchange of ideas have become fast. Thus the technique of maligning Marcos that used to work 30 years ago can no longer work to this age. Before your writing, a lot of younger Filipinos have learned the truth; before your writing a lot of people who joined the communist revolution and EDSA Revolution have already turned around because 30 years had passed but nothing good came out of it. People can now wisely compare Marcos to other Presidents and the only result is to revere the good President. Who believes such statistics coming from the leftist organizations? You must remember, even the Catholics including their Priest have actually joined the NDF and even to the point of joining the communist guerilla at that time. Sorry but with this article you lost your credibility! What a shame!

  3. Matalino ka o nagbobohn lang. your data is from foreigners and tried in foreign courts…………………………..ALLegedly and u seemed like assuming to be true. Unbelievable people!

  4. As I have written so many times, if quo rhee wanted to have justice for all the “victims” of martial law, why didn’t she obtained all those activity report or logs of all military and police units upon assumption of office? Any police deployment, order or operation has a report or log and all of these were available in 1986. Then, she could have identified the members of the arresting team that got Hilao, Edjop, Eman or Billy and a host of other persons that were reported as “victims”. She can not just summarily accuse Mr. Marcos to have committed all those torture, detention and arrests without factual basis. Otherwise, what is to stop people from accusing beneegno of murder from what happened in Kidapawan or Mamasapano? Even today, there must be a list of all the police who were deployed in Kidapawan on that particular day and specific hour.

    In fact, if she believed that the conviction of benigno jr. was unjust, why didn’t she re-ordered a reinvestigation and even went further got the report of all the members of the arresting team who arrested him at the 16/F of the Manila Hotel and who raided their house at Times St. that yielded an armory that led to his conviction for illegal possession of firearms and have those people charged for illegal detention?

  5. Let’s not even argue where this writer got her data, she is BIASED ..PERIOD. She has nothing to write so the best articles that draws attention are those of the Marcoses. It’s not even accurate. It has been over 30 years, go and do some more research, widen your knowledge and gather fresh ideas. No matter what you say MARCOS was the best president we ever had and the son BONGBONG will continue his father’s good deeds.

  6. “3,257 is a number that chills the blood”.
    Did it ever occur to you to ask Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, the designated Martial Law administrator, or former President Fidel Ramos, who was PC Chief then, what happened? Something’s wrong when you try driving a connection between Bongbong Marcos ànd “a number that chills the blood” but nothing to say about these two personalities having been conveniently ignored in the blame throwing. When the true motive becomes apparent, you lose credibility.

  7. Amnata Pundit on

    Do you have names corresponding to these numbers? Without verified names your claims are just propaganda. On the other hand, there are names of the people who were killed and wounded in the Plaza Miranda bombing that your Ninoy Aquino accused Marcos of masterminding. The fact is that the enemies of Marcos led by your Ninoy Aquino were engaged in sedition, subversion and rebellion although of course to them these were a mere exercise of their democratic rights. When the state defended itself through Marcos, the enemies of the state called it repression and a violation of their human rights. By bombing Plaza Miranda and blaming it on Marcos, they pushed FM into a corner. When he fought back, they postured as if they were the victims. Admit it, the lies against Marcos are starting to unravel.

  8. Please check your source as your columnist Mr. Tiglao who during those days is a member of the underground movement, refuted Mr. Macoy figures and likewise his credibility. Likewise you and your group should petition to Pnoy to request the declassification of the US regime change program targeting President Marcos. Pnoy should make an official request to the Congress of the US and the White House. The 30 years limitation for non-disclosure of this confidential file has already lapse and the disclosure can be obtained by our government upon request. This will stop all your nonsense speculations and vilifications and the truth will come out that most of these charges you cite are all lies peddled by the US through their networks in the country which is usually the civil societies,NGO’s the church and some media practitioners to destabilize and bring about the regime change of the Marcos admnistraton as what the US did in Georgia, Ukraine, Egypt. Iraq, Libya and presently in Syria and Afghanistan.

  9. Ms RR ur rport is surely one sided. Instd of reading the books of mcCoy,Paul Hutch croft both americans with dubious back grounds…U did not mention data from a. Amnesty international: salvaging n torture inin 1973 til end ML 1981, victims would NOT reach 300..in May 1975 only 6,000 remained in detention, 1980 to 1,931 and dropped further to 344 in 1981…b. data from Command for Adm of Detainees under commander FVRamos, AFP COS genRomeoEspino& DND usec for civilian affairs:CarmeloBarbero&Jose Crisol provided similar data…c. presFM speech marking lifting of ML on Jan 1981, said more than 8,800 0fficers n men had been dismissed from AGO during ML period for various offenses including torture& I’ll treatment of Detainees.. msRR these are facts U& other Marcos haters hide from d public…. zl

    • the data being mentioned includes those killed as armed partisans of the npa/ndf. they are fighting the gov’t forces. what do you want the soldiers do, just let them kill the soldiers???

  10. Madam, for fairness and balance sake could you also tell how many persons got killed and missing during the regime of Tita Cory? How many people got killed and missing during the regime of GMA? How many people got killed and missing during the regime of Benigno Aquino III? IF YOU CANNOT, then you are a very BIASED writer whose agenda of writing this kind of piece (which has been retold and rehashed for the last 3 decades already) IS TO DERAIL BONGBONG MARCOS’ march to Malacanang. BBM is not yet running for the highest position but it seems you and the LP (Lapiang Pork) are already in PANIC MODE about the BBM’s continued rise to popularity. Tsk tsk tsk.

  11. Madam, for fairness and balance sake could you also tell how many persons got killed and missing during the regime of Tita Cory? How many people got killed and missing during the regime of GMA? How many people got killed and missing during the regime of Benigno Aquino III? IF YOU CANNOT, then you are a very BIASED writer whose agenda of writing this kind of piece (which has retold and rehashed for the last 3 decades already) IS TO DERAIL BONGBONG MARCOS’ march to Malacanang. BBM is not yet running fort he highest position but it seems you and the LP (Lapiang Pork) are already in PANIC MODE about the BBM’s continued rise to popularity. Tsk tsk tsk.

    • Alex Eufemio on

      also please check with Senator Enrile & former President who both were responsible for insurgency control as Defense Minister and Chief Constabulary & pIP then. Refer to your colleague Mr Tiglao who himself was incarcerated by the 2 then. Thanks for finally giving a real account

  12. Too little, too late. Arguing the numbers is irrelevant. To paraphrase Stalin, the death of a single man is a tragedy: the death of a million is a statistic. In a mature democracy, one death would bring down a prime minister, or a president. Not in the Philippines. To make it matter, you must have a conviction of as many as are responsible. One by one. A trail must be held for the accused, and he must be convicted. Not 3,257 trials, just as many trials as there are accused. One death, one conviction. Therein lies justice. Filipinos do not have faith in their justice system, as a result of the “forgive and forget” attitude following martial law. Same needed to be done for the plundering that occurred.
    Unless it is as extensive, exhaustive, and as well executed as the Nuremberg trials, holding anyone accountable for the 1)Human rights issues; 2)Financial and economic damage of martial law is wasted effort. It is too late.
    The Phil will have to live on without the benefit of learning from the Martial Law years. Lost opportunity, never to be regained.
    Lessons to be learned from “forgiving and forgetting” Martial Law? 1)No one went to prison for misdeeds of martial law. The youth now perceive that “it couldn’t have been that bad, no one was imprisoned”. 2)Present economic conditions related to martial law, can’t be reversed. This is a consequence of “forgiving” the misdeeds.The present oligarchs did not “forget” how Marcos’ misdeeds made money. It is now used a as a template (by the oligarchs) for a “get even richer, quicker” form of government.
    Bottom line, Cory Aquino was no Margaret Thatcher. She was from a oligarch family, a widow, voted into office by emotional Filipinos. We got what we asked for. Ramos was a soldier, with oligarchs for friends… We continue to get what we deserve. Maybe one day, a idealistic, nationalistic, patriotic, person, who despises oligarchs, is elected President. But that is highly improbable, as nationalistic, patriotic, idealistic are words used by a politician, but seldom believed or lived by said politician. And don’t forget, politicians love oligarchs…because that’s where the money is.

  13. Check the facts on police blotter or court records regarding missing or killed during those time, but can we blame everything to Marcos, as communists insurgents kill their own comrades as well when they violated their own rules…!!Foreign journalist estimate and you believed him, wow!! fantastic