Despite massacre, private armies may be here to stay

Private armies in the traditional sense have been part of the Philippine political landscape for many generations. However, the long years of martial law and AFP efforts to create "force multipliers" against the communist-led and Moro-led insurgencies have left their own scars on this landscape.

When Corazon Aquino was swept into power after the downfall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, her government banned private armed groups but created CAFGUs and CVOs. These paramilitary or militia units were needed for counter-insurgency operations. But at the same time, they created new forms of private armies, wearing uniforms and wielding guns supplied by the government itself.

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The morphing of private armies

Meanwhile, during Mrs. Aquino’s presidency, in 1988, the number of PAGs was reported at about 1,000 groups with 512,678 guns—or an average of two battalions or a small brigade per group. The Marcos military machine might have subsumed but could not fully eradicate private armies in their traditional form.

Since then, official figures showed the number and total strength of PAGs going down considerably. One problem, however, is that the official tally of PAGs has been changing. Another is that authorities refuse to publicize the list.

In December 2009, then Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales estimated at least 132 private armed groups led by politicians in various parts of the country, mostly in Mindanao, with a combined strength of around 10,000 armed men. He did not identify the political clans. (See: 132 private armed groups exist nationwide - DND chief)

When the Independent Commission Against Private Armies (ICAPA), or the Zeñarosa Commission, started its work in January 2010, then PNP chief Jesus Verzosa said that in their last “validation process," 68 groups have already been confirmed as PAGs: 25 in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and 43 elsewhere.

Verzosa said that the total number could reach as high as 170, as they were “still verifying" 102 other private groups suspected of possessing firearms: 77 groups within the ARMM, and 25 groups in other regions.

Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner, who was then AFP spokesman, said the 68 validated PAGs’ identities could not be revealed until the validation process is completed, since “other groups might say we are being unfair."

Meanwhile, the strength of legally-mandated CAFGUs and CVOs have gone up.

Did the number of PAGs seem to fall because many groups simply went legal, morphing into CAFGUs and CVOs?

As ICAPA chair Zeñarosa said on May 5, as quoted by the Human Rights Watch report: “[Local governments] create civilian armed groups, thereby providing a cloak of legitimacy to the action of these groups who are presumed to be acting in accordance with their official duties, when more often than not they simply do the bidding of their political godfathers."

The ICAPA recommendations

According to Human Rights Watch, the ICAPA submitted a report to President Arroyo entitled “A Journey Towards H.O.P.E." dated May 5, 2010. This has not been made public, either by Mrs. Arroyo or her successor President Aquino.

Retired Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan, one of the commission’s members, confirmed to GMANews.TV that the Zeñarosa body did complete its work by June 30. Copies of its confidential report were given to the new AFP and PNP chiefs, to Justice Sec. Leila de Lima and to the Commission on Elections.

Adan clarified that the ICAPA’s tasks were merely fact-finding and recommendatory. "The commission is not the dismantler," he said, since the work of disbanding PAGs still falls on the shoulders of law enforcers.

Adan showed GMANews.TV a copy of the 111-page report, but explained that he has no authority to make its contents public. However, he provided a glimpse into the ICAPA’s findings.

Citing PNP records, Adan said that there were a total of 107 PAGs nationwide when the commission wrapped up its probe. Like Gonzales and Brawner before him, he declined to list the clans maintaining them because "this information has not been validated yet."

Adan only hinted that these groups are concentrated in the following areas notorious as election hot spots: the provinces of Masbate, Lanao del Sur, and Abra, and the regions of Zamboanga and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), of which Maguindanao is part.

"We went to these areas and listened to local officials, non-government organizations. We invited those who wanted to report something and that is how we were able to establish the existence of some groups. We talked to victims of harassment, victims whose relatives by maintainers or patrons of private armies," he said.

As a result of its six months’ work, the ICAPA was able to come up with recommendations, which Adan outlined as follows:
the creation of a permanent anti-PAG task force, which Adan said was implemented;
the crafting of a law imposing stiffer penalties on the maintenance of PAGs; and
the abolition of a policy granting amnesties to wielders of loose firearms.
The ball is now in the hands of the new president, he added.

Aquino admin on private armies

Past presidents of contrasting personalities and political skills have tried to eradicate PAGs in various ways as a major source of political violence. Despite having commander-in-chief powers, not one has fully succeeded.

Will Aquino be any different? Has he moved in the right direction against warlords and private armies?

During the presidential campaign last April, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth informally asked then candidate Aquino “whether his vow to rid the country of private armies meant that he was going to end reliance on civilian volunteer organizations and police auxiliary units, which were the actual paramilitary units that were used in the Maguindanao massacre." (See: Int’l group: Noynoy, Villar ‘not firm’ vs. private armies)

According to Roth, Aquino said no, “because these paramilitary units are all force multipliers in his view."

A day later, Aquino’s camp quickly clarified that the chat with Roth happened “while going down the elevator" and thus could not adequately reflect the presidential candidate’s complete views on the issue.

During Aquino’s first week in office, when the issue was raised again, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told media that the President has the political will to crush private armies before his term ends. But he offered no practical measures, only generalities.

“The president’s policy is to abolish private armies," Lacierda said. “It's abhorrent to law enforcement. We cannot have an army dedicated to one politician to the detriment of the enforcement of the law by the appropriate enforcement agencies." (See: Aquino has ‘political will’ to crush private armies — spokesman)

As Aquino’s first 100 days wore on, the Palace kept unusually quiet on the Zeñarosa recommendations — in contrast to its fast and focused response after the August 23 hostage-taking tragedy.

Justice Sec. Leila de Lima said the ICAPA report is still under review by the Executive branch. "The President has a standing directive to review the report of the Zeñarosa Commission. [The review consists of determining] which of the recommendations are worth adopting and feasible at this point," she said.

De Lima said, however, that she agrees with the first recommendation on creating a permanent task force.

Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang, for his part, said President Aquino is not in favor of banning paramilitary groups altogether. In a Nov. 17 interview on ANC, Carandang said a blanket ban might affect the country's "defense posture."

Year-round efforts

Elaborating on the first ICAPA recommendation, Adan said politically-motivated violence by PAGs should not be limited only to elections. “Political killings happen year-round but they are only highlighted during election time," he said. Thus, the government must go after PAGs even beyond an election season.

“After the elections, there are killings as acts of revenge. But these are no longer related as election-related violent incidents. So the efforts must be sustained year-round. We need a special task force," said Adan, adding that the task force will be composed of representatives from various government agencies like the AFP, PNP, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

The second recommendation, the creation of a law on dismantling private armed groups, has already reached first base, on the initiative of two Lower House members.

Last August, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez and his brother Abante Mindanao party-list Rep. Maximo Rodriguez filed House Bill 2111 or the Anti-Private Army Act of 2010 to stop the use and proliferation of private armies by penalizing not just the leaders and members of a private armed group, but also its protectors, financiers, and suppliers. (See: Bill to penalize financiers, suppliers of private armies)

Ominously, the third recommendation about a stricter policy on loose firearms has not gotten much attention beyond the usual election-period gun ban. Even top AFP officials shake their heads when asked how to actually enforce the law and disarm the warlords’ armies.

When PCIJ’s Ed Lingao interviewed Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer two months after the Ampatuan massacre, Ferrer said: “[President Arroyo’s] party expelled the Ampatuans, and got the Mangudadatus…. Now they are allies with the Masturas. The Masturas are also warlords, right? [The Mangudadatus have] many guns, and they have allied themselves with the Sinsuats. Those people also have private armed groups, and they have not surrendered any firearms. Combine all their arms, and that’s another group of warlords."

Ferrer, former AFP commander for Eastern Mindanao and the principal implementor of martial law in Maguindanao, admitted that when he was still a division commander, he once received an M4 assault rifle, worth $2,000, from then ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan. He felt uneasy, but accepted the gift anyway.

A tall order

When its creation was first announced by then President Arroyo, the Zeñarosa Commission or ICAPA was labeled a “farce" by some political analysts.

But Adan said the commission did its duty. “Our mandate is very clear — to conduct a fact-finding report and submit it to the President. We made sure this report reached the new leaders. It is now up to the leaders to act on the report," he said.

Adan dared President Aquino to target the elimination of PAGs by targeting lawlessness first. “The Aquino administration can leave a legacy if it is able to end this phenomenon," he said.

Targeting lawlessness in general is, indeed, a very tall order. But the ICAPA’s three recommendations seem doable steps in the right direction.

More importantly, the public and the victims of the Ampatuan massacre have not forgotten. Their expectations remain as high as when the grisly images of a dirty backhoe and bloodied clothes first seared into the national consciousness exactly a year ago.

They have repeatedly said, in the streets, in media, and in the halls of justice: “We must never allow such a massacre to happen again." — HS, GMANews.TV