By: Our Correspondent

I am a
warlord's daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin, relative, and friend. On my
bloodline I blame the deaths of hundreds of men in Abra. But I am powerless to
undo what members of my clan have wrought.

Many times I have cursed
my forefathers for the tragedy of living in a place that is beautiful but awash
in blood, that has nothing to offer but devastation, depression, and death.
Even I cannot bear living in the land ruled by kith and kin, in the province
built by years of my family members' struggles to overpower each other.

When the world was four
decades younger, only minions and followers died as sacrificial lambs in
politics. But lately, the insatiable thirst for money and power has led to
big-time targets like Congressman Luis Bersamin Jr., Provincial Board member
James Bersamin, and La Paz Mayor Marc Ysrael Bernos. All three were killed in
2006.

Yet news of deaths by
assassination in the province is considered normal. A typical day in Abra
comprises heavy doses of gossip, intrigue, dog-eat-dog stories, politicking —
and a 70-percent possibility of hearing about another killing, usually that of
someone in politics. Many have called Abra the "murder capital of the
north," and I agree; since 2001, there have been at least 30 political
figures, major and minor, killed in the province.

Diplomacy, fairness, and
development have no room there — at least not within the circles of
politicians, private army owners, goon commanders, and goons with whom I have
"bonded" in the last 15 years or so. Indeed, every time Abra seems to
be enjoying peace — meaning a week or so has passed and no one has been killed
— I get anxious. Often, my anxiety is shared by politicians and police
authorities. Like me, they worry that such "abnormality" is the calm
before the storm.

To outsiders, political
killings in Abra are riddles complicated by different angles presented by the
media, hacks and otherwise. To them it is a mystery why a small province with
27 towns, where Commission on Elections registered only 133,194 voters in 2004,
could be in such chaos.

 

 

“I am a daughter of Abra, the murder capital of the north.
My genes come from those who believe politics is a demigod that compels one to
take lives without remorse.”

But in reality there is
no puzzle, there is no sphinx, the answers to the whys are not intricate webs
of conspiracies. The simple fact is that every cent of the provincial and
municipal internal revenue allotment (IRA) is equivalent to a drop of blood.
Most of those in the position to receive IRA fought their way there with the
help of their private armies that shed sweat, tears, and a lot of blood before,
during, and after elections.

It would not be as easy
for me to conclude that many of those in power have only a personal interest in
IRA had there been improvements in roads, infrastructure, and lives of the
people. But there is Tineg town, which receives the highest IRA of more than
P41 million a year yet has impassable roads. And the last time I was in
Malibcong, another Abra town, there was not a single span of cemented road. I
have been told the same holds true in other upland municipalities.

For lack of economic
opportunities, ordinary folk are forced to lick the boots of politicians and
resign themselves to being the latter’s househelp, babysitters, paid admirers,
and hired guns. Some townsfolk are so gripped by poverty that food, shelter,
clothing, plus an "allowance" of at least P500 (about $10) a month
are enough remuneration for jobs that range from fetching food and drink to
being ready to kill and be killed for their bosses.

The Roots of Killing

Killing however, has not
always been so "institutionalized," even in Abra. Goons were first
documented in the province in 1965, in connection with the murder of Bucay Vice
Mayor Silvestre Perlas. According to Filemon Tutay, who wrote the article
“Goons for Victory” in the October 30, 1965 issue of the Philippine Free Press,
Perlas’s assassins were "imported" from Manila, Pampanga, Nueva
Ecija, Cagayan, Laguna, and Quezon City.

Some of them showed
"heavy tattoo marks" as "undeniable proofs of Muntinlupa
residence (meaning they had been in the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa),"
wrote Tutay. He also said that the killers were men of congressional candidate
Antonio Paredes of the Nacionalista Party; their mission included murdering
Paredes’s opponent running under the Liberal Party banner, Carmelo Barbero,
Governor Petronilo Seares, and all the mayors and vice mayors who were not
allied with Paredes.

Not in Tutay’s account,
however, were admissions from Barbero's former allies, who said he had also
imported his own "barefoot" goons from Ilocos Sur. The former
army colonel was said to have requested help of former comrades to train his
goons in Langiden town.

I can see why Paredes
came out so badly in that article. History is always according to winners, and
at that time Barbero lorded over Abra.

Some people believe the
Paredes-Barbero rivalry gave birth to Abra’s private armies, which soon began
gaining a foothold in the province’s politics. But many other people I have
talked to insist that the “importation” and training of goons started earlier,
when Barbero ran against Jose Valera for governor in 1963. Valera was married to a Paredes. His defeat
ended the reign of the Paredes and Valera
clans — but they made a big comeback in 1986, when Vicente Paredes Valera, Jose
Valera’s son and the current chief executive of Abra, was appointed acting
governor.

Learning about my
province's history has always been like walking through the pages of the life
stories of some members of my family, especially those I never met but know to
be "legends." But it’s not always so flattering to come across their
"legacies." There are times I am grateful that their blood flows
through me and their genes are alive in me. Most of the time, however, I squirm
in disgust. After all, Abra politicians — many of them my blood relatives — can
be said to be of a barbaric breed because they kill their own kin. Those from
Bangued even come from one family tree, yet that has not stopped them from
going after each other.

I sometimes wonder how
the descendants of hired killers feel. While visiting Lagayan, a northwestern
town across Calaba
River in Bangued, I
stumbled upon a village that was populated by people whose fathers were
employed as goons in the 1960s. The “imported” hired guns had apparently
married and settled in the province. One resident even confided that it was his
grandfather who burned down the Abra Capitol building during the same decade.

 

Private Armies

Today Some
Abra mayors
deny having a private army. Yet the truth is that having one is necessary not
only to win an election, but also for sheer survival. Nobody enters politics
there and assumes that he or she will still have the pleasure of a sound sleep
at night. One friend who says he is thinking of running for public office in
Abra also says he does not expect to live past 40.

The last I heard, the
Philippine National Police (PNP) was monitoring seven private armies, although
the warring political groups in the province could be narrowed down to two. The
PNP did not name names. I suspect not only that the silence of police officers
has been bought, but also that they are afraid to be transferred or placed in
"floating status" because the warlords' networks reach well within
their organization.

Like the mayors, the
incumbent governor has also been quick to deny he has a private army. Ask any
member of the opposition like Mayor Cecilia Luna or Mayor Joseph Bernos,
however, and they would just as quickly say that Governor Valera even has the
New People's Army (NPA) on his payroll. At the very least, two former NPA
members, Lacub Mayor Cesar Baroña and Malibcong Mayor Mario Baawa are allied
with the governor. Cordillera People's Liberation Army leader and Bucloc Mayor
Mailed Molina, meanwhile, is supposed to be with the opposition.


 

“Growing up, I had often seen neighbors going around with
firearms tucked in their waistbands. Like the rest of my playmates, I never
wondered or asked why these men had to carry guns all the time.”


Valera has often insinuated that the violence in Abra
stems from the opposition group. He has repeatedly said that he comes from a
non-violent family. In fact, he is known to have the most religious family
among Abra’s politicos. A former seminarian, he surrounds himself with other
ex-seminarians like his provincial administrator Diosdado Cariño, General
Services Officer Boy Tubise, and provincial agriculturist Chris Adriatico.

For all I know, Valera may be in constant
prayer and prone to walking on his knees from the church door to the altar. But
the way I see it, the governor as the father of the province should be able to
keep peace and order. He can blame no one but himself for what Abra has become.
For the last 20 years, Valera
has been in power, either as governor or congressman of the province. Yet he
does not seem to be doing anything about the violence in Abra. Private armies
are not endemic to my province. It is just that there, they are out of control.

Last January 11, the
police released a statement saying, "Violence is a part of the everyday
life” of the province. The statistics also say so: The police regional office
recorded 47 murders, 28 frustrated murders, two attempted murders, 22
frustrated homicides, six attempted homicides, and 11 homicide cases in 2006.
It said that of the 116 cases involving violence, some 70 were being followed
up, of which about 45 had "slim chances” of being resolved because
suspects “cannot be identified."

"Most of the
killings also lack witnesses who are afraid to come out,” said the PNP. “They
feel their lives will be threatened once they involve themselves in it."

It then described
perpetrators as "common law citizens," saying further that they were
local residents owning unlicensed firearms who "impulsively" use them
on drinking sessions.

In 2005, Police Chief
Supt. Jesus Versoza had also made a special report on Abra, in which he said
the PNP and the army were under the governor’s control, and that the governor
paid off everyone and requested the transfer of those who "disobeyed"
him. The report blamed Bangued’s transformation into Abra’s "killing
fields" on the fact that mayors had satellite offices there and were
absentee chief executives in their respective towns.

Unfortunately, then
Interior and Local Governments Secretary Angelo Reyes overreacted and sacked
the entire Abra police. Personally, I don’t think changing the entire Abra
police will solve the province’s peace and order problem. But most times I feel
like annihilating the politicians in power would.

Politics
is a Death Sentence

A Young Abra warlord once told me he did not expect to
grow old because politics is in itself a death sentence. For sure, most of
those who go into politics do so with the intention of playing it clean and
fair. But they end up forming their own private armies anyway because in Abra
one cannot be in politics and not have a platoon of goons.

Before the Special
Action Forces were deployed to Abra by former police chief General Edgardo
Aglipay on September 24, 2004, heavily armed goons were everywhere in the
province. Even ordinary folk liked carrying guns just to show that they had
them.

Growing up, I had often
seen neighbors going around with firearms tucked in their waistbands. Like the
rest of my playmates, I never wondered or asked why these men had to carry guns
all the time. Whether they were attending birthday parties, singing in videoke
or karaoke joints, or riding their motorcycles, their guns were always visible,
ready to be used. As a consequence, not a single night spot in Abra — Calaba
Fiesta, Benedisco, Dang's, Lucky's, among others — is untainted by blood spill.

Actually, I had been so
accustomed to seeing ordinary citizens with firearms that I did not realize
carrying an unlicensed gun in public is against the law, until a visiting
friend pointed it out. I guess when you live in the midst of murder and mayhem,
you become either too paranoid or too numb.

I have met a few
paranoid Abrenians but most of my provincemates are numb. Sometimes I silently
curse parents who wail in lamentation over their dead sons, but later accept a
sack of rice and a squealing pig from their children’s killers. Then after a
couple of weeks, I would hear of another son joining a private army.

For the goons
themselves, hitting targets is a job, and every head a virtual medal they wear
everywhere they go. But the job of hired killer, just like any profession,
entails apprenticeship and training. Goons, though they evoke fear when they
reach their “full rank,” start out as sweepers and gardeners in Abra. Then
comes being entrusted with the breeding of their master’s fighting cocks and
then cleaning firearms. Only after that do they start learning to hold and fire
guns.

I Cannot make distinctions between political warlords and
the leaders of their private armies. It seems that there is but a thin line
that separates them.

Then again, goons are
more forthcoming about the blood on their hands. One time, a group of hired
guns readily recounted to me that they had wound up in Abra because they had
just killed a famous Manila-based PR man and were in hiding. They said they
placed their dead target inside a drum, filled it with cement, and threw it in
the middle of the ocean. But I still wonder whether their story was true or
not. With killers, you can never really tell.

In another encounter
with another group, a query on who among them had killed the most apparently
appealed to their egos. Each one eagerly volunteered accounts of the murders he
had committed.

Stories of savagery
would make any decent human being want to throw up, but I let hired goons tell
me their tales because I know that one of these days, they will all end up
buried in the middle of nowhere, their disappearance going unreported.

But if goons are
vicious, goon commanders are worse, especially those who know no other means of
livelihood other than planning the deaths of whoever are the rivals of their
bosses at the moment. Their loyalty is a commodity. Abra politicians have
created monsters who can turn against them. In many ways, goon leaders have the
politicians on a leash. Or as a friend puts it more colorfully, they have the
power to "rearrange the politicians' testicles." That’s why
politicians cannot say no to their requests for projects.

That’s also partly why
killings continue in the province where my family traces its roots.

Daughter of Abra

I am a daughter of Abra,
the murder capital of the north, the cradle of greed in the Cordillera. My
genes come from those who believe politics is a demigod that compels one to
take lives without remorse. I do not say this with pride, I say it in shame. I
also say it in fear as I look at my young nephew and see him growing up and
assuming that killings are "normal," so much so that he does not
flinch when he hears gunshots.

Yet they say I have been
blessed because I have a father who never taught me of war and has always kept
me at a distance. They hail him wise for doing so but death still stalks me by
day and haunts me by night.

The irony is that I have
found friendship in the younger generation of warlords whose forefathers were
either allies or foes of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Through them I
learned what my father tried in vain to keep from me: private armies, hit men
for hire, the devil that is Abra politics.

My tears flow aplenty
like the waters of Abra
River. I cannot be
callous like the rest of my family. I have mourned with families and cried in
wakes of those who have risked lives for the worthless cause of Abra politics.
But tears count for nothing in a place ruled by the gun.

Ma.
Ayn Ballesta is the pseudonym of a member of a prominent clan in Abra, where
she grew up. This article reprinted by permission of
the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

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