14 FEBRUARY 2007
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.
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.
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 townfolk are so gripped by poverty that food, shelter, clothing, plus an "allowance" of at least P500 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.
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," 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 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 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.
Email us your comments about this article, or post them in our blog.