6 FEBRUARY 2007
The assassination of Bersamin and the arrest of the prime suspect Valera both occurred in Metro Manila, illustrating the double life of the provincial elite who divide their political and cultural time in Manila and their provincial capitals. While the crime occurred in Manila, Bersamin's murder is unquestionably a local crime, a crime of local politics. The Manila connection in this case illustrates the nexus between local and central government politics. Some of the key “resources’” of local politics, including the capacity for violence is mediated by central government politics. While both the Bersamins and the Valeras are allies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the dedication invested by police in going after Valera — even with limited, mainly circumstantial evidence — suggests that the governor may have gotten on the wrong side of the administration.
The 10-day wake of Bersamin moves the story to Bangued, the capital of Abra, and allows it to slowly unfold. The Bersamin clan is one of the two most powerful political clans in the province. James Bersamin, a provincial board member, was killed in November 2006. No one in the clan seems to have been picked to take his place yet. Luis Bersamin’s brother Eustaquio, better known as ‘Kit,’ was first bruited to make a try for a congressional seat, but now he is poised to run for governor in the upcoming polls.
The Valeras make up Abra’s other powerful clan. Governor Valera's wife, Ma. Zita Claustro-Valera, the mayor of Bangued, is reportedly running for governor this May. Her opponent would have been Luis — not Kit — Bersamin, had not the congressman been shot dead. As in other provinces, the history of relations between the two clans has moved from alliance to warfare, their closeness illustrated by a wooden bridge that used to link their two ancestral houses. (It was taken down a week after Luis Bersamin’s death.) The organization of political competition into clans brings in questions of “family honor” and is one of the sources of local politics' propensity for violence.
Before he recanted his confession in mid-January, Panday had said that former La Paz Vice Mayor Freddie Dupo told him Valera had taken out a contract to kill Bersamin for P5 million. Another suspect identified by Panday was Dominador Barbosa, a former Valera security aide.
But Dupo had gone into hiding far earlier, in 2005, after a failed ambush on him. He wasn’t being paranoid. The mayor of his town, Marc Ysrael Bernos, was killed in January 2006. By then, Tineg Mayor Clarence Benwaren had been murdered as well. Political violence in Abra had gotten so bad that administrative control over police was taken away from Abra local executives in 2005. A fact-finding team found that the province's politicians were using private armed groups, and that some policemen and soldiers worked as bodyguards for politicians. After the Luis Bersamin murder, a group of Abra mayors requested the return of the police to their control. But it was a request sensibly denied by the national government.
ALTHOUGH PEOPLE have been careful not to directly accuse Valera of the murder (he was arrested for illegal possession of firearms, not for Bersamin's assassination), violence has already set the Abra political class into two warring camps. A picture at Bersamin's funeral showed daughter Charrie saluting her father with a clenched fist. When the funeral cortège passed Valera's house, another daughter of Bersamin, Melanie, shouted “mamamatay- tao (killer)” repeatedly until relatives hushed her. Another of Luis’s brothers, Lucas, a Court of Appeals associate justice, called for “Abra, [to] wake up. You know the face of agum (greed) and apal (envy).” Lucas Bersamin was cheered on by the 6,000 people who attended the funeral, a large crowd for Bangued, especially with the atmosphere of fear and tension pervading the town. After the funeral, political enemies of the governor, including widows of murdered politicians, announced plans to work together to contest positions in the May 2007 elections against the Valeras and their allies.
Several elements stand out from the Abra story. First, violence occurs in the context of intense competition for control over local politics, especially mayorships and congressional races, but equally important, for control over illegal economic activity. Second, political violence is rare at the national government level and below the municipality. The most obvious exception is the murder of Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino Jr. in 1983 — an exception that proves the rule. Barangay officials do get involved, but as foot soldiers of more powerful municipal and district politicians. The stakes at the barangay level are not large enough to warrant violence. Third, police and military play crucial roles in the violence, more often than not as perpetrators rather than as guardians of the law.
While the intensity of national political contests sometimes spills over into violence — as in 1983 when the threat of Ninoy Aquino's return was magnified by the ill health of strongman Ferdinand Marcos — assassination has been very rarely used as a political instrument at this level. This is because while the rewards are especially great, protagonists generally have other sources of economic and political power apart from electoral office. The consequences of defeat in national contests have not been set too high, except in the case of former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, who may not exactly be languishing in his Tanay resthouse, but remains under detention all the same.
For local political clans the stakes are much higher; victory or defeat in election contests can make the difference between wealth and poverty. Because local political contests are mostly between political clans, the emotional content of local electoral contests is usually high. Mix with equally high levels of machismo among politicians and you have a volatile cocktail that easily produces violence.
Political violence in Moro areas provides a template of how bad things can be. It’s not the violence of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or earlier the Moro National Liberation Front, that kills the most people. It's in clan warfare, ridu, where big groups armed with mortars and sometimes using armored personnel carriers fight positional battles where some 20 to 50 people can get killed. This happens because Moro clans are much more elaborately articulated socially than “clans” in Christian areas with bilateral kinship systems. Because Moros have been fighting first against the Spanish, then the Americans, and finally into “independence” for their rights as a people, Moro society is organized around warfare. The incorporation of this kind of society into the kind of local politics that exists in the rest of the country automatically means higher levels of violence.
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