Public Eye
JAN - MARCH 2003
VOL. IX   NO. 1

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The Making of a Mindanao Mafia

The Kuratong Baleleng began as an anti-communist vigilante group but has become a diversified kidnapping, smuggling, and extortion syndicate with close links to officials in Northwestern Mindanao and elsewhere.

by Jose Torres Jr

ZALDY (not his real name) was 17 years old when he first killed a man. Today, some 12 years or so later, he says he has lost count of many people he has killed. "It's just like killing a cow," says Zaldy, who has spent seven years in the National Bilibid Prisons. "There's always that last gasp of breath before dying. You'll get used to it."

Kuratong Baleleng members are nabbed by the police. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

Kuratong Baleleng members are nabbed by the police. [photo courtesy of Malaya]
But Zaldy apparently got tired of killing. After his release from prison in the mid-1990s, he went home to Mindanao, seeking a "new life." He tried farming in a remote village in Zamboanga del Norte, but "got bored" after only a few weeks. Lacking the means to survive, Zaldy remembered the advice of friends he met in prison: "If you're desperate for work, go to Ozamiz and ask for help from the Kuratong Baleleng."

For most Filipinos, the Kuratong Baleleng is that notorious group of bank robbers that met a bloody end in a supposed shootout with the police one May morning in 1995 in Quezon City. But down in Ozamiz City, in northwestern Mindanao, Kuratong is said to be well-loved and well-connected, even if no one denies that it is a criminal syndicate. The mayor, Reynaldo 'Aldong' Parojinog, is a son of the group's founder, the late Octavio 'Ongkoy' Parojinog. Some people even say Aldong became titular head of the group, when his older brother Renato or 'Nato,' then a provincial board member, was killed in February 2002.

Mayor Aldong seems to have chosen to ignore the whispers about his current connections with the Kuratong, concentrating instead on a personal drive against criminality in his city. In a 1999 interview, however, he admitted that he was once part of the group, and that his father had founded it. When asked how many Kuratong members there were in Ozamiz, Aldong said, "Almost everybody." But then he had yet to be elected mayor of Ozamiz at the time.

Aldong Parojinog, however, is not the only one who would rather not talk about Kuratong Baleleng at least not openly. Misamis Occidental Gov. Loreto Leo S. Ocampo refuses to be interviewed about the group, although he says the notoriety of the Kuratong Baleleng is a myth created by the media. Another article about the group will only "boost the ego of its leaders" and make them stage new criminal activities to make the myth live, the governor says. Misamis Occidental Rep. Ernie D. Clarete, known to be a critic of the group and its alleged leaders, also thumbed down a request to be interviewed for this article. He says he has been receiving threats from the Kuratong.

Zaldy, the self-confessed murderer, sounds like he regrets ever encountering the group as well. He had followed the advice of his jailmates and looked up the Kuratong in Ozamiz.

With the help of his newfound friends, Zaldy worked as a barker at a bus station, picking pockets on the side. Then he began pushing drugs and extorting money from businessmen. He remitted his earnings to his "handlers" who gave him a generous share of the loot. He was later asked to join store robberies and truck hijackings. Recalls Zaldy: "It was exciting and fun and there was no shortage of money."

But Zaldy soon got bored with that life as well. He again went home, built a house, and bought a small piece of land. One day, however, he was visited by two men who told him, "You must go back to Ozamiz immediately. Work is waiting for you." That same day, Zaldy fled to a nearby town. But his "friends" found him again after several weeks. It was then, Zaldy says, that he realized there was no escape. "There is no getting out of the Kuratong Baleleng," he says.

Fear has become Kuratong Baleleng's most effective weapon. "They have no qualms in killing perceived enemies," says a local journalist who asked not to be named. "They are untouchables." This perception is fueled by the fact that authorities refuse to even investigate criminal activities allegedly perpetrated by the group.

According to a 2001 briefing paper on the Kuratong Baleleng by the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP), "several national and local government officials reportedly provide protection to the group." It also describes the Kuratong as "one of the many criminal syndicates being controlled and used by powerful individuals for financial, political, and even personal undertakings."

"Neutralizing the group per se would be child's play," says the ISAFP, "but to uncover the entire expanse of the networks controlled by these unseen hands would prove to be a very difficult task."

IT HAD been the military that created the Kuratong Baleleng in 1986. The military wanted a vigilante organization that would counter the growing influence of communist guerillas in the provinces of Misamis Occidental, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur, the first guerilla front of the Communist Party of the Philippines in Mindanao. Kuratong is actually a traditional bamboo instrument used to call villagers for a meeting or to alert them of the approach of enemies; baleleng means young lady, although it is also used as a term of endearment. The Kuratong Baleleng, or the "darling bell," became a group that would inform soldiers of the presence of rebels.

Army Maj. Franco Calanog, who formally organized the Kuratong Baleleng, put the organization under the supervision of the Philippine Army's 101st Battalion based in Misamis Occidental. Calanog appointed Ongkoy Parojinog as the "chairman" of the organization. Its first members were militiamen from three urban poor barangays known collectively as Lawis or "sulod (inside)" in Ozamiz City. But they were said to have done double duty as Kuratong and as protector of Ongkoy's illegal activities, which reportedly included robberies in the provinces of Siquijor and Misamis Occidental. Ongkoy, however, was also known for his generosity and was dubbed the "Robin Hood of Lawis."

One local journalist says the Parojinog family "would help everybody in need." He describes the Parojinogs as "simple people" who are "approachable" and have a "soft heart." This is partly why Aldong Parojinog won the 2001 mayoral elections by a landslide.

But it was Nato who assumed the leadership of the Kuratong Baleleng after five soldiers of the 466th Company of the Philippine Constabulary killed Ongkoy in September 1990 during a cockfight. All the suspects in Ongkoy's slay were later killed one after the other. Calanog himself was killed in a drug bust operation by the National Bureau of Investigation in the early 1990s.

"The group was very effective as a counter-insurgency organization," states the ISAFP briefing paper dated April 20, 2001. "But with the decline of the insurgency threat, the Kuratong Baleleng group was officially disbanded in June 1988. Without military supervision, the group rapidly metamorphosed into an organized criminal syndicate. A lot of kidnappings, robberies, smuggling, murders, and extortion were attributed to the group."

Other criminal groups also started using the Kuratong Baleleng name to ride on its notoriety. "This explains why almost all crimes were traced to the (organization)," says the ISAFP.

The "real" Kuratong Baleleng, however, began branching out, operating not only in Mindanao Misamis Occidental, Misamis Oriental, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibuguey, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Cagayan de Oro City but also in Cebu City, Metro Manila and neighboring provinces.

The Kuratong Baleleng eventually splintered into three major groups. The original group of Ongkoy Parojinog based in Ozamiz City and adjacent provinces was believed to have focused on extortion and illegal gambling. Another group led by sons Nato and Aldong operated in Metro Manila and other big cities and specialized in bank and armored car robberies and kidnappings. A third headed by Ongkoy's nephew, Carlito 'Dodo Miklo' Calasan, concentrated on robberies, but would later venture into other illegal activities.

Several breakaway groups later emerged, including the Kuratong Baleleng I or the Wilson Soronda group, the Kuratong Baleleng II or the Robert Ramos/Edla Oliver group, the Socrates Aguilar group, the Joedisil Siong group and the Ozamiz Boys group. It was Soronda's group that got riddled with bullets in Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City in 1995.

Among the many crimes the ISAFP attributes to the Kuratong Baleleng are the P2 million robbery of Solid Bank in Tangub City in 1988, the P12 m Monte de Piedad armored van robbery on Roxas Blvd in 1990, the P5 million heist at an RCBC bank in Pampanga, and the P12 million Traders Royal Bank robbery in Buendia in 1991.

The ISAFP also says Kuratong was behind the smuggling of 40,000 sacks of rice and 28,000 sacks of white sugar unloaded in Ozamiz City on June 25, 1999, an undetermined number of sacks of rice shipped to Cebu City on June 26, 1999, 40,000 sacks or rice unloaded in Ozamiz City on June 27, 1999, and 170,000 sacks of imported rice and 5,000 cases of blue-seal cigarettes unloaded in Ozamiz City port from February 1 to March 10, 1999.

In addition, the ISAFP has linked the group to the transport of illegal drugs into the country from Malaysia via the country's southern backdoor in partnership with the Taiwanese Triad. It says Kuratong has a shabu factory in a secret tunnel in Barangay Tinago in Ozamiz City while protection money from Chinese businessmen continues to be collected. The group, says the ISAFP, is still into gunrunning, gun-for-hire services and massive extortion.

Other Kuratong watchers say the latest innovation in the group's activities is the establishment of lending agencies that also serve as an intelligence network for the group.

Joint operatives of the defunct AFPCIG and CAPCOM arrested Nato Parojinog in Cainta, Rizal, on April 30, 1993. Aldong and another brother, Ricardo or 'Ardot' surrendered to Brig. Gen. Dominador Salac, former ISAFP chief, in Camp Aguinaldo shortly afterwards. Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) agents gunned down Calasan in Cebu City in 1993.

Two years later, Nato, Aldong and Ardot Parojinog were back in Ozamiz, the charges of assault and bank robbery filed against them dismissed for lack of evidence. Nato ran for Congress in 1998 but was defeated by Hilario Ramiro. He became provincial board member of Misamis Occidental in 2001. Aldong, a high school dropout, became president of the federated Association of Barangay Councils and later city councilor before he was elected mayor.

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