February 2009
Local Bosses

The blood politics of Abra

‘MURDER CAPITAL OF THE NORTH.’ The murderous rampage of Abra’s private armies has already claimed the lives of 30 political figures since 2001. [photo courtesy of EV Espiritu/Philippine Daily Inquirer]

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.

Location map of Abra courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

First Wife
and Second Wife
Nicolasa Paredes & Severino Purugganan Mariano Paredes & Concepcion Trullench
Eustaquio Purugannan & Matilde Valera
Rosario Purugganan & Dr. Luis Bersamin Violeta Paredes & Jose ‘Pepito’ Valera
LUIS JR. ‘Chito’
Eustaquio ‘Kit’
VICENTE ‘Vicsyd’

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.

TODAY SOME Abra mayors swiftly deny having a private army. Yet the truth is that having one is necessary not only to win an election in Abra, 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.

FROM A LINEAGE OF WARLORDS. Abra Governor Vicente Valera is descended from the Paredes clan, whose political rivalry with the Barbero family, is said to have given birth to Abra’s private armies. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

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 be 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.

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, PNP Cordillera released a statement saying, “Violence is a part of the everyday life of the Abrenians.” 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.”

Felled Abra Politicos, 2001-2006
* – Both village chiefs were killed during the Arya Abra Festival parade
** – To take oath as Barangay Captain; former Kagawad

Arnulfo Bañez Barangay Captain (ABC President) Pilar 2001
Leonardo Parado Sr. Councilor Lagayan 2001
Rogelio Seguerra Kagawad Pang-ot, Lagayan 2001
Jose Segundo Sr. Mayor Tubo 2001
Charito Tolentino Barangay Captain (ABC President) Langiden 2001
Reynaldo Bataller and Resituto Benosa* Barangay Captains Peñarrubia 2002
Nestor Batino Kagawad Buli, La Paz 2002
Clarence Benwaren Mayor Tineg 2002
Gregorio Beroña Kagawad Lumabang, San Juan 2002
Zaldimar Blue Barangay Captain Langiden 2002
Bernardo Damasen Kagawad Barit, Luba 2002
Justino Ballestra Kagawad Patoc, Bucay 2003
Irineo Belisario** Barangay Captain Cayapa, Lagangilang 2003
Nestor “Angin” Belisario Jr. Barangay Captain Bangued 2003
Ruben Afos Barangay Captain (ABC President) La Paz 2004
Roger Babida Kagawad South Poblacion, Bucay 2004
Jerry Belarmino Kagawad Macarcarmay, Bangued 2004
Pricilo Billedo Kagawad Dumayco, Peñarrubia 2004
Amor Bringas Former Barangay Captain Bangued 2004
Ceferino Callibag Candidate for Councilor Danglas 2004
Felipe Taeza Kagawad Bangbangar, Bucay 2004
Rashid Timbreza Kagawad Salucag, Dolores 2004
Nestor Adame Kagawad Calaba, Bangued 2005
Restituto Ballestra Barangay Captain Bucay 2005
Diosdado Claveria Barangay Captain San Isidro 2005
Norman Patricio Kagawad Tattawa, Peñarrubia 2006
Marc Ysrael Bernos Mayor La Paz 2006
Malvin dela Peña Councilor Villaviciosa 2006
James Bersamin Provincial Board Member (Number 1 in 2004) Abra 2006
Luis Bersamin Jr. Representative Lone district, Abra 2006

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, which was later posted at www.abrenian.com, 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.

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.

‘BATANG HITMAN.’ Teenage boys are in the employ of Abra’s private armies.

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.

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.