February 2007
Local Bosses

Equal-opportunity violence

PROVINCIAL BOSS. Abra Governor Vicente Valera, suspected of masterminding the killing of Rep. Luis Bersamin, being blessed by Tingguian elders. [photo courtesy of abra.gov.ph

IF I had to write a script for a movie on political violence, I could not come up with a better one than the ongoing live drama starring political bigwigs from the province of Abra. The assassination of Abra Congressman Luis Bersamin Jr. and his bodyguard outside a church — right after a wedding — last December 16 provides the slam-bang opening scene. Cut to assassins escaping on a motorcycle. Tracing the registration of the getaway vehicle leads to the arrest of one Rufino Panday, a former Army master sergeant, who identifies not only the assassins, but also the mastermind, who he says is Abra Governor Vicente Valera. Two weeks later comes the cinematic arrest of Governor Valera himself, shortly after he leaves the house of his alleged mistress at dawn. But of course there has to be a dramatic car chase first, and then there is the governor looking bug-eyed in a roomful of authorities and nosy media. Arrested with him are three bodyguards, and the police find in his new, hulking SUV an automatic assault rifle, six 45-caliber pistols, and a fragmentation grenade.

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.

In Sulu, warlords recruit from former Muslim rebels for their private armies. [photo by Alex Baluyut]

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.

ELECTIONS PROVIDE the formal expression of local political contests that have historically been mainly about who controls the resources from the central government, and illegal economic activity. The least harmful of these activities are illegal gambling and smuggling, the more directly harmful illegal logging and more recently drugs and prostitution. The contest for control over these activities gives a premium to leaders with skills in manipulating illegality and the uses of violence. Since these contests are joined in elections, candidates with these skills, plus the money from these rackets, always have the advantage. Victory in elections means access to central government resources, control over police and to a lesser degree the military, and a level of influence over the judicial process.

Control over police is crucial for control over illegal economic activity. Since these activities are conducted almost openly (hundreds, even thousands, in larger towns place illegal gambling bets), police have to look the other way or protect illegal products such as smuggled goods from poachers. Police also serve as “bodyguards” (read: goons) of politicians, for intimidating opponents and, if necessary, eliminating them. Influence over judges helps to deal with victims who seek judicial recourse. This has deep historical roots that go back to the American colonial rule. As political scientists Eva-Lotta E. Hedman and John T. Sidel write in their 2000 book Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century: “(The) enduring structures of ‘Philippine colonial democracy’ contributed to the marked decentralization and privatization of coercive state apparatuses which, in turn, prefigured a recurring pattern of subcontracted political violence.”

A monopoly over the legitimate uses of violence is one of the sources of power that states aspire for. This monopoly is usually exercised by central governments with their control over police and military. In the Philippines, as Hedman and Sidel point out, this has been “decentralized and privatized.” This is a function of the generally “decentralized” organization of power of Philippine politics that is one of the legacies of the American colonial period. The central government’s weakness prevents the implementation of legal norms to control the uses of violence in local political contests. For local elites, control over police provides a level of “legitimacy” to the use of violence against workers and tenants and in intra-elite competition. Because the use of violence is, in fact, difficult to control, it quickly moves from monopoly to equal-opportunity violence: whoever has the capacity for it will use violence.

The Philippine police was built out of the American colonial regime’s apparatus for suppressing anti-colonial rebels. The Philippine Constabulary continued to play this role until after independence. Local police, ill-trained and ill-equipped, were under the control of local politicians. It was only during the period of the Marcos dictatorship that the Philippine Constabulary was renamed “Philippine National Police,” and the local police incorporated and provided better training and equipment in an attempt to make them more professional. Except in larger urban centers this had marginal results. But Marcos centralized control as part of a broader centralization project. Together with the confiscation of unlicensed guns at the onset of martial law in 1972, this curbed local political violence. What increased was anti-dictatorship violence, the resurgent New People’s Army (NPA), and with counterinsurgency, extrajudicial killings and other human-rights violations. But after Marcos fell, some level of administrative control over police was returned to local authorities.

THE NPA armed struggle is a direct challenge to the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. What the NPA in effect has been saying is that armed struggle is a more legitimate use of violence than that of state violence. This assertion has been eroded by now almost 40 years of ineffectual violence and by the use of violence in intra-party political and ideological struggles. The murder of Conrado Balweg more than a decade ago by an NPA unit led by his own brother is one of the more celebrated occasions of violence in Abra. An NPA commander himself, Balweg got on the wrong side of his former comrades when he led a company of guerrillas to split and to subsequently challenge Communist Party hegemony in rebel ranks with the formation of the Cordillera Peoples’ Liberation Army.

During the Marcos dictatorship, the NPA went from strength to strength. The legitimacy of NPA violence was widely accepted. NPA was taken to mean “Nice People Around.” In fact, even during this period, the NPA did many “not very nice” things. It presided over a system of rough justice where execution was punishment for habitual rapists, carabao rustlers, and “incorrigible landlords.” This was accepted under conditions of regime illegitimacy, and given the limits of police capacity, was seen as a form of “citizen-initiated justice.”

The legitimacy of NPA violence began to crack after Marcos fell; internally, the cumulative impact of purges, the so-called anti-infiltration campaigns that started in 1981, also proved devastating to the organization. The use of “mass-campaign” Maoist political technology to solve a counter-intelligence problem, rooting out military agents within the ranks, led to runaway campaigns driven by hysteria. The assassination of party leaders such as Rolly Kintanar and Art Tabara by NPA hit squads after the splits of 1992-1994 were condemned even in progressive circles.

NPA violence is closely related to politician violence. There have been reliable reports of politicians contracting the NPA to assassinate their political opponents. These murders are justified as “revolutionary” violence against “class enemies” with “blood debts.” In places such as the Bondoc Peninsula, the NPA is allied with local landlord politicians fighting against organized poor peasants. But NPA and politician violence is not always symbiotic. Politicians are forced to contribute money and often guns to the NPA especially during periods of election campaigns. As one politician explained it, it is difficult to say no to an organization that is like “an armed Iglesia ni Kristo.” Even as protagonists, both the NPA and politicians undermine democracy.

The NPA’s contribution to high levels of political violence is not all self-initiated. Government counterinsurgency has been a more pervasive source. Because of weak capacity and poor equipment and because guerrilla struggle precisely narrows the difference between civilian and combatant, human-rights violations by the military and the police have provided a rich source of illegitimate violence. This has been especially pronounced in the past couple of years. Major gains by national democrats in open political struggle, combined with President Arroyo’s illusion that the insurgency can be ended before the end of her term in 2010, provide the political backdrop to the murder of several hundred leaders of party-list organizations, such as Bayan Muna. Because the targets have been open political leaders and the attendant publicity has been intense, the contribution to a sense of impunity has been high. If the government, which is supposed to curb the illegal use of violence, is itself engaged in such violence, attempts to stop or limit violence are seriously impaired.

The problem, precisely, with “equal-opportunity violence” is that everyone is into it. This is not just a question of “state capacity” — one that, over time, will be corrected. State capacity is built up with specific political decisions. The killings of national democratic activists will continue as long as the Arroyo administration continues to make excuses for it. Given the nature of our politics, many similar decisions will have to be made at the subnational level. The Bersamins will have to forego the emotional satisfaction of tit-for-tat revenge. If they can defeat the Valeras with the ballot box instead of through a gun barrel, they will strike a blow for democracy. Violence is anti-democratic; it undermines the elemental foundations of democracy, which requires limiting the consequences of political defeat in elections. Killing is permanent; democracy means being able to fight again another day.

Joel M. Rocamora is with the political think tank Institute for Popular Democracy. He also chairs the political party-list group Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party.