In this city of hired guns, journalists are fair game

Our latest series describes Pagadian City as a land of hired assassins where journalists are caught in the crossfire. Pagadian is the most dangerous place in the Philippines for journalists — four have been murdered there since 2000, making it the murder capital of the country as far as journalists are concerned.

The series traces this high murder rate to the proliferation of criminal syndicates and illegal rackets, the number of loose firearms, and the breakdown of law and order brought about by the involvement of local officials and policemen in organized crime. Journalists who expose corruption and the link between local power and criminality are gunned down, their killers able to get away because they are protected by those in office.

Written by a journalist who is a native of Zamboanga del Sur, the report attempts to look at those responsible for the killings of newsmen there. He unravels a complex story that links several politicians in the area to the crimes. The series, however, does not tag any particular politician to the murders. Instead, it looks at the culture of violence, impunity, and unaccountable power that have given rise to the killings.

PAGADIAN CITY — Shops close in this southern city by seven in the evening, and the streets are soon almost empty after that. Once known for its farm produce and fishing industry, Pagadian and the surrounding towns of Zamboanga del Sur are today a melting pot of crime syndicates from all over Mindanao.

A culture of violence and impunity has invaded the city, says journalist Hernan de la Cruz. It is no longer safe to walk the streets of Pagadian unarmed. De la Cruz himself owns several firearms. Other journalists here have similarly armed themselves, after receiving threats by phone or text.

Four journalists have been killed in Pagadian since 2000, all of them apparently for linking politicians and policemen to the illegal activities that thrive in this city 780 kms south of Manila.

Murder is among those activities, as are drug trafficking, smuggling, and illegal gambling, including video karera (video game betting) and masiao (a numbers game similar to jueteng). Marco, a 47-year-old gun for hire from nearby Dinas town and one of the many hired assassins for which the province has become notorious, says that the going price for a hit is P30,000, although he also says some of the killers, especially the younger ones, will take out a contract in exchange for even just a few grams of shabu.

Almost no one here, however, gets caught for such crimes because, many believe, some policemen and local politicians are themselves behind these. The police here have been able to solve only three percent of the crimes committed, a figure that excludes the murder of 13 members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) since 2003.

“It is easy to operate (in Pagadian) because people don’t talk,” says Marco, who agreed to be interviewed for this report as long as his identity is disguised. “One can blend with the crowd after a hit and witnesses are either afraid to talk or just don’t care.”

Edgar Amoro, a schoolteacher who was a witness to the May 2002 murder of journalist Edgar Damalerio, was one exception. He had identified Guillermo “Gimo” Wapille as the gunman in Damalerio’s murder, and had vowed to see the case through, despite threats on his life. Wapille, a former policeman, is now in jail, after more than two years of eluding arrest. Last month, Amoro himself was shot dead. A known gun for hire once in the employ of the Pagadian mayor was arrested in connection with his murder, but was later released.

Zamboanga del Sur Rep. Isidoro E. Real Jr. says the judicial system is not working in this part of the country. He traces the breakdown in law and order to what he says is military and police involvement in criminal activities, as well as alleged ties syndicates have with government officials and politicians.

“I just can’t name names. I am also a politician,” he says. “(But) the killings have become part of our lives because of the hot political fights … There are so many killings here, not only of journalists.” According to Real, the province’s downward spiral into lawlessness began in the mid-1990s, when political and business rivalries, along with land conflicts began to heat up.

Nagging poverty and a proliferation of loose firearms have just made the situation worse in places like Pagadian. “With the situation now that a lot of people are poor, if you offer money to do something illegal, a lot of people would do it,” says Pagadian Mayor Samuel Co. But he says the perpetrators usually come from outside his city. “These are people within our city but they came from neighboring communities. Some of the killings just happen here.”

The mayhem is also due in part to the sheer number of gangs. Unlike nearby Misamis Occidental where criminal activities are controlled or run solely by the infamous Kuratong Baleleng syndicate, there is no central figure or organization in Zamboanga del Sur that has control over organized crime in the province. In Pagadian alone, according to de la Cruz, Kuratong Baleleng also has a presence, along with the Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and a slew of kidnappers, extortionists, robbers, smugglers, and drug dealers.

“There is no central command,” says a government intelligence agent. “They operate independently because criminal activities here are purely business. It’s the easiest way to earn a living.”

Wapille reportedly belongs to one of the smaller criminal groups operating in Pagadian. These groups are into paid assassinations, bank robbery, car theft and drug dealing. Cars and even motorcycles are stolen with alarming regularity in Pagadian. In fact, prior to his arrest for Damalerio’s murder, Wapille had been charged with car theft and armed robbery.

Bigger syndicates are into drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. The most wanted drug pusher in the Zamboanga peninsula was arrested in Pagadian last year, but other groups continue the business. Ivanhoe “Buddy” Bana was netted in a sting raid conducted by the PNP. Locals say that buyers collected their drugs from the holes dotting the high walls surrounding Bana’s mansion.

Authorities have had less luck catching Norham Amil a.k.a. Commander Ramsey and his men, who specialize in kidnapping and extortion. In 2001, Commander Ramsey’s group kidnapped Italian priest Guiseppe Pierantoni and netted P3 million to P5 million in exchange for his freedom. Marco says he has been hired by a local establishment to deter Ramsey’s group from asking it for “protection money.”

Marco, like most of the gunmen roaming Pagadian, is from Dinas, just 39 kms from the city. Marco says there are many armed groups in Dinas as well. Adds a driver of a foreign aid agency that had a project in that town: “Even the janitors and clerks at the town hall are armed.”

Villages in Dinas were once controlled either by New People’s Army guerillas or MILF rebels. To fight insurgents, the military armed Dinas residents in the late 1980s. Militia and vigilante groups like the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus or Tadtad, the Greenans, the Pulahans, the Yellow-Green and an alphabet soup of other groups flourished there. The Tadtad alone has an estimated current membership of 2,000 in Dinas.

“Syndicates, robbers and all kinds of criminals are in Dinas,” says Marco. “You can’t go to a barrio and get out alive if you don’t know anybody. Even the military has to coordinate with the syndicates or the vigilante groups to enter a village.”

“If you don’t have a gun to defend yourself, you will die,” says Marco. Feeling remorse apparently doesn’t happen too often among the gunmen of Dinas. “Killing people,” according to Marco, “is just like butchering a pig.”

The government intelligence agent says Marco is right about Dinas. But he also points out that there are syndicates operating in neighboring towns, such as Labangan, the lair of what the agent calls the “Muslim Group” because its leaders allegedly belong to influential Muslim political families. This group, he says, is divided into several sub-groups, which allegedly have links with the notorious 14-K drug syndicate.

“They don’t operate locally, they only launder their money here,” says the government agent. Some of the groups’ members have been arrested for drug trafficking but were later released. “Killing is not their main activity,” says the agent. “They kill only when other groups or people hinder their operations.” He says some local government officials and politicians, both Christian and Muslim, have control over the syndicates in Labangan. The agent notes that while these officials and politicians have substantial properties and landholdings, they do not have clear sources of income.

In Sominot town, meanwhile, remnants of the Kuratong Baleleng gang operate. Although authorities say the group has been neutralized there, some of its members are still active as hired guns and pull off bank robberies in places as far as Manila.

“It’s not easy to work here,” says Friolo Icao Jr., district office chief of the National Bureau of Investigation in Pagadian. Indeed, despite the growing notoriety of Zamboanga del Sur — and Pagadian in particular — regarding crime, Icao’s office has only two agents and a handful of “confidential agents” who are not even allowed to carry firearms. The NBI district office here is supposed to cover not only Zamboanga del Sur, but also Zamboanga-Sibugay. It has not helped that there is no fund for investigation and prosecution, says Icao. The police, he adds, have also clearly failed to protect witnesses.

Mayor Co blames the police as well for the continuing criminality in his city. He says they have been too slow going after criminals. After his election last year, he demanded that the police chief be replaced, but there are those who say his motives were largely personal. Co, they say, had been angered by Supt. Ramon Ochotorena’s supposed attempts to link him to some illegal activities.

Since his election as mayor, however, Co has been busy trying to put some teeth into Pagadian’s law-enforcement agencies. He ordered the purchase of new communications equipment and vehicles for the police force, and put up video cameras in major intersections to monitor the movement of people. Checkpoints were set up at all entry and exit points and a total gun ban is being implemented in the city proper.

Co is also ordering the arrest of motorcycle riders who exceed the speed limit, pointing out that most killers use motorcycles as getaway vehicles. He has also asked the national government to assign more police officers to Pagadian, which has a population of more that 150,000 but has only 102 policemen.

These measures, however, do not seem to have made a dent. In fact, many residents are wary, as the election of Co was supposedly funded by criminal gangs and Co maintains a private army, charges that the mayor denies.

This is why the Pagadian city council is calling on no less than President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to intercede and order a full-blown investigation into the sorry state of law and order in Pagadian and nearby towns. A group of concerned citizens that calls itself Citizens Action for Peace and Solidarity supports the call of the council even as it appeals to local officials to do their job.

But hired assassin Marco is far from shaking in his boots. “As long as there are clients, we will continue to operate individually or as a group,” he says confidently.

There is a growing demand for armed goons because of the growing number of criminal syndicates, says Marco. Maintaining a “private army” is also affordable. “You just feed us and our family,” he says. “The more money you have, the more people you can get.” He says the asking price for the salary of an armed goon is P20,000 a month, aside from expenses for food, lodging, transportation and logistics.

Murder, like illegal drugs, will continue to be a booming business here, he predicts. After all, even the tools of the trade are cheap. A Magnum .357 gun can be had for only P1,600 while a caliber .45 pistol costs only P6,000. One can hire a killer for as low as P5,000. “Some would even do it for a drink or a gram of shabu,” says Marco.

Of course the price for a hit depends on the status of the target. Marco’s asking price for an ordinary hit is P30,000, excluding incidental expenses like transportation, food and lodging. A mayor is worth at least P100,000, but Marco says P3 million was offered during last year’s elections for the head of then candidate Co, now the mayor. Marco says there were no takers for that one.

He says it is far more complicated to kill high-profile and prominent people because of their bodyguards, most of whom are also members of the syndicates.

Marco says prices for hits go down dramatically “if you hire the younger ones.” And there seem to be more of them every day. “They are more hot and reckless,” says Marco. “Unfortunately, there will be more casualties.”