February 2007
Local Bosses

Platoons of goons?

ACCORDING TO the latest reports, the Bersamins of Abra are among 10 political families in the province supposedly under close watch by the Philippine National Police for maintaining private armies. But by many accounts, the Bersamins — whose most prominent member, Congressman Luis Jr., was gunned down last December — were mainly “fence-sitters” who maintained links with the two main groups battling over Abra.

The dominant group is said to be headed by Governor Vicente ‘Vicsyd’ Valera, who enjoys the allegiance of about 17 of the province’s 27 mayors. The other group is led by a triumvirate — or at least it was until one of the supposed leaders, La Paz Mayor Marc Ysrael Bernos, was killed last year while watching a basketball game in his town. But his two alleged partners, Lagayan Mayor Cecilia Luna and Bucloc Mayor Mailed Molina, are still very much around.

Luna is among those allegedly included in a PNP list of Abra politicos said to be maintaining private armed groups or PAGs. The family of the late Mayor Bernos — whose younger brother took over his post — is also supposed to be on the list. But Molina, a Cordillera People’s Liberation Army supremo, is not.

Bernos’s widow Joy admits they have about 15 security men. She says they used to be armed, but got rid of these because of Task Force Abra, which the PNP formed in 2004 after the post-election violence that ensued in the province that year. According to Joy Bernos, they need security because her husband was a very vocal critic of Valera.

Mayor Luna, meanwhile, says she does not know three of the six people the PNP is said to have listed as part of her armed group. Of the other three, she says one is her son, another just approached her once for help, while the third is “from another town.” Some Abrenians say Luna has more than 100 men under her wing. But the 53-year-old mayor, whose mother was also Lagayan chief executive for about 12 years, will go only as far as saying that she has sons and nephews who act as her bodyguards. She also says they own licensed arms — shotguns and .45 caliber pistols — that, she says, will be used only for protection. Luna herself owns a .45 and a .38 Taurus, having been trained to fire at empty cans during her teens, when her uncle was Abra governor.

Luna has reason to be wary. In 2005, there was a botched attempt to assassinate her and her family. Luna immediately filed attempted murder charges against Valera before the Ombudsman’s office, where the case remains pending. The charge was based on statements of two army officers of the 41st Infantry Battalion who said they were deployed allegedly on orders of Valera (Luna’s distant relative and her mother’s long-time political ally) to conduct a “special mission” to “liquidate” the mayor and her family, on accusations that they were supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA).

“I’m the only one who hasn’t been killed yet,” cries Luna. She recalls that it was in fact Rep. Bersamin who had urged her to go to Manila in January 2005 because of word that there was a P300,000-price for each member of her family. According to Luna, Bersamin told her, “Pinapapatay ka na ‘di mo pa alam (You’re already a target for assassination and you don’t even know it).”

When it was Bersamin’s turn to receive threats, however, the Abra lawmaker ignored it and refused to hire bodyguards. “He didn’t believe in those things,” says Eustaquio ‘Kit’ Bersamin, the slain congressman’s brother. Kit Bersamin points out that his brother even filed a resolution in Congress, seeking an investigation on the “alleged proliferation and maintenance of armed groups” in Abra.

Kit and several of the Bersamins were surprised to hear that their family could be on a PNP watchlist. But Kit says the people said to be identified on the list as part of their armed group are hardly that. One works as a security aide, he says, another is a cook at the House of Representatives, while two others are a driver and a househelp. Two more men supposedly named in the list as part of the Bersamins’ alleged PAG are barangay captains, he says.

This May, Kit will run for governor of Abra. It was Luis who was supposed to run for provincial chief executive, although he had earlier agreed to “switch” with the governor’s wife Zita, the current Bangued mayor. The original plan was he would make a try for her post while Zita Valera would run for congresswoman. The Valeras, after all, are family, the governor being an uncle of the Bersamin brothers. But then Malacañang reportedly conveyed a wish that Luis run for governor instead. The latest from Abra is that Gov. Valera will run for reelection while Zita will go for Luis’s old congressional seat.

Murders and homicides in Abra, 2004-2006
Source: Abra Police Provincial Office

CRIME 2004 2005 2006
Murder 54 62 47
Homicide 19 12 11
Frustrated murder 28 26 28
Frustrated homicide 57 33 22

Unlike many Abrenians, Kit Bersamin says not all politicians in his province have PAGs, mainly because, he says, it’s simply too expensive to maintain a private army. According to some estimates, just arming a squad of goons would cost about P200,000. Excluding special weaponry (PAGs are reportedly armed with high-powered guns), and other expenses and perks for the “boys,” the minimum monthly cost of maintaining PAGs in Abra could run up to P2 million.

Then again, the police allege that Internal Revenue Allotment funds are being used not just as support to the local communist movement, but to fund private armies as well.

Actually, Gov. Valera is also said to be on the PNP watchlist. The police reportedly say he has an “army” of about 40 men, among them two mayors, several rebel returnees, and convicts. Some Abrenians, however, say the number is closer to 400, including some police and military officers and NPA leaders.

The PCIJ sought the governor’s comments on the issue, but he was unavailable. In previous reports, however, Valera had repeatedly denied having an armed group. In a special report published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2004, Valera had also dismissed the notion of violence and PAGs being part of Abra culture. He said he feared the day “when everybody will be relying on goons, firearms, terrorism, and threats” just to win an election.

The governor, though, has not welcomed the extended presence of special action forces (SAFs) deployed by Task Force Abra, which was supposed to restore peace and order in the province after a particularly brutal 2004 polls there. In a letter he wrote last month to the Commission on Elections, he said the Task Force Abra commander, Police Sr. Supt. Eugene Martin, and his men were becoming “too partisan to a fault.” He urged the commission to replace the entire police force in Abra, including the task force, with other police officers in the region.

“My political enemies portray me without letup as a murderer without offering one single shred of evidence,” wrote Valera. “Their voodoo politics of hate has only served to aggravate the situation in Abra.”

But the task force claims it “has greatly improved the peace and order situation in the province.” Its most recent report states that the activities of private armed groups have been “curtailed,” with checkpoints in place and the continuous monitoring of loose firearms, or those without permits.

At the very least, the number of murder and homicide cases declined from a total of 74 in 2005 to 58 in 2006, or a 20-percent drop. The number of cases of loose firearms also decreased by 58 percent, from 40 in 2005 to 17 last year. All in all, Abra has had 205 deaths, a number of which are believed to be politically related, in the last three years. Some of these cases remain unsolved.

Kit Bersamin believes that all political murders in Abra, a province with one bridge serving as both entrance and exit, will be solved once the assassins and the mastermind behind his brother’s death are brought to justice.