August - September 2008
Till debt do us part?

Young guns, young terror

ALL OVER the world, the practice of engaging children and teenagers in criminal gangs and private armies continues unabated. The Philippines is no exception.

A little-known academic study documents how minors are being recruited down south in private armies better known as civilian volunteers organizations or CVOs. These groups help keep village adults in a perpetual state of fear and obeisance, even if some of the “volunteers” have not moved past puberty.

The 80-page study was conducted across a five-month period in 2003 by researchers led by Agnes Zenaida Camacho of the University Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UCIDS) at the University of the Philippines.

It focused on three towns of Maguindanao and the use of minors by the pagali or clan to keep itself in power. The researchers interviewed 10 young CVO members, who had to be assigned pseudonyms in the report, for their own protection.

Most of the young CVO members were recruited into the armed group as replacement for their fathers who had been killed in action, the researchers learned. Of the 10 interviewees, only two were 18 years old at the time they started working for a pagali. One interviewee was drafted into CVO service when he was only 10 years old, and the seven others, in their early teens.

UCIDS noted that while the CVOs were organized to assist in defending towns against insurgents, “in certain parts of the Philippines, local politicians are reportedly heavily arming and using members of CVOs in their respective localities as private armies.”

An unpaid family loan to the pagali compelled one child to join the CVO. Yet when he was ready to pay, the pagali head, a mayor, gave the child a gun and ordered him to kill someone before his payment would be accepted. Left with no choice, the child said he did as he was told.

Disobedience entails serious punishment. “Failing to follow orders to murder a pagali enemy is punishable by death,” the researchers said.

For most of the interviewees, however, conscription into the CVO unfolds as a slow process. The new entrants are given small jobs at first, like escorting members of the clan when they venture outside their homes. The recruits do this with issued firearms in tow. Once their loyalty and adherence to the code of silence is proven, they are inducted into “malalaking lakad (big jobs),” mainly involving crime, the researchers said.

“From the interviews with the children, these range from kidnapping, extortion, instigating displacement, murder, torture, and drug trafficking,” the report said.

Among the most benign activities that the CVO members said they did was to collect P20 from vehicles passing the highway. There are other tasks. An interviewee said he was assigned to a pagali’s marijuana plantation near the province’s marshlands.

Others said they served in the pagali‘s “business” ventures, including dealing in shabu or metamphetamine hydrochloride, and doubled as dealers. The report said the illegal trade reached as far as General Santos City, Davao City, and Manila, the report revealed.

To one interviewee, these transactions explain how a pagali could afford to live it up. “How do you think they are able to afford a mansion or luxury cars?” the interviewee asked.

The report unravelled more details. “Another child interviewee said that the pagali in his area, a mayor, conducted ‘operations’ or raids against selected areas particularly after the rice harvesting season — to steal the crops after the residents of the target areas had evacuated their homes and farms.”

“I guess that’s why some CVOs have gotten used to stealing,” the researchers said, quoting one of the interviewees as saying. “When you think about it, the mayor is really behind everything.”

The UCIDS study abound with even more gruesome stories, notably one told by “Rudy,” who was recruited into a CVO unit when he was 17.

A scion of the pagali had been killed in a bomb blast, and soon after, three teenagers suspected of involvement were brought to the compound of another son of the clan’s chief.

The three suspects met tragic deaths. “One was killed using machetes, while another was peppered with bullets,” the UCIDS report said Rudy had recounted. “The eldest of the youths suffered the worst: his limbs were cut off using a chain saw.”

The CVO members were directed to put salt in the suspect’s wounds and then “(they) cut parts of his body with a chain saw while he was still alive,” Rudy had narrated. The CVO members present were later instructed to dump the suspects’ bodies in a nearby river.

What might well pass for a culture of keeping armed men could be likened to “pagali dictatorship,” according to the researchers. Apart from ensuring the clan’s dominance, it accords a pagali an aura of machismo.

By their reckoning, the researchers said that the higher the position of an official, the more armed men he commands, but most especially if he is the leader of the clan or occupies an important position in the pagali.

Yet for all the unwholesome duties they perform for the pagali, CVO members collect paltry pay. Their salaries vary, with some receiving P1,000 a month, and others, P3,000.

On occasion, when the pagali boss is feeling generous, they get a bonus of rice and clothes.

Rudy, however, has not been as blessed with such windfall. In fact, he said that for a long time, he did not get whatever benefits he was supposed to. And months after he was interviewed by the UCIDS researchers, Rudy was killed in a encounter between soldiers and separatist rebels. He was 25.

Still and all, the “chainsaw story” he told the researchers has somehow outlived Rudy. By all indications, he had evolved into a legend of sort in Maguindanao.

When the PCIJ visited recently, some village folk said they know who were behind the gruesome murders and where these happened. Advisedly, they said that they are too scared to go on record on this story or they might be the next ones to hear the buzz of a chain saw.