DAVAO CITY, Philippines — Florentina Roble, a neighborhood official in this war-torn city 600 miles south of Manila, dropped by the office of the city's military commander last week to volunteer her services in the struggle against the nation's Communist insurgency.
Roble had never fired a gun in her life, she said. But the soft-spoken, middle-age woman told the commander that she would do her best to organize a civilian vigilante squad to keep the Communists out of her neighborhood. The only problem, she said, was her fear that the armed rebels would retaliate.
Col. Franco Calida, Davao City's military police commander, did not even blink. Sitting beneath a poster of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, he asked no more than the woman's name. Then he pointed casually to the 10 handguns lying on the floor beside his desk and said, "Your choice."
Revolver in Purse
Moments later, Florentina Roble slipped a .38-caliber revolver into her purse--one of dozens of firearms that Calida handed out to local civilians that week. She strode confidently out of the colonel's office as the newly deputized leader of one of dozens of officially sanctioned vigilante squads in a city once controlled by the Communist New People's Army (NPA).
Roble is just one of thousands of civilian politicians, former rebels and unemployed youths throughout this city of 1.4 million who are being deputized and armed to fight the nation's intractable, 18-year Communist rebellion.
Calida, a self-styled anti-Communist fanatic who displays bodies of alleged Communists killed by his vigilantes alongside the skeletal remains of the rebels' alleged victims on the lawn outside his office, says he believes his program is at the cutting edge of the Philippine government's counterinsurgency strategy.
Dose of Own Medicine
"We are cooking them in their own oil; we're giving them a dose of their own medicine," he said last week. "We're using their own tactics to turn the public tide against them, and it's working. There are almost no Communists left in Davao City today, just the priests and the nuns, and we'll go after them next."
In recent weeks, vigilantism such as Calida has organized in Davao City has been spreading rapidly throughout the nation. And that has given rise to fears in virtually every sector of Philippine society that the groups could easily degenerate into civilian death squads.
From the slums of Davao City, which has been the insurgents' urban laboratory since the late 1970s, to the remote mountain Communist strongholds of Cebu Island, military commanders, right-wing farmers and anti-Communist local politicians have quietly spent the last several months arming civilians.
Those civilians have now been turned loose by the government to combat the nation's increasingly bloody insurgency in places where the military has been unsuccessful.
The groups, which have adopted such names as "The Uprising Masses" and "The Black Widow Spiders," already have killed scores of alleged Communist rebels on their own--with the sanction of local military commanders like Calida.
Some priests and human rights groups have begun comparing the vigilantes to the right-wing "death squads" of El Salvador that once reportedly massacred hundreds of civilians in that Central American country.
'A Real Blood Bath'
"Myself and a few others suspect there will be a real blood bath one of these days," said Father Jack Walsh, an American priest who has lived in Davao City for 25 years.
Walsh took issue with the claim that the vigilantes have driven the Communist rebels out of Davao City; he said the insurgents abandoned the city during an internal power struggle as long ago as October, 1985. But he added that he fears the Communists will return and a blood bath will occur when they "decide this whole thing has gone far enough."
Nonetheless, in a series of moves last week that stunned the nation's human rights advocates and leaders of the political left, President Corazon Aquino's government appeared to endorse the vigilante groups publicly.
Aquino's military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, after a 24-hour tour of Davao City on Wednesday, praised Calida's vigilante squads as "civilian organizations dedicated to the defense of their community."
Local mayors and governors appointed by Aquino, among them Davao City's politically progressive Mayor Zafiro Respicio, have sanctioned the groups and encouraged their city councils to allocate government funds to support them.
Jaime Ferrer, Aquino's Cabinet secretary in charge of local governments, has publicly commended vigilante groups. A leader of a socialist political party in the ruling coalition, Ferrer has also begun barnstorming the nation, ordering governors and mayors either to create such squads in their regions or risk being fired.