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Philippine Vigilantes Forming to Face Rebels : Aquino Government Appears to Endorse Action; Thousands Deputized as Movement Spreads

March 15, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

Ferrer's own assistant secretary for regional operations, Lito Lorenzana, said last week: "Our main concern is that this would become some kind of killing machine. . . . I'm still a little skeptical."

13,000 Vigilantes

Quoting from a confidential government survey on the vigilantes, Lorenzana said there are already more than 13,000 members of civilian vigilante groups nationwide, more than half of them members of Davao City's Alsa Masa.

Even several senior military commanders expressed reservations about the vigilantes.

Arguing that Gen. Ramos' visit to Davao City was meant less as an endorsement of Alsa Masa than as a "fact-finding mission to see what Col. Calida was really up to," one general close to the chief of staff, when asked his opinion of the group, replied, "Did you ever hear the story about Dr. Frankenstein?"

Local officials such as Mayor Respicio echoed those fears.

'A Monstrous Cure'

"Maybe all we're doing is creating a monstrous cure that will be far worse than the disease," Respicio said.

"I'm walking a tightrope. I am concerned about the growth of Alsa Masa, and many of them are being armed. But people are turning against communism here, and I have had to consent to the barangay (neighborhood) captains' being armed because they are the people in the forefront actually risking their lives."

"But I'm jealous of the Alsa Masa," said Respicio, a former political activist who often marched alongside prominent leftist leaders during the 20 years of authoritarian rule under Marcos. "The people are more comfortable with Alsa Masa than with the local government officials. The only solution is to get the government working again in the neighborhoods so there's no need for groups like this."

City's Size a Problem

The biggest problem facing both Respicio and his military police commander is their city's size and character. Ranked the third-largest city in the world in area, Davao City has legal boundaries that include more than 1,000 square miles of urban ghettos, remote mountain villages and uninhabited jungle--too much for the police force to patrol.

And for now, Respicio concedes, Calida's appears to be the only solution to an insurgency that, just one year ago, was responsible for more than half a dozen deaths every day.

The idea for the vigilantes, Calida said, began last July, when the leader of a surrendering group of Communist rebels came to him with a proposal to use the insurgents' own tactics against them.

Joining forces with Rolando Cagay, the ex-rebel leader who now calls himself "Boy Ponsa," Calida decided to make an example of the city's Agdao neighborhood, a slum district where, for many years, the Communists had assassinated so many policemen and a local government "warlord" had retaliated so ferociously that it became known as "Nicaragdao."

'Killing Everybody'

"We started by killing everybody, all the known (Communist) killers and hit men," Ponsa said as he and several other vigilantes, all of them armed with M-16 rifles, patrolled their district last week.

Ponsa, who said he was born in the neighborhood and worked there as a junk and tire dealer before becoming a finance officer of the Communist Party nearly three years ago, said the community was so tired of paying what the rebels call "revolutionary taxes," of the murders of policemen and neighborhood officials, and of the rebels' strict policy against "drinking, gambling and womanizing" that its residents "embraced us."

"We will now make this anti-Communist movement spread through the whole country," Ponsa said through a translator. "When I finish in Davao, I will go to Manila, then to the other badly infiltrated parts of the country.

'The Sparrow Hunter'

"I will do it to the last drop of my blood. I want to be famous and known to everyone as the Sparrow Hunter"--rebel hit men are known here as Sparrows--"and I want a movie to be made of my life."

Meanwhile, another local personality is both benefiting from and spreading the anti-Communist fervor throughout Davao's large island of Mindanao.

Juan Pala, a Davao City radio disc jockey, has aligned himself with Calida and his vigilantes. He now spends at least four hours a day broadcasting anti-Communist philosophy--and threatening the lives of priests, nuns, local officials and corporate officials whom he believes are supporting the Communists.

Among the religious figures that Pala has said are targeted for death by the vigilantes is Walsh, the American priest.

Pala, who keeps a machine gun by his side and says he has mined the grounds around the radio station to protect himself, has not confined his threats to individuals.

Mass Evacuations

He has announced on the air, for example, that entire communities will be "wiped out and exterminated" by the vigilantes on a specific date "if you do not openly declare you hate communism." The threats have actually triggered mass evacuations from some villages where the Communist rebels have sought safe haven in the past.

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