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'Where Is Gringo?' Filipinos Ask : Once Hero, Now Hunted: Honasan Haunts a Nation

September 01, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — More than a decade ago, a young, idealistic Philippine army lieutenant named Gregorio Honasan was deeply concerned about the credibility of the armed forces as they battled thousands of armed Muslim secessionists on the southern island of Mindanao.

Honasan wanted to prove that body counts of enemy dead were accurate and not government propaganda, so he ordered his men to cut off the ears of each enemy soldier they killed and deliver them to their commander on a string.

"Then we told them, 'Just divide by two,' " Honasan said with a smile.

Today, Honasan's enemy is President Corazon Aquino, and that anecdote, related to The Times by now-Col. Honasan when he was still a national hero a year ago, reveals the ruthlessness as well as the depth of commitment of a man who is now the object of one of the biggest manhunts in Philippine history.

Honasan, known to almost every Filipino as Gringo, a nickname often given to men named Gregorio, has gone from hero to haunter in a year's time.

At age 38, Honasan was the chief planner and executor of the February, 1986, rebellion that drove then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos into exile and brought Aquino to power. The nation instantly worshiped the ruggedly handsome combat veteran, who appeared on the cover of national magazines with an Uzi submachine gun over his shoulder and a confident smile on his face. Teen-age boys pursued him for autographs, and girls taped his photograph to the walls of their rooms.

Four days ago, Honasan tried it again. He and a band of rebellious troops, most of them the same military ideologues who took part in the uprising against Marcos, seized the same Defense Ministry building in the same military camp and issued the same appeal to fellow officers and men to join them in the interest of the nation's future.

Disappeared Into Jungle

This time, Honasan failed. As loyalist Aquino forces led by Honasan's former ally, armed forces Chief of Staff Fidel V. Ramos, were crushing his rebellion last Friday, Honasan fled Manila in a helicopter and disappeared into the labyrinth of mountains and jungles somewhere north of the capital.

The fact that Honasan is still alive and free has left the nation ill at ease, almost certain that the fierce young soldier--who is best known to Filipinos for parachuting into Muslim war zones with a pet cobra he called "Tiffany" draped around his neck--will try again.

Aquino has directed the military to issue shoot-on-sight orders for Honasan and his fellow rebel commanders, among them Lt. Col. Tito Legaspi. Presidential aides have declared publicly that they want Honasan dead. And for a nation that thrives on war-movie heroes who inspire awe and terror, the question on most lips this week is: "Where is Gringo?"

Sensing the danger that Honasan could become an even more charismatic folk hero, a rebel with a cause in a culture that admires defiance, Aquino and Ramos both have launched a drive to discredit him and his men.

"Why is Gringo so glorified up to now?" Ramos, 60, growled to reporters Saturday as he toured the damaged camp that the rebels had used as their base. "He's a traitor. He is a big liar. He lied to his officers, he lied to his men and he lied to his country. He abandoned his men. He misled them, telling them they were going on a training mission. And he lied to the people, telling them he was for the people and then killing so many innocent civilians."

Aquino has gone even further. In a speech to senior military commanders Sunday, she branded Honasan and his men as "cowardly" murderers and defined the drama now being played out in the wake of the coup as a personal conflict between herself, as the force of good, and Honasan and his men as the "forces of dictatorship and darkness."

Personalizing even more the psychological battle with her now-invisible opponent, Aquino declared, "The aim of the rebels was clearly to kill the president and her family."

Although the killing of loyalist soldiers by Honasan's rebels alienated many key military officers and men who might have been tempted to join Honasan last week, it is not clear that the government's campaign to discredit Honasan is working on a civilian population that loves melodrama.

At least two major daily newspapers have responded positively to the anti-Honasan drive. The pro-Aquino Philippine Inquirer ran a front-page headline Sunday declaring "Gringo a Coward," and the respected Manila Chronicle published a story Monday that quoted Sen. Rene Saguisag, a former presidential adviser, as saying: "The Gringo of today is not the Gringo of the other day. Gringo doesn't smell like roses anymore."

The Chronicle story concluded: "In a manner of speaking, Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan is dead, the myth and mystique of a professional soldier that he wove around his person shattered by the coup he led last Friday."

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