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'They're Getting Away With Murder Here' : Unsolved Assassinations Anger Filipinos

November 22, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

TACLOBAN, Philippines — The glass of potent palm wine stood untouched in the center of the table in the office of DYVL Radio. It was for Ramon Noblejas, a radio commentator who had been shot and killed 40 days earlier just outside the station.

Around the table sat Noblejas' best friends: the station manager, the local police chief, a fellow radio commentator, an army colonel, a politician.

The occasion was to have been a happy one-- padasal , a Philippine tradition of food, drink and prayer to mark the ascendancy of a soul 40 days after death, the same period that Christians believe elapsed between Christ's Crucifixion and his ascendancy into heaven.

But, no matter how much bitter tuba wine Noblejas' friends drank, they just got angrier.

"I am getting so fed up over this murder," Daniel Genotiva, the radio commentator, blurted out. "He was killed on Oct. 4. This is Nov. 12, and nobody has even been investigated for the murder. I am afraid that people will forget the cause for which our friend died."

The politician interrupted, chopping the air with his hand.

"Enough is enough," he said. "Too much killing, not enough law enforcing."

Carlos Filamor, the station manager, nodded in agreement, and said: "Something's got to be done. They're getting away with murder here."

The police chief and the colonel agreed.

Noblejas was shot in the back of the head in front of 200 people, under the glare of studio lights, moments after he had concluded his weekly program for children, "The Wee Wee Jamboree."

For his funeral, nearly the entire city of Tacloban turned out to express outrage at the violent death of the city's most popular radio commentator, a man who crusaded against local military corruption, gambling and protection rackets in this central Philippine city.

The Noblejas killing was not an isolated incident. It was one of hundreds of gangland-style killings that have frightened Filipinos this year.

At the root of their fear is the fact that none of the killings has been solved.

Critics of President Corazon Aquino, the police and the armed forces charge that the killings indicate the government's weakness and ineffectiveness. Social scientists theorize that the killings, some of them attributed to death squads, others to Communist rebels, are to be expected in a country in transition to democracy after two decades of dictatorship.

Nonetheless, the killings have elicited almost universal outrage and frustration among civilians who long for peace. And that frustration has given way to an even more frightening portent for the future: vigilante justice.

That anger surfaced again in Manila, as the killing--and the remembering--continued.

On Nov. 10, Nemesio Prudente, the president of the Philippines' largest university, was shot and critically wounded in Quezon City, a suburb of the capital. The university attorney, who was in Prudente's car, was killed. Another passenger was wounded.

The Prudente incident came only a few days after Manila policemen chanted "Kill Prudente, Kill Prudente!" as they mourned several of their own dead, victims of Communist death squads. Prudente had been charged earlier with harboring Communist rebels on his campus. Police officials investigating the attack on him said they had no clues to the identity of the men who opened fire on his car.

On Nov. 13, the first anniversary of the torture-killing of Rolando Olalia, leader of the May First Movement, a leftist labor coalition, thousands of laborers marched to the presidential palace complaining that his killing had not been solved.

On the day that Olalia was killed, Aquino announced that "every resource . . . of my government will be brought to bear in bringing the perpetrators of Olalia's murder to justice." She promised "swift and unequivocal justice."

But in the year since, close supporters of the president have been killed, too, among them her secretary for local government. Olalia's killing is still listed as unsolved, as are those of dozens of policemen and military officers. Many are believed to have been the victims of Communist assassination squads known as "sparrow units."

Alfredo Bengzon, the president's peace commissioner, said in an interview that the lack of progress in investigating the killings can be attributed to poor intelligence. The military intelligence network, which was used as a tool of oppression under President Ferdinand E. Marcos, was dismantled after Aquino took office almost two years ago.

"It may take us three to five years to bring the quality of intelligence back to an acceptable level," Bengzon said. "In the meantime, if your intelligence capability is poor, it's like trying to diagnose pneumonia without an X-ray."

Bengzon acknowledged that the government must try to speed up that process, or risk losing the support of the people.

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