Masbate bets raise alarm over private armed groups

MASBATE, Philippines – Local candidates in this province sounded the alarm on the continued presence of armed groups maintained by powerful politicians – some with active and retired cops and soldiers, and communist rebels – that threatens the conduct of fair, peaceful, and orderly elections in their area.

Local candidates took turns expressing their election-related concerns at the first-ever dialogue with the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Philippine National Police Special Task Force Masbate at Camp Bonny Serrano in Masbate City on Tuesday, February 16.

The dialogue, initiated by the AFP Southern Luzon Command (Solcom) and PNP-Bicol, aims to address peace and security issues with candidates, and to secure the commitment of local officials for peaceful and orderly elections in the province, one of 6 areas of concern identified by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Former Masbate City prosecutor Freddy Sera, a reelectionist provincial board member, challenged fellow candidates to "confess" that they are maintaining PAGs.

“If you want to put an end to election violence in Masbate, look at yourselves. Confess your sins now that you are maintaining private armed groups, hiring criminals, active and ex-soldiers, policemen, and rebels to kill and terrorize people,” he said.

Sera alleged that some local politicians are essentially arming and funding enemies of the state – members of the New People's Army – for their personal interest.

“Admit now in this dialogue with the presence of the military and police generals that you are giving money and arming the New People’s Army. The money and arms you have given to the NPA are used to kill our government forces. It’s your fault why the NPA is increasing because you’re giving money and firearms to them,” he said.

Goon-swapping, Mindanao recruits

Former policeman Elpidio Daligtig of Cataingan Masbate, who is running for town councillor, supported Sera's claim, noting that bigtime politicians have recruited active soldiers and policemen from Mindanao as their hired thugs, for a monthly salary of P25,000.

Some politicians are also reportedly swapping goons from Samar and Sorsogon provinces, the former cop added.

“Politicians here are hiring active soldiers and PNP in Mindanao," Daligtig said. "It’s a usual practice here by the politicians to use NPA and so as they’re trading off goons from Samar and Sorsogon."

Baleno town Mayor Romeo C. dela Rosa said the series of killing incidents in Aroroy and Baleno towns are election-related, and supported the claims of Sera and Daligtig.

“Criminals, ex-soldiers, and NPAs were hired by the politicians so we need the Special Task Force of the PNP and AFP here to neutralize these elements every election period or even after election,” Dela Rosa said.

Mobo town Mayor  Percival D. Castillo raised his concern over the continuing presence of hired thugs in his town. “In my town alone, goons and loose firearms are thriving. They’re terrorizing every day in our town,” he said.

Criminality increases in the province during the election period "due to [political] rivalry," said Masbate acting governor Vince Revil, the Liberal Party congressional candidate in the second district of Masbate.

Revil, who said he doesn't have a PAG, cited the importance of placing the province in the Comelec election watch list. He said Task Force Masbate contributed to ensuring "fair election and minimizing the presence of NPA” in the previous election.

Revil is running against reelectonist Masbate Representative Olga Kho, who is supported by presidential candidate Davao City Mayor Robrigo Duterte.

Warning

NO TO PRIVATE ARMED GROUPS. Lt. General Ricardo Visaya, Southern Luzon Command chief, asks local officials in the island province of Masbate not to employ rebels and private armed groups or face with necessary action.

Following the concerns raised during the dialogue, Solcom chief Lieutenant General Ricardo Visaya warned politicians with PAGs and those supporting communist rebels that necessary action will be taken against them.

“Those politicians supporting our enemy and employing private armed groups, we will go after you even if you’re our friends. I am appealing to you, don’t utilize them or else you will be dealt with necessary action,” Visaya told the Masbate reelectionists and candidates, ranging from governor to town councillor.

Visaya said that authorities will go after people with firearms and if they resist arrest or try to fight off authorities, they will be neutralized. 

The Comelec has identified Masbate as one of the 6 areas of concern following its history of election-related violence, and the presence of the NPA and PAGs.

Visaya said that the presence of NPAs remain a potent threat, specifically for the May 2016 polls, as the group continues to conduct extortion activities in the guise of permit-to-campaign (PTC). He said that PTC cards have been confiscated in some towns of Camarines Sur and Batangas.

Arturo Gomez, spokesman of Task Force Masbate, said that there are at least 5 active PAGs operating in Masbate, employed by politicians. These are the Arizabal, Villaruel, Del Rosario, and Arcavado PAGs.

Gomez withheld the names of the politicians employing the PAGs, citing operations to stamp out these groups.

Almost all incumbent officials – the governor, the mayors, the board members and a few town councillors – attended the dialogue.

Members of the Lanete clan were absent. Former Masbate representative and governor Rizalina Leachon Lanete is currently detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig over plunder and graft charges in connection with the pork barrel scam.

Additional cops deployed

Chief Superintendent Augusto Marquez Jr, Bicol police chief, said that the PNP regional command deployed 700 additional cops to the province, who will be joined by 100 Special Action Force troopers from the Cordillera Administrative Region. They will augment the current 1,000 policemen manning the Masbate provincial command.

About 2,050 policemen and soldiers will be deployed for election duties in Masbate.

“The augmentation is needed to achieve a peaceful and orderly elections in May 2016 based on the NPA and PAGs threat as well as the intense political situation,” Visaya said.

On February 26, PNP Bicol and the AFP will seal a "peace covenant"  with local politicians  in pursuit of peaceful elections. Rappler.com