UP’s gangland wars: A historical note

Patricio N. Abinales
A 1950 investigation of a hazing death suggests that rumbles became part of the fraternity routine after World War II. There was general consensus within UP that the violence of the Japanese Occupation and the American Liberation/Destruction of Manila took its toll on UP students.

This is the first of a three-part series on fraternities at the University of the Philippines.

Way back when I was a lecturer at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, I would sometimes start the semester by asking who among my male students were fraternity members. After ascertaining the fraternities they belonged to, I then reminded these “frat boys” that I am familiar with the rivalries in campus. I then would tell them in the strongest of my then cigarette-parched voice that I did not care what they will do to each other outside my room, but as long as they were in my class, they had to treat each other as fellow UP students.

In most cases this mild threat seemed to work, for even members of opposing fraternities appeared to be able to work together when told to be part of a research group. Whether they did beat each other up after class was something I never had a chance to know. (READ: UP frat attacks: ‘Suspects used baseball bat, lead pipes’)

The longest tradition rivalry were between law fraternities (Alpha Phi Beta, Alpha Sigma, Scintilla Juris, Sigma Rho, Upsilon Sigma Phi) followed closely by brotherhoods from the College of Engineering (Beta Epsilon, Epsilon Chi and Tau Alpha) and from the now-defunct College of Arts and Sciences where some of these fraternities have members who were either pre-law majors and those still taking their general education courses prior to moving to the specialization. But there were also fraternities specific to the college, prominent of which were Alpha Phi Omega, Beta Sigma, Pi Omicron, Sigma Kappa Pi, and Tau Rho Xi. These were the fraternities I remembered then.

In my time most of the rivalries were dictated partly by their political affiliations (the exceptions were the Engineering fraternities). The Left had varying influence inside Alpha Sigma, Beta Sigma and Scintilla Juris (and some slight sway on Tau Rho Xi) while the Alpha Phi Omega, Alpha Phi Beta and Upsilon Sigma Phi were fraternities identified with the Marcos Right. These political fidelities, however, were the more contemporary edition of long-standing rivalries that – for some fraternities – dated back to the pre-war period. Back then, the older law fraternities competed at student elections (their unusual Mason-like organization gave fraternities the edge over other student associations), and ran the Philippine Collegian. They also vied to get the smartest of freshmen and sophomores to join them.

Shell shocked

Available data suggest that rumbles became part of the fraternity routine after World War II. There was general consensus within UP that the violence of the Japanese Occupation and the American Liberation/Destruction of Manila took its toll on UP students. (This is based on a 1950 investigation of a hazing death, which this column will return to in its succeeding editions). It all began with the usual scrap between individual fratmen, quickly developing into group fistfights. According to ageing veterans of these early frat wars, the rumbles were sometimes settled amicably, with rival fraternities agreeing to a “truce.” 

But when a truce was difficult to agree upon, a mano y mano (hand-to-hand combat) by the two fraternity heads would be the final option. The myth then was that these gladiator-like contests were conducted in open fields like the back of the UP Library, for every frat member and the curious to watch – and perhaps put bets on. One wins and the boss’ fraternity gloats but the losing fraternity also gets to preserve its honor because their jefe (chief) fought with dignity. These gentlemanly jousts however did not last long as the standard norm for fraternity violence. 

By the late 1960s (and again this is as far as the available data indicates), the rumbles became more brutal in form with fraternities adding bottles, baseball bats, and metal pipes to their arsenals. At the end of the decade, this weaponry was beefed up with shotguns, Armalite rifles, pistols, knives, and machetes. It was also around this time that the traditional fraternities began to decline in influence as student radical groups came to control campus politics. Fearing a full communist takeover, the conservative fraternities set aside their differences and challenged the radicals in every student council election. 

First casualty

But the retreat of the fraternities did not mean the end of rumbles. In fact, UP’s gangland wars claimed its first victim on September 20, 1969, when Beta Sigmans beat to death Rolando Perez, an Upsilonian.

Perez’s death finally forced UP president Salvador P. Lopez to recognize the gravity of the problem. He issued an executive order outlining new rules and regulations on student conduct and discipline, including different forms of “student misconduct” that must be punished. Lopez suspended Upsilon and Beta Sigma for “carrying of deadly weapons, and fomenting “disorder, tumult, breach of peace or serious disturbance” inside UP, and asked the Quezon City Police and the local court of first instance to investigate Perez’s death and prosecute those responsible, respectively. 

Martial law put a damper on all activities inside UP, including the rumbles, but this did not last long. A year and a half after President Marcos installed a dictatorship, the rumbles were back, sans the Armalite rifles and the pistols. (To be continued) – Rappler.com

Part 2: Rumbles and institutional omerta

Part 3: A hazing

Patricio N. Abinales is an OFW.

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