Cebu: The Wild Wild East
“Guns don’t kill people, people do,” say some folks after random shootings. The large number of assassinations in Cebu these past months reminds us how the “paltik” was created in the town of Danao and grew during the Marcos era. Low-grade weapons made using scrap metal often resulted in guns that were more dangerous for the shooter than the target.
That cottage industry soon took root in the powder-keg region of southern Mindanao, where Muslim insurgencies and rogue elements have thrived for decades.
The era of private armies, pervasive during Marcos’ time when the NPA proliferated, may be over, but they still operate in southern Mindanao. The Marawi episode attested to that.
The 2009 massacre in Maguindanao, where the Ampatuan clan ambushed and killed members of a rival political family, was termed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as “the single deadliest event for journalists in history.” Along with some 58 civilians, 32 journalists died in that attack. The many witnesses to that atrocity, and the confiscation of large numbers of high-powered firearms from the Ampatuans, have done nothing to hasten prosecution of the case, which remains in limbo.
In Cebu today, killings have reached staggering proportions. Since February 2018, 27 persons in Cebu City have lost their lives, while 68 were killed in provincial towns. A few of the fatalities were women; victims have included children, the youngest being a 4-year-old hit in July by a stray bullet during an antidrug operation.
Cebu Daily News has reported that, since 2017, nine policemen have been killed by unknown assailants, three during police operations. Local government tallies of deaths include a PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) agent, four barangay captains, two councilors and a vice mayor. As of Aug. 6, a special commission reportedly “investigated at least 70 cases of EJK (extrajudicial killing) in the region.”
Cebu Mayor Tomas Osmeña and Cebu City Police director, Senior Supt. Royina Garma, recently reported receiving death threats, so their security was tightened. But the two have issued contradictory statements about the numbers of victims, mobile patrol groups and SWAT teams in the city, thoroughly confounding the public.
On Aug. 6, when President Duterte appointed the aptly named Lito Patay regional director of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group for Central Visayas, an online video read: “Patay kayo kay Supt. Patay (You’ll all die with Supt. Patay).” Sure enough, two days after his appointment, a PDEA agent was shot in the southern city of Carcar. Patay’s previous stint in Quezon City, which lasted a year, was widely termed a “success” for having resulted in 108 drug suspects killed.
In early August, a Mactan resort was attacked by 30 armed men who were quickly apprehended. Authorities were quick to say the incident made no dent on tourist arrivals, so Cebu’s main attraction as a cut-rate tourist destination is preserved for the nonce.
An environment where checkpoints and firearms are seen as normal seems not to faze foreign visitors, while local citizens, like the few cocooned in their gated communities, seem inured to cops-and-robbers scenarios and simply boost their security.
Motorbike-riding assailants in Cebu are not quite Chicago-gangland types. Their operations are more small-scale guerrilla warfare, as they melt into rural landscapes from the urban setting after their operations.
The local gun manufacturer Armscor, which produces weapons for local and foreign clients, makes it easy for companies, government and military agencies, individuals and rogue elements to own guns. Since licensing laws are loosely applied, gun ownership is easy. Rounding up the picture, guns from China as gifts to the Duterte administration are now available.
Like the United States where bloody episodes reminiscent of the Wild West often occur, Cebu is now notorious for the rash of assassinations in the province, as local leaders rush to carry out Mr. Duterte’s diktat to target drug dealers.
Mr. Duterte’s reputation as Davao’s gunslinging mayor helped him win the 2016 election handily. After he was elected, he said he’d once been inspired by Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” films. In his first year in power, reports of EJK deaths ranged from 7,000 to over 10,000, with authorities baldly declaring that the victims died because “nanlaban” (they fought back).
As the specter of .22-caliber rifles, 12-gauge shotguns, semiautomatic pistols and .45 Colts hovers over ordinary Cebuanos’ heads, apparently they’ve learned to live with it.
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Isabel T. Escoda has written books on Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong and has contributed to the Inquirer since the 1980s.
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