Out of the shadows
That’s the title of the book “Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao,” edited by Francisco Lara and Steven Schoofs and published by International Alert early this year. It’s an insightful and important book and should come to the attention of the government agencies involved in the peace process. Indeed, it should come to the attention of every Filipino who wants to make some sense of the often alien and forbidding world of Mindanao.
A couple of recent events have driven home to me the need to push it to the national consciousness. The first is the killing of seven Marines in Patikul. The chief of the Patikul police says it was the result of an ambush while the commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade says it came from a chance encounter. The soldiers were part of a group hunting down the Abu Sayyaf which had just kidnapped a sergeant’s wife.
The question in my mind was not so much what actually happened as why the Abu Sayyaf is still free to ply its vicious trade. It’s been associated with dozens of kidnappings, some more heinous than others. It’s been associated with atrocities, like beheadings and mutilations. So why is it still there tormenting soldiers and civilians?
The second is the Ampatuans winning big in the last elections. So far no one has complained that the polls were rigged. Which raises all sorts of questions: Are the voters of Maguindanao natural suckers? Are they masochists? Will Mindanao ever rid itself of its clans and tribes, some more murderous than others?
“Out of the Shadows” offers real answers to these questions. Real as opposed to superficial, which is to simply reduce the problem to a peace-and-order one, namely, these are criminal elements and the government or its armed forces lack the will and means to stop them. That may be so, but that’s just part of it. Their persistence suggests so. Though criminal, they also provide livelihood for the community—oh, yes, even kidnapping for ransom does—and the reason the state lacks the will is that it’s embroiled in a system of relationships with the actors that compromises it.
The book examines the intricate relationships between the clans, between the clans and rebels, between the clans and the subnational state, between them and the communities, between them and the central government, a set of relations that derive from and shape the way wealth is created and distributed in Mindanao. The book calls this wealth creation and distribution “shadow economies.”
Despite the pejorative connotations of “shadow,” the word is used in a nonjudgmental way. Though some of these economies are patently criminal, such as kidnapping and drug-pushing, they’ve become ingrained in the workings of the society, involving as they do all sorts of actors, licit and illicit, private and public, local and national, as to give them stability, permanence, and at least in the eyes of the community, a measure of legitimacy. They’re “economies” in a real, if shadowy, sense.
The book examines six of these economies, the first three deemed criminal by the state (gunrunning, drugs, and kidnapping for ransom) and the second three borderline (land markets, cross-border trade, and traditional credit) which fly under the radar of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
I was particularly riveted to Ed Quitoriano’s chapter on guns and Eric Gutierrez’s chapter on kidnapping for ransom.
Quitoriano shows how the proliferation of guns in this country has been staggering. The military estimates that there are 2.83 million registered and unregistered guns in the hands of civilians alone—costing a whopping P56.6 billion. A great deal of the loose firearms are found in Mindanao, quite remarkably as a result of the clans/actors/“entrepreneurs” procuring these not from outside but from inside sources, not least military officials involved in the illicit gun trade. This was highlighted by the discovery of the Ampatuans’ high-powered weapons bearing government-issue numbers. Quite incidentally, investigation of this has stopped.
The Ampatuans themselves were in a reciprocal relationship with the Arroyo administration.
Gutierrez shows how kidnapping for ransom thrives not just because of the ingenuity and ruthlessness of the kidnappers but also because of the willingness of the community to help or turn a blind eye to it. The “economy” requires capital and organization. The actual kidnapping is often the least of the problems. Hiding the kidnapped, providing for their upkeep—the term “room and board” is actually used in letters demanding ransom—maintaining security: All these entail the help of the community to carry out.
The Abu Sayyaf did not invent kidnapping for ransom, though its name has become nearly synonymous with the crime. Alonso Tahir alias Tigre, a warrior of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was an exponent of it and enjoyed the protection of his community. He himself was known to protect and share the ransom with that community. Sentenced to death in 1999, he escaped and went back to his trade. The US government put him on its wanted list with a $1-million bounty on his head. The military then shelled his lair and reported him dead. Less than a year later, he was spotted and efforts were made to capture him. Which proved futile when the villagers themselves refused to help the authorities and helped him instead. He died in 2011—from diabetes.
If all this points to anything, it is to the need to realize that the path to peace is going to be a daang balubaluktot. The signing of the peace agreement is just the beginning—and the book cites instances when peace agreements have actually led to more, not less, violence. I do hope the government and civil society read this, as indeed ordinary Pinoys who ought to contribute to the discourse on it.
It’s one sure way to move out of the shadows.
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