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Ghosts of Kuratong Baleleng

On a late May afternoon in 1995, the security guard we affectionately called “Dagul” walked into the ABS-CBN newsroom to tell me a man who claimed to know something about an “encounter” that killed 11 people days earlier along the Commonwealth Avenue fly-over wanted to talk. We were transitioning to the evening shift after a long day at the assignments desk but the next desk editor was busy so I agreed to hear the man out though my tour had ended an hour ago. It was then I met SPO2 Eduardo delos Reyes, one of the cops tasked to investigate the incident and eventually blew the lid on the infamous Kuratong Baleleng rub-out case, implicating several police generals, the “rising stars” of the Philippine National Police.

Last July 30, police raiders killed Ozamiz City Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog and 14 others, including his wife Susan, brother Octavio Jr, and sister Mona after they allegedly tried to fight it out. Only the mayor’s daughter Vice Mayor Nova Parojinog survived the early morning carnage, reports from Manila said. The mayor’s and vice mayor’s names were part of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s list of judges and politicians allegedly involved with drugs. The Parojinogs and the Kuratong Baleleng, one of the largest, most notorious and violent criminal gangs in the country from the late 1980s to early 2000s, are inextricably intertwined.

Mayor Parojinog’s death has renewed the often bitter, sometimes asinine debate between Duterte supporters and critics. The Lantos Commission, the bipartisan human rights arm of the US Congress, recently heard testimony about it here in Washington.

Some people who live near that busy stretch of Commonwealth Avenue swear it’s haunted, presumably by the ghosts of the Kuratong Baleleng gang men, shot dead while handcuffed inside a pair of L-300 vans on May 18, 1995. Several more people would be found dead weeks, even months after; others tied to the incident would simply vanish, including Delos Reyes (he’s reportedly found refuge in Canada through the help of the Iglesia ni Cristo) whose valiant testimony wouldn’t be enough to overcome the wall of silence, apathy and denial that has relegated the massacre to an ever-growing list of footnotes on crimes in the Philippines.

The Kuratong Baleleng traces its roots to the innocuously named Botanic Youth Club, formed in 1986 as an anti-communist vigilante group that at its peak had over 40,000 members. That was the “fad” at the time, the government’s preferred way of staving off the threat from communist New People’s Army “Sparrow” hitmen. They were especially potent in Mindanao – Davao City, for instance, had the Alsa Masa that many believe served as the springboard for the city’s “peace-and-order” Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, and which later reportedly evolved into the notorious Davao Death Squads.

The military in northwestern Mindanao installed Octavio “Ongkoy” Parojinog Sr. as leader of the vigilante group. This same military allegedly assassinated him when they disbanded the group in 1988. But like an insidious infestation, it split up, transformed into one of the most successful criminal syndicates in the country, with tentacles branching out to everything from contract killing to illegal gambling, prostitution, and yes, drug trafficking. There was evidence that the group killed along Commonwealth Avenue in 1995 was responsible for at least some of the high-profile attacks on bank armored vans in Metro Manila, carting off hundreds of millions of pesos in loot.

Mayor Parojinog is the latest addition to local officials killed by the police for alleged complicity in the drug trade (the others are Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr last November and Datu Saudi Ampatuan Mayor Samsudin Dimaukom in October).

The Commission on Human Rights has opened a probe into the raid after declarations that the alleged firefight – if there ever was one – looked suspiciously one-sided. There are, I suspect, the same water-cooler discussions that followed the Kuratong Baleleng rub-out case over three decades earlier. The dead were, in the minds of many, the scourge of society who’s evaded justice for too long, a menace that needed rooting out. Good riddance, many of my friends insisted, the cops did some good for a change.

We played that moral calisthenics until November 24, 2000. That’s the day an old family friend and his driver – “PR man of last resort” Salvador “Bubby” Dacer – were abducted and murdered, their bodies later burned and dumped at a Cavite creek where their remains were identified only through dental records. “So how’s your dad?” was his standard hello whenever we’d bump into each other, “and your kids, how are the kids?” I would update him and he always seemed pleased to hear my tales. He was certainly no criminal; his death was blamed instead on an alleged plot to prevent him from spilling the beans against Pres. Joseph Estrada who would be ousted anyway by a People Power revolt months later. I stopped playing moral calisthenics after seeing that many in the cabal behind the Kuratong Baleleng rub-out were the same in Bubby’s murder.

Some of those “rising stars” have risen beyond the police constellation. And the killings go on.

 

 

 

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