Political Murder: Migrating from the margins to the center

The fathers of President Marcos and Secretary Remulla wouldn’t have flinched; but they are second-generation scions apparently spooked by one legacy of Duterte

The scale of the violence in Negros Oriental and Occidental is graphically brought home by this map from Rappler, which, mind you, covers only a limited period, July 2016 to August 2019.

As Rappler’s article puts it, “[Here is] a map of the killings in Negros Island – both Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental – from July 2016 to August 27, 2019….The map and searchable list are based on the compilation of the Defend Negros organization.”

I met the late Governor in 2016; back then the little time we had for chit-chat was spent on my quizzing him about China and the Chinese in his province; something I found of interest was that he had the same kind of small hand tattoo that (then newly-elected) President Duterte had; as it turned out, the late governor was, indeed, a member of The Guardians Brotherhood.

These were two competing clans, the late governor being a relative newcomer, but establishing his own bailiwick just as the more established Teves clan had theirs. From The Negros Times:

[The] Governor is currently Roel Degamo with his Vice-Governor, Dr. Macias. The wife of Governor Roel Degamo, Janice Degamo is also the Municipal Mayor in the town of Pamplona. The Teveses on the other hand, up to now still dominate some parts of Negros Oriental politically like Bayawan City and the Municipality of Valencia. The representatives in the third district of Negros Oriental, from the 8th to 18th Congress are all from the Teves family…

After the governor’s assassination, police in Bayawan were suspended; others have noted the string of killings in Bayawan (see my column below). As it is, Rep. Teves, prior to being the focus of investigations into the governor’s murder, was also poised to face charges for killings including a couple in Bayawan. A commentary by Marit Stinus-Cabugon minces no words when it comes to the congressman and his alleged misdeeds. Most of all, the commentary’s litany of assassinations points to many engaged in liquidations.

This week’s column then, is a look at the administration seeing a daily reflection in the headlines, of the administration it succeeded; and why it’s worried about what it sees.

I. This week’s The Long View.


II. The “fear factor”

In my column I suggest that both the President and his Secretary of Justice, scions as they may be, are far removed from their fathers, who were waist-deep in the violent realiries of local and national politics in their time.

After the entire political class was intimidated for six years, it’s to be expected that under a less frightening leader, the political system might recover some of its daring, or at least try to return to its former levels of impunity: or worse, exceed them. That seems to be the fear of the current administration.

The question of a “fear factor” has been widely discussed among the small circle of journalists, academics, and civil society denizens who are united by their outrage over the so-called “war on drugs.” Does the fear factor exist? A percptive viewer had, to my mind, the best explanation of the fear factor:

So [Duterte] didn’t terrorize the country by doing one big thing like suspending the writ, or declaring ML which would have planted a shared fear among diff sectors. He used targetted terror, as you can see from the above examples. If at all the only common denominator among his targets is the message: don’t fuck with me, I am vindictive to a fault, I know how to fuck with you – an attack on you will not immediately be seen as an attack on all, an attack on you will be an attack only on you and your sector.

So all of that plays into the fear factor and why it’s absurd for pollsters to cite refusal to answer as the measure of fear.

Back in 2021, I’d also pointed out there was another kind of fear factor: fear on his part, and that of his constituency, of the pendulum swinging the other way in 2022:

What the President revealed wasn’t a confession of motivation but instead, the launching of a campaign pitch and message. He is both calling in his chips and appealing to his base for loyalty and protection. It’s potentially a powerful combination. He always made the cornerstone of his policy of liquidations, a grand bargain. He would assume all legal, moral, and political responsibility for casualties in the so-called War on Drugs provided his rules were followed.

He has been consistent and relentless on that score. To his supporters he is reminding them of one of their hidden fears: that under a new regime the liquidations might end and spark a resurgence of the behavior his constituency wanted eliminated at all costs. Then there is the other fear, of unleashing a cycle of revenge or a policy of investigations and prosecutions: were the President to be handed over for prosecution it might provoke open season at home. And then there is the horrifying but potentially powerful image of the President being “sacrificed” as a poor repayment of his leadership: so the appeal is from a martyr to be spared martyrdom and disgrace; a powerful motivation for an enraged and indignant faithful to elect him to another position. It also points to the attack against anyone opposing his campaign.

An interesting paper claims the fear factor exists and furthermore, that its effect on measurements of public opinion is quantifiable:

Drawing on a novel list experiment conducted in Metro Manila and nearby areas, we find a plausible overestimation of the support for both the president and his anti-drug campaign by about 40 and 30 percentage points, respectively. Further analysis shows that such bias is more salient in provinces where the violence against “criminals and drug addicts” was more concentrated. The bias also tends to take place among the less educated, women, older, and poor respondents. Our findings suggest that state-sponsored extrajudicial killings may produce fear, perhaps more so for vulnerable social groups. The fear in turn compromises truthfulness in public opinion and undermines a weak democracy. 

I heard it argued in the past that the poor in particular always considered liquidations a manifestation of what power means in a community; the difference was that what was normal locally was now being normalized nationally —particularly in urban areas. Which leads us to the next item.

III. More on Political killings

As I mentioned above, I’ve looked at the work of Peter Kreuzer before (see Some LGU leaders bloodier than others from 2021). In the paper I quoted in my column, there is a section which takes a microscopic look at Negros Occidental and it makes for grisly reading (I’ve taken out citations for easier reading):

Negros Occidental: the unstoppable rise of a violent strongman from a rural municipality

Much greater historical depth is shown by the case of political violence in Pulupandan, a small municipality in Negros Occidental with a population of approximately 30,000. Here, the current political violence seems to have commenced with the 1987 killing of Joaquin O. Fernandez, who had been municipal mayor from 1971 to 1986. Twenty one years later the communist NPA claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Pulupandan’s then mayor-elect Magdaleno Peña, arguing that Peña had been guilty of land grabbing, terror against peasants, murder of farm workers and political organizers since the 1980s, as well as killing the former mayor Fernandez, a municipal police director and others. Despite the NPA claiming responsibility for the assassination that killed two of Peña’s bodyguards, Peña claimed that his opponent Luis Mondia and his brother Samson, who had just lost in the mayoral elections against Peña, were the masterminds behind the attack.

Shortly afterwards, the National Bureau of Investigation filed murder complaints against former mayor Mondia, “five members of his family, and two barangay captains”. The police argued that the Mondias cooperated with the communist NPA in the assassination attempt. Less than one year later the provincial prosecutor dismissed all charges for lack of probable cause. Two years later, a few months before the 2010 elections, Luis Mondia, who tried to make a comeback as mayor, was killed by an unidentified assassin. Thus, as is noted in one article, mayor Peña was “now seeking a reelection unopposed after the murder of his political enemy”. Three years later, before the 2013 elections, the mayor had first to ward off allegations that he maintained a private army. A few weeks later, in a raid on the mayor’s house, the police seized 90 high-powered firearms, among them six AK-47, two M16 and two sniper rifles, as well as ammunition and explosives. Later it was ascertained that this war-like arsenal of weapons was legally owned by the mayor and several extractive industry corporations in which the mayor held a majority share.

After having enabled his son and former barangay captain Miguel Antonio Peña to take over as mayor of Pulupandan in 2013, Magdaleno Peña shifted his political focus to the municipality of Moises Padilla. With his son re-elected in Pulupandan in 2016, Magdaleno ran and won as mayor in Moises Padilla in the same election. His niece and former mayor, Ella Garcia-Yulo took over the position of vice-mayor as his running mate, while one of the mayor’s political campaigners, Magdaleno Grande was killed by the NPA. In Moises Padilla violence continued, with the NPA killing a second of Peña’s trusted personnel in 2018. Then the “family alliance” between the mayor and vice-mayor fell apart, when it became clear that Peña and Garcia-Yulo would compete for the mayoral office in the 2019 elections. The rift was already visible in 2018, when Peña’s right-hand man and municipal councilor Agustin Grande III filed murder charges against vice-mayor Garcia-Yulo for the still unresolved killing of his brother Magdaleno in 2016. In April 2019 an ambush of the convoy of the vice-mayor took place, killing her brother Marc Garcia and nephew Michael Garcia, both local politicians. The surviving vice-mayor accused Peña of ordering her assassination. This came after one of Peña’s allies, municipal councilor Jolomar Hilario was killed by suspected NPA rebels in late March 2019. Eventually Garcia-Yulo won by a large margin, but not before the president himself had intervened on her side in the ongoing killings.

Figure 5: Timeline of Violence in Pulupandan and Moises Padilla, Negros Occident

However, Garcia-Yulo also seems to have instigated her share of political violence. One example is the murder charges for the 2016 killing of Magdaleno Grande which, however, came to nothing after her election victory in 2019. This result occurred even though one former NPA rebel claimed that Garcia-Yulo had good connections to the NPA and the two parties actually cooperated in the 2016 killing. In a second example, the police claimed in 2017 to have found several weapons, explosives, and drugs in her car when it was searched at a checkpoint, which led to her and her husband being jailed for more than six months. Given that the car was searched without a warrant, all charges were dropped, and the police officers were dismissed instead. In March 2020 relatives of several locals killed during the past few years filed new murder charges against Garcia-Yulo as being responsible for the violent deaths of their relatives. Those charges were dismissed by November 2020. Finally, in early 2021 her ally, nephew and vice-mayor, and a number of allied barangay officials were charged with the killing of Jolomar Hilario in early May 2019. Most of the accused officials had surrendered by late August 2021.

(Notes: 1. By 2007 Peña already had a long history of infighting against his mother and brother for control over the family assets, most importantly huge tracts of land. By 2007 he was on the verge of evicting more than 160 locals from their houses and dwellings on account of questionable court rulings and with the aid of his private armed guards. During the 2007 election campaign even his own family turned publicly against him, supporting the election of his opponent Samson Mondia. 2. In 1992, together with his relatives Samson, Manny, Rufino and Rodrigo, Mondia had at least one earlier complaint for murder filed against him for killing a civilian.)

Krezuer notes in his paper that the politicians, their retainers, but also, the military and rebels are all implicated in political killings. But there’s something else I’d like to highlight, from the end of his paper:

Summing up, two characteristics stand out: 1) almost complete impunity, with the proceedings against defendants in all cases “solved” by the police dropped by the prosecutors or the courts; 2) a feuding logic that pits families against each other with mutual attacks and retaliation that continue for years…

[O]ne assessment suggests itself: This type of violence is deeply ingrained in Philippine politics. It is actually so deeply ingrained that the globally exceptional magnitude of this type of violence is scarcely regarded in the Philippines as an issue that should be problematized. In its ordinariness, the phenomenon has become a natural, taken-for-granted part of politics, hardly worthy of special attention, except when too many politicians die violent deaths in too short a period of time. Even then, politics returns to business as usual after a short while.

We are, then, even in political murder, an outlier; there are, too, the points summarized in this paper, which zeroes in on Duterte bringing the violence of the periphery to the center:

The persistence of political violence in the country contradicts expectations that violence will decline once democratic procedures are restored … On the contrary, old forms of political violence have escalated – specifically against communists and their supposed sympathizers, as well as between local warlords. At the same time, new forms of political violence have emerged, particularly extra-judicial killings of supposed drug dealers and users. This novel kind of political violence, ‘pioneered’ by former President Rodrigo R. Duterte when he was mayor of Davao in Mindanao, was introduced at the national level after his election as president in 2016. But these new forms of violence had long been normalized at the local level for decades. Though each of the forms of political violence is distinct, they are interconnected in terms of the political goals they aim to attain.

President Duterte, even among the brutal barons in the periphery, was more brutal than most. Or would it be more precise to say that he monopolized the use of force more than most provincial barons? He was a product of his times, which included the mobilization of militias. As Mark Thompson laid out,

As president, Duterte nationalised the violent populism he had first developed locally which wooed rather than intimidated voters with promises to protect “good people” against drug-induced evil. His appeals resonated given the failures of liberal reformism and with a proletarian populist alternative undermined.

The question then of law and order —or simply, order— might then become the wedge issue, so to speak, between the factions of the ruling coalition.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.