Private Armed Militias Worsen Impunity

Ex-Military Reservist as Journalist. Joseph Jubelag (left), a journalist based in General Santos City, described how para-military groups like the Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) function. They are used by some political warlords, big companies, especially (those engaged in) mining to protect their interests.At right is Aquiles Zonio, an Ampatuan Massacre survivor who served as guide of the 2014 SEAPA fellows.Ex-Military Reservist as Journalist. Joseph Jubelag (left), a journalist based in General Santos City, described how para-military groups like the Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) function. They are used by some political warlords, big companies, especially (those engaged in) mining to protect their interests.At right is Aquiles Zonio, an Ampatuan Massacre survivor who served as guide of the 2014 SEAPA fellows.
Ex-Military Reservist as Journalist. Joseph Jubelag (left), a journalist based in General Santos City, described how para-military groups like the Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) function. They are used by some political warlords, big companies, especially (those engaged in) mining to protect their interests.At right is Aquiles Zonio, an Ampatuan Massacre survivor who served as guide of the 2014 SEAPA fellows.

“Actually this is one big mistake. One big mistake,” said Zamzamin Ampatuan, gesturing as he sipped coffee in a shop somewhere in Cotabato City.

“Probably this was done by one or two or – shall we say – three AmpatuaAdd Newns. That does not make the whole family or whole clan responsible to the crime. No. I never would subscribe to such an idea,” he added.

Zamzamin Ampatuan, the mayor of Rajah Buayan town in Maguindanao province in the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao, was reacting to questions about the infamous massacre of 58 civilians including 32 journalists on November 23, 2009 alleged to have been perpetrated by his clan.

He is a nephew of Andal Ampatuan Sr., who is currently on trial together with two sons, other relatives, and members of para-military groups close to the family for the brutal murders triggered by political rivalry.

That the Rajah Buayan mayor was speaking so candidly to Southeast Asian reporters about the involvement of members of his clan in a crime that has been described as the worst ever atrocity committed against journalists perhaps should not come as a surprise. It also explains the Philippine socio-political landscape that still seems to be rooted in a feudal system despite its claims to adherence to democratic ideals and principles.

This is the kind of environment that has also perpetuated the continued existence of para-militaries and armed militias used for political and economic gains.

Zamzamin Ampatuan’s narrative is revealing. At the same time it provides context to a complex, and oftentimes confusing, situation not only in Mindanao but in the whole country as well when it comes to understanding the drivers of impunity.

He spoke of how, during the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, Moro areas were routinely attacked by government soldiers on suspicion that these communities were harbouring armed rebels. The term Moro, which used to be a pejorative reference made by non-Muslims to indigenous groups in Mindanao especially Muslims, has been turned around and adopted by the Muslim population of the island to describe themselves.

To help the Armed Forces of the Philippines bring the fighting to local communities, surrogate troops were developed, according to Zamzamin Ampatuan. This later became common practice of the government in organizing militias and allowing them to carry firearms. The Ampatuans, among many other political clans, benefited from this arrangement.

The mayor knows whereof he speaks.

The Ampatuan clan, he said, put up its own militia allied with the government to serve as a foil against the Moro secessionists and to protect themselves against bloody clan feuds called rido. Datuk Pax Mangudadatu, the father of the current Maguindanao governor, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, was also a former militia member, according to Mayor Ampatuan.

When this reporter asked Governor Mangudadatu whether he has a private army as well, he laughed, shaking his head. “No. That is why I ran against the Ampatuans because I don’t like that. And until now I oppose the lifting of the state of emergency over the province of Maguindanao because I don’t want private arms groups. The President even called me twice to tell me, ‘Toto, I am going to lift the state emergency in your province.’ But I said, ‘Please don’t sir, because I don’t want the leaders of our community to allow people to bring firearms. Mr. President, I want to change the image of our province,’” he said.

The governor never responded to the question about his father.

Para-Militaries and Impunity

Lawyer Harry Roque, who represents the families of 15 of the massacre victims, noted that the existence of private armed militias under the control of political families like the Ampatuans contributes to the perpetuation of a culture of impunity.

“This is part of his reign of terror so that the people will absolutely follow what he (Andal Ampatuan Sr.) said. This is very feudal, what with his vast resources and his large private army. Anyone there who will speak against them can expect harassment or death,” Roque said.

International Alert, one of the world’s leading peacebuilding organisations working with local people in over 25 countries, in its Policy Brief issued on April 2014 somehow corroborates Roque’s assertions.

It said: “Shadow economies in the Bangsamoro (referring to Muslim-dominated areas in Mindanao) are potential sources of wealth, power, and conflict. They provide local elites with the economic powerbase to advance their political ambitions. Shadow economies can be a source of conflict precisely because they embody significant amounts of economic and political capital for local strongmen, armed insurgents and political clans.”

Reu Montecillo, co-chair of the Mindanao People’s Caucus (MPC), a non-government organization active in the Mindanao peace process, presents another dimension to the rise of private armies in the Philippines, most notably in Mindanao and why the Moro rebellion started in the first place.

“During the regime of Marcos, the Army recruited about a hundred young Moros to train as commandoes for the purpose of infiltrating Sabah in Malaysia to foment an insurrection. The recruits were brought to the island of Corregidor facing Manila Bay but were all killed when they refused to follow orders to ‘invade’ Sabah. This triggered most of the problems in Mindanao including the rise of private armies,” said Montecillo, himself a former member of the para-military group CHDF (Community Home Defence Forces).

According to historic accounts, Sabah used to be part of the Sulu sultanate when there was no Philippines yet. But it was “rented” out by one of the sultans to the British East India Company which had monopoly over trade and governance in the region at the time.

The Roots of Para-Militaries

Joseph Jubelag, a journalist based in General Santos City where 12 of the journalists slain in the Maguindanao massacre are buried, describes how para-military groups like the Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) “are used by some political warlords, big companies, especially (those engaged in) mining” to protect their interests.

“During the time of Marcos (former president ousted by a popular revolt in 1986), para-military groups were called Civilian Home Defense Forces or CHDF trained by the government to fight Communist insurgents,” said Jubelag.

A former Army reservist, Jubelag noted that “many of these people (para-militaries) are not educated and do not have proper schooling unlike in the formal military structure where there are qualification standards. This is a problem because they can be easily manipulated by crooked politicians.”

In a number of cases involving the harassment of journalists and human rights activists, private armed groups and para-militaries figured prominently. Very few of the cases had been prosecuted. Since 2001 hundreds of leftist activists, journalists, environmentalists, and clergy have been killed by alleged members of the security forces. Local human rights organizations reported approximately 114 cases of extrajudicial killings since Aquino came to office, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2013 on the Philippines.

The rise of paramilitaries in the Philippines began during the Japanese occupation in World War II, according to the 1992 Human Rights Watch study, “Bad Blood: Militia Abuses in Mindanao, The Philippines.” It pointed out that the Philippine Constabulary (PC), then the leading internal security force, worked closely with a paramilitary group known as the Civil Guards, which were armed by the PC and paid by landholders collaborating with the Japanese.

In the mid-1970s, existing paramilitary organizations were absorbed into the new integrated Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF). In Mindanao, the CHDF members were originally deployed together with Christian armed fanatic groups against an uprising of the Muslim population. Beginning in 1974, the CHDF was also increasingly mobilized against the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of Philippines, according to the same study.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution provides that “all paramilitary forces including the CHDF – shall be dissolved or, where appropriate, converted into the regular force,” but permitted the creation of a citizens’ armed force. The CHDF and other paramilitary units were officially dissolved six months later. Just 10 days later, however, then President Corazon Aquino signed an executive order creating the new CAFGU. Initially, between 30 and 70 percent of CAFGU recruits were former CHDF members, said various news reports, citing military sources.

Indonesian Para-Militaries

In Indonesia para-military groups and militias freely operate especially in the provinces. These include the PP (Pemuda Pancasila or Pancasila Youth) a quasi-official political group that supported the military dictatorship of Suharto. Pancasila Youth played an important role in supporting Suharto’s military coup in 1965. As described in the 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing,” they operated death squads for the Indonesian army, killing a million or more alleged communists and Chinese Indonesians across the province of North Sumatra.

Another para-military group, the LMP (Laskar Merah Putih or Red White Paramilitary) had at one time been connected with Tommy Suharto, son of the former president, and Syamsu Djalal, retired commandant of the military police. LMP worked with TNI (Indonesian Armed Forces) and the police in conducting education and training program in relation to the country’s defense.

She said that these “local politicians and government officials were usually the subject of criticism by media practitioners…by journalists. Some of these politicians were suspected to be behind many of the killings of journalists (including the massacre in Maguindanao).” But she added that “some of the cases are (challenging because it is) quite difficult to unmask the alleged mastermind. We can only go up to the alleged gunman who would then simply keep quiet. There are some cases that we can prosecute only up to the level of the gunman.”Leila de Lima, Secretary of the Department of Justice, admits that the Ampatuan massacre case will be a litmus test for the country’s criminal justice system given the context of the proliferation of private armed groups and militias under the control of local politicians.

She likewise pointed out that the proliferation of firearms contributes to the increase in criminality as well as the operation of private armies. “There are still thousands of loose and unregistered firearms that found their way to criminal gangs and private armies of local powerful politicians. That can substantially contribute to (the increase in) crimes.”

Explained Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher of Human Rights Watch: “Obviously the proliferation of firearms especially in Mindanao is a matter of two things: areas where there is a strong political dynasty such as Maguindanao and where this political dynasty has a very strong relation with the police or the military. And you’ll never know where the loose firearms are coming from. In the case of the Maguindanao massacre, for instance, there were no loose firearms. The firearms belonged government people like police, military, and CVO (civilian volunteer organizations) who were the suspects in the killings. The problem is not so much loose firearms but the systems on the ground that are not responsive to cases of violence or cases involving the killing of human rights activists and journalists.”

“The 2010 PNP (Philippine National Police) report showed that there are an estimated 1,110,372 loose firearms all over the country, the biggest concentration of which is in the National Capital Region (NCR), or Metro Manila, with the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the home base of the MILF, registering the second highest at 114,189,” wrote Antonio Figueroa of

Figueroa’s story also pointed out that in 2011, for instance, Nicanor Bartolome, former Director General of the Philippine National Police (PNP) admitted before the Manila Overseas Press Club (MOPC) that the number of unlicensed firearms throughout the archipelago that could potentially be used to commit crimes are at least 600,000. He said that firearms used in crimes are not registered or licensed, adding that “for every crime that we solve involving firearms, that’s a reduction in the number of loose firearms,” according to the story.

The PNP is also implementing a program called Operation Katok to address the problem of loose firearms. “Katok” in Filipino means to knock on the door because that is what the police is literally doing, knocking on people’s doors in a house-to-house campaign. Said Secretary De Lima, “the police will often ask, ‘Do you have loose firearms here? You can surrender your loose firearms. You can register them. We will register the firearms for you.’”

“The proliferation of private armies, in itself, is an indication of impunity. In the regions, politicians who maintain private armies are naturally always feared by their opponents and journalists,” said Ryan Rosauro, Mindanao correspondent of the newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) noted that Karapatan, one of the organizations that belong to the coalition, has documented from July 2010, which marked the start of the Aquino presidency, to April 30, 2013, 142 cases of extra judicial killings, 164 cases of frustrated killings, 16 cases of forced disappearances, 293 persons arrested and detained, 16 children killed in unclear circumstances.

Cristina Pabalay, Karapatan secretary general noted in a report that “paramilitary groups were involved in many cases of extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances in communities where there are opposition to big businesses that will dislocate local peasants and indigenous peoples.”

Many of these violations have been perpetrated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), according to Karapatan., the Catholic online news service, in a July 12, 2013 report noted that “the Philippine military has claimed that ‘mission-related human rights violations’ have declined since the implementation of its internal peace and security plan in 2010, a statement that critics claim is baseless propaganda.”

According to, the “Army said that only seven human rights violations had been committed by troops (in 2013). Last year the total figure was 22, while it recorded 37 in 2011 and 51 in 2010. Army chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista also said that recent developments in efforts to address human rights violations, such as the Army’s establishment of a human rights office to educate soldiers, also prove that the government is serious in stopping abuses. Bautista said the military is expected to maintain its control on the momentum of internal security operations in 2013 through ‘human rights-based focused military operations’ targeting the communist-led New People’s Army rebels.”

Human Rights Watch has also documented three cases in October 2011 involving critics of mining and energy projects who were killed allegedly by paramilitary forces under military control. On May 9, 2012, according to its report, 47-year-old Margarito Cabal, an organizer for the Save Pulangi Alliance which opposes the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Bukidnon province, was shot dead near his boarding house by two men on a motorcycle.

A local paramilitary group called Bagani was also reportedly involved in the fatal shooting of Italian priest Fausto Tentorio on October 17, 2011, according to the same HRW report. Tentorio, the report noted, was a well-known advocate of tribal rights in Arakan, North Cotabato and had opposed mining in the area. He is the second Italian priest from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) to be killed in the Philippines. The first was Father Tullio Favali who was shot dead in April 1985 by members of the local Civilian Home Defense Force.

No one has been arrested for the killing of Tentorio, although the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has recommended the filing of charges against four suspects. Tentorio’s colleagues have alleged that some suspects with military ties have been deliberately left out of the case, and two witnesses and their families are in hiding while others have been threatened, according to various news reports.

The online news site in a November 11, 2012 post, reported: “In a congressional hearing conducted early November 2012 by the Commission on Human Rights in Davao, Arturo (not his real name) revealed that he was a member of the Bagani Force and was present at the meeting convened by a ‘Kumander Iring’ to announce that a P50,000 bounty money was raised allegedly by the military for the killing of the priest.”

“Bagani” is a local term for “tribal warriors” tasked with protecting their people. “However, Arturo revealed that the Bagani Force is not a real tribal defense unit but a special paramilitary force composed mostly of tribal folks and trained as an armed civilian auxiliary for the campaign against communist guerrillas in the area,” according to the same report.

Journalist Gemma Bagayaua Mendoza, in a report posted by the news site on November 24, 2012, wrote that about 85 armed groups are maintained by politicians across the country. The report also cited the PNP’s definition of private armies as organized groups of two or more persons, legally or illegally armed, who use their weapons to intimidate for political or economic purposes.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on March 30, 2012 cited President Aquino’s announcement that the Philippine National Police had “neutralized” 28 private armed groups. The HRW has urged the PNP to publish the complete list of private armies and explain what had been done to address state involvement with the groups.

The report also noted that on January 7, 2010, or two months after the Maguindanao massacre, then Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales was quoted as saying that there were at least 132 private armed groups in the country. On the same day, according to the Human Rights Watch report, then Director General Jesus Verzosa, chief of the PNP, said there were 68 confirmed private armed groups. Of this number, 25 were in the ARMM, while 43 were found outside the region. Verzosa said at the time that they were still ‘verifying’ 102 other private groups suspected of possessing firearms – 77 of them in the ARMM, and 25 in other regions.

“The past administration did a lot of wrong here in our province. Most of the people were afraid to complain. Services and investments were limited since investors were afraid to come to the province of Maguindanao because of the proliferation of firearms,” said Governor Esmael Mangudadatu.

Extrajudicial executions, including politically motivated killings, by state security forces and private armed groups have been a longstanding problem in the Philippines. Although the number of killings has decreased dramatically in recent years compared to a decade ago, they continue with brazen impunity.

Environmental activists, human rights workers, and journalists remain at risk…and so does the fragile fabric of democracy itself.

[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Arpan Rachman is an Indonesian journalist working as a contributor for, Indonesia. Arpan is one of the 2014 Fellows who wrote for the theme “Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.”]

Click this photo to see all of Arpan Rachman’s photos for the 2014 SEAPA Fellowship.

Arpan Rachman's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014
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