POSTSCRIPT / May 17, 2001 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Private armies fielded for Election Day duty!

THE biggest Election Day story, which strangely has remained unreported in its entirety, is the operation in our midst of private armies whose mission obviously goes beyond the May 14 elections.

Alert policemen caught several armed persons in San Juan last Monday in full military uniform complete with “mission orders” and official-looking papers for their guns and other gear.

It could have been an isolated case of the usual armed partisan caught impersonating an officer. But it seems to us it is not that simple.

* * *

WHEN the uniformed gunmen could not explain their being dressed and armed as soldiers, they claimed to be reservists sent to safeguard the polls.

But all units deployed for poll duty are coordinated with the military and the police, and in the case of the arrested gunmen there was no such coordination.

Their credentials and their guns’ paperwork turned out to be spurious. The military officer they pointed to as their leader, when summoned, could not explain his fielding of the fake reservists.

A suburban congressman reportedly also interceded for the release of the armed squad. We’re not identifying him, because we have not been able to get his side.

* * *

WHILE in police custody, the cellphones of the armed men kept ringing. Somebody on the line would ask about location and situation assessment. Police investigators played along and gave false leads to the parties calling from base of operations.

The misleading information given the callers resulted in more of the fake soldiers converging at some point near a mall and being caught by special police teams deployed to entrap the gunmen as they arrived.

* * *

GRILLING of the fake soldiers and patient sleuthing brought out more sordid details of the clandestine operation.

The building identified by the men as their headquarters was raided and yielded more than 50 more “soldiers” complete with IDs, high-powered guns, communication gear and other logistics.

It was established that that private army has been operating from that building since late last year!

Who is in command of this force? Who are the politicians, businessmen and vice lords involved? How many billion pesos are being spent for this? What are they up to?

* * *

WE helpless citizens need answers from the government. We also need assurance.

If a building in Mandaluyong houses a company-size paramilitary unit like the one just discovered, logic says that there could be other buildings, compounds or plantations elsewhere hosting similar armed teams.

And if one syndicate has organized, trained, outfitted, and deployed such armed operatives, it is just as logical that there could be another group or other groups engaged in similar clandestine illegal operation.

In this neck of the woods, private armies are not a monopoly of anybody.

* * *

THESE are the type of uniformed gunmen who flag down cars and kidnap targets in broad daylight, who barge into residences and drag out helpless citizens who then disappear without trace.

These are possibly the same uniformed operatives who stage bank robberies whenever their maintainers need more funds or need to show a supposed upsurge in criminality for calculated propaganda effects.

We won’t be surprised if these are the same armed partisans that some politicians use as aces when they choose to defy the government or offer a power-sharing scheme, or threaten to sow mayhem, or stage a coup d’etat when things do not go their way.

* * *

HOW come this and similar groups (if there are a number of them operating nationwide) operate with confidence, and with impunity? Are our legitimate military and police units helpless against these better-equipped private armies?

Or is there unofficial coordination between comrades-in-arms on opposite sides of the political fence?

But the question uppermost in our minds is: Who will protect us helpless citizens from these quasi-military monsters freely operating in our midst?

* * *

BACK to the elections. It’s high time that election laws were enforced resolutely without, as they say, fear or favor. This is the only way we can clean up the electoral process and expect compliance.

Among the things that the Commission on Elections could do to redeem itself from charges that it bungled the last elections is to immediately crack down on high-profile violators of elections laws. We have to see “samples.”

Without further delay, the poll body should also show appreciation and release the money for teachers who have been serving for the past several days without pay in a confused, and sometimes violent, environment. This is the least the Comelec could do for them.

* * *

THE Comelec must show no-nonsense handling of the cases of senatorial candidates Franklin Drilon and Noli de Castro, who appeared on TV poll watch programs the other day in violation of the law.

Tuesday was still part of the election period. In fact, some voters in Caloocan were still filling out their ballots and some precincts were still counting the votes when Drilon and De Castro took their place before the TV cameras and started talking.

De Castro can always plead ignorance of the law (although his teacher in grade school must have told him that ignorance is no excuse), but Drilon as a brilliant lawyer cannot take the same defense line.

If found guilty, they could be disqualified from sitting as elected senators. They are ready-made for hanging as samples.

* * *

BUT De Castro and Drilon are among the obvious favorites at the polls? Sorry, but “dura lex sed lex.” The law may be harsh (hard), but it’s the law.

The case is cut and dried, ready for appropriate action. How can the Comelec close its eyes to this blatant televised violation by two senatorial stalwarts while pursuing violators of other election laws?

If the Comelec refuses to crack down on De Castro and Drilon, to be consistent it must forever close its eyes, fold its arms and refrain from going after other violators.

* * *

OTHER high-profile cases where the Comelec must take punitive action are the failure of poll officers in Caloocan City to prepare and distribute election paraphernalia on schedule last Monday.

The day-long delay right in the heart of the nation’s capital, which until now has not been satisfactorily explained, had resulted in the postponement of the voting and the failure of many voters to cast their ballots.

Somebody must take the rap for this. If the Comelec’s own personnel are at fault, it should nevertheless lower the boom on them.

* * *

THE persons responsible for the failure of election in many hot spots all over the country must also be identified and prosecuted. The Comelec can deputize other government agencies to help it go after the culprits.

Otherwise, the blame would shift back and the failure of election could go down on record as the failure of the Commission on Elections.

It is high time the Comelec, despite its handicaps, showed that it means business. (And we don’t mean the usual business with fat contractors and bidders.)

Acting promptly and resolutely against clear violations is the only way the Comelec can regain the respect and “fear” of everybody, including grizzled politicians.

* * *

COMELEC Chairman Alfredo Benipayo should stop giving the ridiculous excuse that he failed to pay the teachers last Monday, per contract with the Department of Education, because no bank was open that day.

Even before the contract was signed, Benipayo knew that May 14, the second Monday of the month, is Election Day. He knew that it is a holiday and a no-banking day. Common sense says that he should have withdrawn the money for the teachers on or before the last banking day before Election Day.

But, of course, if the millions were purposely left in the bank over the long weekend to earn more interest, that’s another story. Now don’t blame the teachers if they demand to know who cashed in on the extra earnings on money due them.

Benipayo may want to share this windfall by paying interest on the teachers’ delayed allowances.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 17, 2001)

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