Manila — President Marcos has unleashed a dreaded force of ''secret marshals'' to combat a jump in crime. But the marshals may not be able to combat the underlying problems: a worsening economic crisis, a huge foreign debt, a bitter austerity program, and what is called here, ''crony capitalism.''
The secret corps of about 1,000 plainclothes men, authorized to shoot and maim holdup men resisting arrest, was activiated this week in the wake of a noticeable increase in crime rate in metropolitan Manila areas. Within three days they killed five suspected holdup men and arrested scores more.
The force, which was created by Marcos in August 1982, is drawn from the ranks of military trainees, police forces, and presidential guards. It was disbanded five months later after killing 32 suspects, and allegedly killing more suspects arbitrarily.
Spot interviews among passengers of public buses and ''jeepneys'' (smaller public-transportation vehicles) show that many Filipinos are relieved by the ''executions'' of robbers.
''There has been a sharp increase in the holdup incidents,'' said one student commuter. ''I've seen (holdups on) jeepneys, buses, and sidewalks, and it's a welcome relief to know that there are law enforcers prowling all over town.''
But there are also commuters who harbor doubts about the effectiveness of secret marshals. An accountant said that her first reaction was one of relief: ''At least there's some action against the crime wave.''
However, after five deaths, she began to have second thoughts. ''It seems that there have been senseless killings. They should have just maimed the suspects. But as it is, people seem to be deprived of their rights to due process,'' she said.
Opposition groups fear that the secret marshals could become like the death squads of Latin America.
The increase in crime is generally attributed to the deteriorating economy, which has triggered a peso devaluation, galloping rises in commodity prices, massive layoffs - and a considerable drop in living standards.
These moves, which include stiff austerity measures, are part of an economic recovery program worked out with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with which the government is negotiating for an all-important $630 million standby credit. Conditions attached to the IMF credit include a flexible exchange rate for the peso, drastic cuts in government spending and the budget deficit, and tight control on credit.
Many Filipinos are asking what the country has to show for a $25.6 billion in foreign debt, most of which it is now unable to service. Officially, the money has gone to farmers, new industries, schools, power plants, and other development projects. But why are these vaunted and supposedly productive projects unable to help pay off the foreign debt?
Part of the blame lies with ''crony capitalism'' - economic policies which tend to favor businesses owned by President Marcos's friends.
But as the economy reels under the burden of massive debts, Mr. Marcos now appears to be tempering - if not abandoning - some of his friends.
These companies have had easy access to foreign loans guaranteed by the government and to major government contracts that enabled them to control big industries and build corporate empires.
Some of the ''crony'' companies have been found to have misused the loans - setting up ''quickie'' ventures that produced personal profits initially, but became unproductive in the long term. Many of these firms helped abet the foreign exchange crisis since they had access to scarce American dollars to import equipment that became useless when the firms collapsed.
Help for well-connected businesses was curtailed early last year because of IMF pressure.
Latest to lose his corporate empire is Ricardo Silverio, whose flagship Delta Motor Corporation has been dumped by its partner, Toyota Motor of Japan. Delta, which has controlled the biggest slice of the car market, failed to pay $36 million in trade credits and royalties.
Meanwhile, the state-owned Philippine National Bank (PNB), Delta's biggest creditor, is set to foreclose the company's assets. Mr. Silverio's appeal to Marcos to stop PNB has gone unheeded.
And earlier this year, the President ordered the return of free trading in sugar, one of the country's biggest dollar earners. The National Sugar Trading Corp (Nasutra), headed by Roberto Benedicto, Marcos's fraternity brother, had had a monopoly in sugar trading. The dismantling of Nasutra's monopoly has been aided by the World Bank and to a certain extent by the IMF.
Two other favored conglomerates that had earlier been dismembered were the Construction and Development Corporation of the Philippines (CDCP) and the Herdis Group. CDCP was founded by Rodolfo Cuenca, a golfing mate of Marcos. It had won most of the government's biggest contracts and major overseas projects.
The Herdis Group was formed by Herminio Disini, who is married to the first cousin of Imelda Marcos. Herdis controlled about 30 companies whose assets were estimated to have reached about $1 billion.
The government attempted to rescue both troubled groups. But the bail-out was halted by the debt crisis.
There continue to be doubts over whether Marcos is really cutting the strings of his friends. Many of them may have lost their chain of companies, but this does not mean they are destitute. Disini may have only one corporation left, the Philippine Tobacco Filters Corporation, but it is now the most profitable in its field. Last year, Marcos lowered the import duty for acetate tow, a raw material for making cigarette filters.
Meanwhile, Benedicto still controls some low-key but profitable ventures. And although Cuenca and Silverio are no longer lords over their corporations, they have safely stashed some personal investments.
However, there are Marcos associates who remain unscathed. One is Eduardo Cojuangco, president of United Coconut Oil Mills, which has a monopoly over the lucrative coconut trading.
The other powerful clan is the Romualdez family, whose business interests are headed by Benjamin Romualdez, brother of Mrs. Marcos and the country's ambassador to the US. Although some of the family's companies may have been badly hit by the recession, their wealth are known to be intact.