Manila — They call themselves ``crusaders for peace and democracy.'' But to many residents of the increasingly violent Philippine capital, the new anticommunist vigilante groups are cause for deep concern.
The move of vigilante-style anticommunist activities from the countryside into Manila, as well as the continued activity of communist assassination squads, is polarizing public opinion and narrowing political options, according to human rights activists here.
``We are being led to believe that there are only two choices here,'' says Maria Serena Diokno, who heads the national movement for the dismantling of vigilantes. ``If you are against vigilantes, you are called a communist. ... Not even [ousted dictator] Ferdinand Marcos could divide the Filipinos the way this issue has.''
The vigilante movement was introduced by Manila police early this month after the assassination of 128 policemen and soldiers in the preceding 10 months. The authorities have blamed most of these deaths on ``sparrows'' - armed city partisans of the outlawed communist New People's Army (NPA).
According to guidelines imposed by the government of President Corazon Aquino, vigilante groups must be organized under the supervision of the local government and the military. Membership must be purely voluntary and volunteers must be unarmed and operate only in their own barangay (district).
Manila police, however, have reportedly given every barangay membership quotas to fill, and have begun training vigilante volunteers not only in intelligence and surveillance work but also in combat, shooting, and martial arts. Manila police chief Gen. Alfredo Lim has also said that the 20 percent of volunteers who are licensed to carry firearms will be allowed to do so in the performance of their duties.
Supporters describe vigilante movements as a ``watch,'' where volunteers keep neighborhoods free from criminals, drug addicts, and communist subversives.
But human rights monitoring agencies report that wherever vigilante groups have been organized in the country, there have been violations of the rights of people suspected of aiding and abetting the rebels. Some examples cited:
The Alsa Masa vigilantes, which cleared the southern city of Davao of NPA operatives in less than a year, reportedly carry arms on patrol. The local-governments undersecretary, Lito Lorenzana, also admitted that Alsa Masa volunteers coerced NPA sympathizers to surrender by painting red X's on their homes and giving them a deadline.
Former NPA guerrillas founded the Alsa Masa in April 1986 after 100 policemen and soldiers were killed by ``sparrows'' in Davao in one year. It was in Davoa's Agdao district that the communists had set up their pilot program for urban guerrilla warfare. In a visit to Agdao last month, President Aquino praised the Alsa Masa for its success in counterinsurgency.
In areas of southern Mindanao island, fanatical sects wielding machetes and wearing amulets - which, they believe, protect them from bodily harm and warn them of the approach of a communist - have been deputized by the military to go after suspected insurgents.
In Leyte Province, local vigilantes have reportedly driven hundreds of NPA supporters from their homes through intimidation and murder.
Last August, more than 100 refugees from Leyte turned up in Manila in search of protection from the vigilantes. On Oct. 31, however, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, which housed the refugees, was raided by Manila police in search of ``sparrows.''
The university raid was only the first in a series of offensives by the Manila police against suspected subversives in the city. It came a few days after ``sparrows'' killed police Capt. Eduardo Medivavillo, a decorated crime fighter, on his way to work. At Captain Medivavillo's funeral on Nov. 4, marching policemen and the civilian crowd chanted grim calls of death to leaders of the above-ground political Legal Left.
On television talk shows, police officers defending the organization of vigilantes insinuate that those who have voiced anti-vigilante sentiments could be NPA sympathizers. Why, they ask, do human rights advocates who protest the arrests of suspected subversives not complain about the killings of policemen and soldiers by the ``sparrows''?
The day after Medivavillo's funeral, Mario Villar, the brother of prominent leftist labor leader Leto Villar, was killed in a daylight ambush. Polytechnic President Nemesio Prudente, was subsequently hurt when his car was peppered with bullets by still unidentified gunmen.
No one has claimed responsibility for the ambushes, and police chief Lim has been quick to declare that the Manila police had nothing to do with the Prudente incident. However, Lim has advised known leftists to tighten their security and not to venture into the streets at night.
Lim reported that in the first week after the establishment of vigilante groups, he received over 50 letters of inquiry and 1,000 walk-in volunteers in Manila's western police district. Yesterday, Pasay, Pasig and Quezon City, all in metropolitan Manila also announced the formation of vigilante groups.
Hundreds of volunteers - businessmen, out of school youth, civil servants, local barangay officials, a few politicians and journalists - have reportedly come to police stations to sign up as vigilantes.
The elusive ``sparrows,'' meanwhile, have issued a statement saying that besides police and soldiers, they will get the vigilantes as well.
`Sparrow killings' spark bitter debate
Manilans are no longer shocked to read about yet another man in uniform killed on a busy city street. The pattern of ``sparrow'' assassinations has become a familiar one over the past 10 months.
The assassinations usually occur between 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning. Two to three men or an occasional woman in their early twenties come up to a policeman or soldier and shoot him at close range. Their job done, the killers disappear into a side street, either on foot or in a commandeered pedicab.
Although authorities are quick to blame the communist New People's Army (NPA) for all such murders in the city, police investigators confide that some lawmen have been killed by their own partners in crime syndicates.
The Alex Bongcayao Brigade (ABB), the NPA's guerrilla arm in the city, has claimed responsibility for many of what have come to be known as ``sparrow killings.'' Decisions on which ``abusive lawmen'' are to be liquidated are made ``upon recommendation of the masses . . . after thorough investigation and intelligence work,'' said spokesman Sergio Romero.
The political and military value of the sparrow operations in the city have been the subject of bitter debate among members of the underground and their sympathizers on the legal left. As early as last May, Bernabe Buscayno, who founded the NPA in 1969, appealed to his former comrades to end the assassinations of policemen and soldiers in Manila. Buscayno pointed out that because lawmen represent a popular government, the sparrow killings are acts of ``dubious political value'' that only leave the people confused.