Across a path in the squatter area hangs a banner, suspended on one side from a small open-frame chapel. ``Long live the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army,'' it reads. Drawn above these words are a crude hammer and sickle and a rifle -- the twin symbols of the Communist Party.
The squatter area is Agdao -- often called ``Nicar-Agdao'' by local people -- which lies a few minutes from downtown Davao.
Similar slogans are painted on walls throughout Agdao's sprawling collection of squatter communities, whose total population is about 100,000.
``Revolution is the solution to poverty,'' is one of the most common. There is a single reference to the Communist Party's National Democratic Front (the main organizing vehicle for the middle classes) on the wall of the local school. Several slogans promise death to ``Baby'' Aquino (no relation to the assassinated opposition leader, Benigno Aquino Jr.), and a couple of military officers. Baby -- who is about 4 feet 9 inches tall -- is the barangay captain, or main civilian administrator.
A few years ago, such banners would have triggered an immediate military response. Now they seem like official announcements: They delineate the underground's area of control, and warn the government to stay out.
Calm, relatively clean, and very orderly for a squatter area, Agdao is a war zone.
My guide through the area is a wiry, middle-aged laborer turned full-time community organizer. He denies any affiliation with the underground, but possesses a good grasp of Marxist analysis.
The area where we saw the banner, he says, is only partly organized. ``It will be consolidated by next year.''
So far ``between five and eight policemen'' living in the community -- he couldn't remember the exact figure -- have been killed by the underground's Armed City Partisans. The surviving policemen have moved out.
And he makes little effort to distance community organizing from the killings. As we walk through another community he notes that policemen still live there. Have any been killed yet? he is asked. ``No, we've only just started organizing.''
Policemen are not the partisans' only targets in Agdao. Drunks, young toughs, and petty criminals from the area have mostly reformed, left the area, or been shot. Suspected informers have been liquidated. Roman Catholic priests and others who work in the squatter communities say that this summary approach to law and order has generally been well received.
The better-organized communities in Agdao now seem to exist independently of the government.
Since Christmas, high wooden gates have blocked the alleys and narrow lanes leading into the communities. Inside there is a 10 p.m. curfew enforced by the squatters' committee, not by the government. After that the gates are closed and no one, particularly government men, are allowed in. Residents' security teams -- one static, two mobile -- patrol the squatter areas at night.
Squatter organizers say that these measures were taken in response to government attacks on the area. They cite one incident in particular, the shooting late last year of four local youths -- massacred, residents say, by Baby Aquino's men.
Baby, a soft-spoken though rather excitable man, denies any involvement in the killings. The murderers were probably relatives of policemen and the local paramilitary units under the control of the barangay captain, he suggests.
``Lots of government men used to get killed in that area,'' he says, referring to the murder site. ``It was like the Bermuda triangle for our people.''
Baby says he has not gone into the squatter communities, where the bulk of his constituents live, since May 1984. It was around that time, he says, that life started getting difficult. First the partisans started liquidating his paramilitary men. They have killed 28 of the original 37. The rest have resigned and left town, he says. There have been no new volunteers.
Baby has survived four attempts on his life since his election in 1982. In the last attempt, late last year, he and his eight bodyguards were pinned down for 15 minutes by men firing on them from the rooftops with automatic weapons. One bodyguard was killed.
Soon afterward, Baby's brother Pinky, a policeman, was shot twice in the head during mass at the Redemptorist Church. Pinky survived, Aquino says, but ``he doesn't go out much these days.''
Baby has the same problem.
``At night I can walk anywhere I like,'' he says. ``But in the daytime I daren't walk the streets alone. Someone might recognize me.''
Baby does not plan to run for reelection next year. He will move to Manila. This means he will have to liquidate his business interests in Davao -- short-time hotels, a night club, the city's plushest massage parlor, and several cockfight arenas.
Meanwhile, in the squatter communities, the Communist Party, not the government, raises taxes. The government also suspects the party's senior military and political organizers live in the shantytowns. Its main response to this has been ``zoning,'' in which government troops -- usually about 100 -- cordon off an area, then move from house to house, checking for unregistered residents, weapons, or pamphlets.
Often, human rights workers say, people are assembled in the street and examined by a masked informer. Some of those arrested have subsequently died or disappeared. People's valuables -- a watch, a radio, a chicken -- also tend to disappear. And, community workers unaffiliated with the underground say, the soldiers go away leaving a few more underground sympathizers than when they came.