FOLLOWING two widely publicized murders apparently by a local official, the Philippine government says it is making headway in a drive to rid the country of hundreds of armed groups headed by local military and political leaders.
President Fidel Ramos launched the drive in July after the brutal murder of two college students focused national attention on the alleged criminal activities of the mayor of a small farming town 50 miles south of here.
The mayor, Antonio Sanchez, is on trial for kidnapping, rape, and murder. He is also accused of heading a massive, illegal gambling network and keeping an 80-man private army, largely members of the national police force.
Mr. Ramos ran for president last year stressing ``people power'' and transparency in government. In addition to the drive against private armies, he has also moved to settle accounts with a number of anti-government rebel groups, offering amnesty in exchange for promises of peace. Some analysts say his approach is naive, but others note that Ramos, a career military man known for his cautious style, rarely enters a battle he cannot win. Public opinion appears to be strongly against both the warlords and the rebels.
The Sanchez case has put the spotlight not just on the inner workings of a savage small-town political machine, but on a national political culture long dominated by local kingpins who use patronage and intimidation to further their own interests.
In response to the publicity generated by the murders, Mr. Ramos ordered Local Government Secretary Rafael Alunan III to disband all the private armies in the country, using force if necessary. An initial September deadline was extended to Nov. 30.
``We have to catch up to the rest of the world, and to do so we have to remove all the obstacles to our national advancement,'' Mr. Alunan says. ``The time for reform and change has come. Warlordism has to go.''
Alunan claims he has reduced the number of private armies to 12, but that number is widely discounted. There have been no direct confrontations between government forces and the illegal groups, although Alunan has not ruled out the possibility.
In June, the national police estimated that there were over 560 private armed groups in the country, with 24,000 men and 11,000 weapons. Among those on the list of warlords were more than a dozen members of Congress, including the brother of former President Corazon Aquino.
Some of the groups are full-time security forces armed with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and mortars. More often, though, they are informal bands of thugs, policemen, and volunteer militiamen loyal to a local leader for political, personal, or financial reasons.
When the list was leaked to the press in September, several members of Congress threatened to cancel local government budgets. Alunan says many listed warlords promptly buried their guns. But he has collected thousands of firearms from local leaders willing to work with the government. Ramos has promised development funds to officials who cooperate.
Ramos's economic plans depend heavily on implementing a two-year-old law that calls for the decentralization of many of the functions of government.
Critics of the law cite the stranglehold traditional bosses enjoy over economic and political activities in many localities. Ramos is intent on breaking that stranglehold, Alunan says, but it will take time. ``There are two aspects to devolution - the power shift and the mind shift,'' he says. ``Unfortunately there's a lag between the mind shift and the power shift.''
As part of the anti-warlord campaign, a public relations blitz -
including TV and radio ads - was launched in October. Citizens are being asked to stand up to repressive local leaders. The stakes are high. Warlords are often involved in illegal logging, gambling, smuggling, and drug trafficking. Most are protected by powerful military or political leaders.
Mayor Sanchez's fortunes, for instance, flourished under former President Ferdinand Marcos: As long as Sanchez delivered votes at election time, Marcos ensured the mayor's illegal activities would go unpunished.
A childhood friend of Sanchez says ``the great majority'' of the people of his town are not afraid of the mayor. Indeed, he says, ``They worship him. If you need a coffin, you go to him. You need medicine, he gives you the money to buy medicine.''
A rice farmer confirmed that the mayor is still popular, despite all the negative publicity. ``He's a good mayor,'' he says. ``He doesn't tolerate lawless people in our town.''