Pasabilis News Feature | The curious case of the Paquibato 10

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PAQUIBATO, DAVAO CITY—In January 2021, the 1003rd Brigade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the local Philippine National Police and Davao City’s insidious Peace 911 carried out a psywar operation in Brgy. Malabog here that systematically preyed on peasant civilians in a combination of coercion, legal blackmail and PR blitz, all in the name of counterinsurgency.

In less than a fortnight, the unholy trinity of the AFP, PNP and Peace 911 managed to outlaw with false charges, force the “surrender,” and later acquit ten civilians, and called the entire preposterous spectacle as proof that “cooperation works and works well for the betterment of the community.”

Apparently, this fascist legalese maneuver is now being employed wholesale in many areas in the region under focused-military operations, more recently in Brgy. White Culaman in Arakan, North Cotabato. Village officials reported that earlier this year, at least nine civilians have standing warrants of arrest for cases such as illegal possession of firearms, frustrated murder and murder.

The case of the Paquibato 10 is a study in the Duterte regime and the AFP’s Joint Campaign Plan (JCP) Kapanatagan modus operandi to “drain the pond in order to starve the fish.” In formulaic fascist fashion, the AFP believes that by going after civilians, its troops can deny the New People’s Army its survival base. Similar cases have already been recorded across the region, but have spiked considerably since the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in late 2018.

Open season

Several months before, the 27th Infantry Battalion based in Paquibato have profiled and sought out hundreds of civilians, including the ten individuals, whom state forces branded as “supporters or sympathizers” of the NPA. Their residences were surveilled and families and relatives were accosted and interrogated in farms, public markets, barangay halls and health centers by AFP and PNP personnel.

In order to “clear their names,” the civilians were told to report and surrender to detachments or to armed AFP troops of the retooled community support program (RCSP) holed up in civilian houses or barangay halls and spread sporadically in villages across Paquibato. Neighbors said that agents from a black-ops group organized by the AFP called Dos-dos paid visit several times to the residences of the red-tagged civilians, especially the ten individuals.

“It was like open season for the fascists to go after all civilians they consider NPA supporters in Paquibato and force them to surrender,” says Dexter, a farmer in Brgy. Colasas, who is a relative of one of the Paquibato 10. “It wasn’t just Paquibato 10. It was really Paquibato 1,000,” he quipped.

When the farmers refused to yield to the pressure and with their families continuing to insist they were civilians, the enemy became desperate. The reactionary courts then started churning out those all-too-familiar warrants of arrest.

Psywar, from start to finish

Amid the raging pandemic, the 27th IB, PNP and Peace 911 were able to swiftly conjure out of thin air a flimsy criminal case, charging the ten civilians with attempted murder over a 9-year old shooting incident involving troops of the 69th IB in Brgy. Mabuhay in July 2012. The 27th IB insisted that the case was lodged by one of the battalions who was previously assigned in Paquibato.

But the purported incident, in fact, had already been claimed by the NPA’s then Pulang Bagani Company and was widely covered by local media in 2012. It was a back-to-back series of tactical offensives by Red fighters against 69th IB and 84th IB’s special operations team in Upper Mabuhay in Paquibato and Brgy. Dominga in Calinan.

Now that state forces have “legally” put targets on their backs and the pressure of the enemy’s years of harassment and intimidation became unbearable, the ten civilians voluntarily gave themselves up on January 12 in order, specifically, to be cleared of the trumped-up charges.

Conveniently lost in the 27th IB and Peace 911’s subsequent PR frenzy, however, was the previous expressed intent of the ten civilians to clear their names over the preposterous charges. They did not volunteer themselves to surrender as NPA supporters. Even so, the AFP spin doctors misrepresented the Paquibato 10’s voluntary submission to police custody as “[abandoning] communist terrorism” and “[cooperating] with the constituted authorities” that “will further weaken the CPP/NPA in the area.”

Rubbing salt in the wound, Peace 911 even declared in false magnanimity that it provided “legal assistance” to the accused, supposedly covering the bail bond for the civilians’ release from police custody. The accused were also denied their right to legal representation of their own choosing and were told to go along with the entire process as instructed by the 27th IB.

Finally, the 27th IB released a statement on January 22 saying that the case against the Paquibato 10 had been dismissed on January 19 for lack of evidence.

The ten civilians were then paraded to the local media for a few quick and rehearsed sound bites. Hundreds of social media pages maintained by paid troll farms of the Eastern Mindanao Command subsequently posted and shared the fluff piece in true bot fashion, with comments and reactions fired off in dizzying haste and similarity.

In a speed which could have only been a point of envy of other more urgent legal matters, the entire affair was over in more or less ten days. Ironically, the AFP claimed that the civilians were “overwhelmed with joy not only for the speedy resolution of the case but more importantly [sic] they were exonerated,” conveniently failing to mention that they were the ones who persecuted the Paquibato 10 to begin with.

“The entire thing was pure psywar from start to finish,” Dexter says. “But they (the Paquibato 10) had no choice. We knew the enemy wouldn’t stop until they surrendered.”

Asked whether any of the Paquibato 10 personally received a court order formally dismissing their case, Dexter says he could not be sure. “They said they signed some documents, but I think those were the surrender papers.”

Like being held hostage

The circus surrounding the Paquibato 10 saga is a glaring example of how treacherous Duterte’s counterinsurgency war has degraded into, especially in attacking the basic rights of civilians. Their case follows a worn-out pattern of red-tagging non-combatant civilians, smoking them out through legal pressure tactics like trumped-up cases or warrants of arrests, and coercing them to go along with the usual storyline of being misrepresented as “NPA surrenderees or sympathizers.”

However, for civilians like the Paquibato 10 who are forced to turn themselves over in order to clear their names of trumped-up charges, surrendering to the enemy does not necessarily mean being legally absolved of any crime. Some cases are merely archived, waiting to be summoned again on the whim of the fascists. “It’s like being held hostage forever,” Dexter gathers.

For Sylvia, who is an official of one of the villages of Paquibato, the AFP’s surrender campaign is nothing but a “money-making scheme by the officials.” She was present during Peace 911’s many pulong-pulong (mass meetings) where AFP officials talked about the Duterte regime’s surrender program Enhanced Comprehensive Livelihood Integration Program (E-CLIP), ₱20-million barangay development fund and some livelihood projects.

“But mostly the soldiers talked about encouraging residents to surrender under E-CLIP,” she recalls. “It is no secret here that each surrendered individual means cash reward for the soldiers. It doesn’t matter to them whether that individual is just a former Red fighter who has long ago left the NPA and is now living as a civilian or a mere red-tagged resident of Paquibato.” She says that presently, the AFP are scraping the bottom for anyone whom they can misrepresent as a “surrenderee.”

The bottom line

Sylvia and Dexter both agree that it is the struggle to own land and other peasant interests that is in the bottom of the persecution of the Paquibato 10 and other residents. “It is the reason why the AFP soldiers keep calling us NPA sympathizers,” Dexter says. “They know that the NPA wages war against big landlords and businesses who want Paquibato for themselves so the soldiers lump us all together and call us terrorists. It doesn’t matter to them that we are not armed.”

During those pulong-pulong of the AFP and Peace 911, Sylvia says she is constantly reminded of the previous “sweet promises” of Rodrigo Duterte. Sylvia, whose peasant family has lived in Paquibato for more than four decades now, recalls that during Duterte’s long stint as mayor of Davao City, he had failed in as many times that he promised to give land to the peasants and Lumad of Paquibato.

Duterte’s daughter and current city mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio not only refused to deliver on the same promise but even dashed all hopes for peasants and Lumad to acquire security over the land they currently till. The mayor connived with the AFP’s Eastern Mindanao Command in June last year to appropriate more than 40 hectares of the Lumad’s ancestral land for a military reservation area.

She also recently enacted Executive Order No. 71, which established a task force supposedly to “guide, regulate and monitor business and other developments” in Paquibato. The order in actuality has given sole discretion to the reactionary local government, meaning the Duterte political dynasty, to enable the entry of mining companies, export-crop plantations and other ventures and slowly ease peasants and Lumad like Sylvia and Dexter’s families out of the land that is their only means of livelihood.

“But the soldiers aren’t really interested in our land problem,” Sylvia sighs, referring back to Peace 911’s many mass meetings. “All they want is for us to surrender and stop struggling for our land and interests.”

The curious case of the Paquibato 10, as with all other similar cases in the region, boils down to just how easy it has become for state forces to criminalize civilians who struggle for their democratic rights, manufacture cases against them, coerce their surrender and line the pockets of AFP and PNP officials with surrender bounty in the process.

The tyrant Duterte has unsheathed the tools for systematic fascism: legislations like the Anti-Terror Law, acquiescent courts that grind out warrants like factories, maniacal red-tagger NTF-ELCAC and its local clones like Peace 911, rabid killing dogs in the AFP and the PNP deputized with impunity, and a network of well-funded troll farms that manipulate public opinion in traditional and social media.

In the grand, dirty court of the fascist regime’s counterinsurgency war, the enemy is never above playing the role of judge, jury and executioner. (by Delilah Mirabal)

Pasabilis News Feature | The curious case of the Paquibato 10
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