Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pre-teen Basilan Youth Arm Themselves against Kidnapping Gangs

BASILAN, Philippines (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project / Apr. 21, 2009) - Ten-year-old Joey (not his real name), a public elementary student here, casually walks with his school backpack everyday. He frolics and plays like any normal schoolboy would do –except that his backpack contains a .38 caliber gun.

He carries it, he says, as a “matter of self-defense.”

Joey agreed to be interviewed after the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project confirmed his identity would not be revealed.

“My father told me to carry my gun every time I go to school so that I can protect myself against the bad people around,” said Joey in the local dialect.

“Bad people” for Joey and his family are the growing number of kidnap-for-ransom gangs operating on the island and nearby Sulu.

By all accounts, Joey is not the only elementary student who goes to school in Basilan packing a gun in place of a Batman lunchbox.

In this southern Philippine province where poverty is writ all over, banditry --particularly kidnap-for-ransom—is rapidly becoming a cottage industry. It seems to be gaining local “legitimacy” because of support from family members and the local community.

Basilan belongs to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the country’s poorest region. More than half of the population here lived in poverty in 2006, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board. Basilan has the third highest poverty incidence of 31.7 percent next to Tawi-Tawi with 78.9 percent and Sulu with 46.5 percent.

A recent Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project maintained kidnap-for-ransom activities in the province were no longer the monopoly of the Abu Sayyaf (the Sword of God), which has been blamed for series of terror attacks on civilians, religious groups and the military in the country.

Lack of employment opportunities, absence of income sources and extreme poverty in the province have allegedly driven some locals in the area to turn to kidnapping as business. Different kidnap groups, observers say, operate on their own but somehow have learned to work together by passing one hostage to another as means to confuse government authorities.

But what concerns the local authorities, peace and security advocates, and more so the local community, is that these kidnap-for-ransom groups are no longer targeting the rich and influential. Even ordinary citizens are now becoming targets.

Public school teachers’ son

Nine-year-old school boy Chester Gruta was kidnapped on January 31 in Barangay Malinis in Lamitan City, 20 kilometers from here, while on his way home from buying vinegar in a nearby store. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but the Abu Sayyaf was immediately blamed.

Gruta, a Grade 3 student, is the son of public elementary teachers in Lamitan, whose average monthly salary each is merely PhP 10,000 (USD 213).

Gruta was only released on April 1 –after 60 days in captivity – on Capagu Island near Tuburan town in Basilan reportedly after series of negotiations led by Lamitan City mayor Roderick Furigay and with support from emissaries.

No ransom was paid, the mayor insisted. But earlier media reports said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) facilitated the release by paying the kidnappers “no less than PhP 100,000 (USD 2,127).”

The MILF described Gruta’s kidnappers as “a group of jobless individuals who were hoping to get a huge sum of money” from the child’s family or the government. They originally demanded a massive PhP 10 to 20 million (USD 212,765 to 425,531) when they took the boy.

With the release of Gruta, the number of hostages in Basilan is now down to nine. The latest victim is Ernan Chavez who was seized with Cosme Aballes in Sitio Arco in Lamitan on Good Friday by suspected Abu Sayyaf and rogue MILF members. During the attack, a man identified as Jacinto Clemente was shot dead. Government troops in pursuit of the kidnappers found the beheaded remains of Aballes, 40 on April 13 in Lamitan.

Other captives are Sri Lankan peace worker Umar Jaleel, reportedly being held in Tipo-Tipo town; micro-finance firm employee Lea Patris, reportedly being held hostage by the group of a certain “Juhaidil alias Kik” in Sumisip town; and six public school teachers who were abducted on two separate incidents between January and March in the Zamboanga Peninsula.

Teachers Janette delos Reyes, Raphael Mayonada and Freires Quizon were abducted January 23 in Zamboanga City and were believed to have been brought immediately to Basilan. On March 13 in Naga town in Zamboanga Sibugay province, teachers Noemi Mandi, Jocelyn Inion, and Jocelyn Enriquez were taken. Unconfirmed reports said Mandi died in captivity due to complications from a recent medical operation.

In Sulu, six hours away by slow boat from here, the Abu Sayyaf is still holding hostage two foreign International Committee of the Red Cross workers since January 15. The third hostage, Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, was released April 2 after 77 days in captivity and amid contested allegations that a large ransom was paid.


For people here, children being compelled to carry firearms as protection and self-defense are nothing but a consequence of the “culture of violence” in the province that usually hurt the innocent ones.

“Kidnapping is so common here that even children of ordinary government employees are no longer sure of their safety,” said businessman Jamju Rivera, executive director of the Basilan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He cited incidents in Maluso where ordinary children are allegedly kidnapped in “exchange for even just a month’s salary of their parents.” Many of these cases are no longer reported in the media.

The abductors, he said, would settle for a meager amount of PhP 10,000 (USD 213) as ransom, an indication that kidnapping has indeed become some people’s way to survive poverty and joblessness.

“That’s why people in Basilan including the young have to protect themselves in the face of these threats,” Rivera said.

Ping Ortega, a retired local government employee, told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project: “Because the government cannot protect us, we have to protect ourselves by carrying firearms.”

In what he calls a case of “breakdown of law and order,” Ortega laments that not a single policeman or soldier is seen roaming and watching guard in the town at night time.

“It is ironic that there are so many military and police checkpoints around town yet the people feel so unsafe here,” he said, adding: “You cannot blame the people when they have to put into their own hands their safety which they feel the government cannot provide them.”

Loose firearms

It is difficult to track the actual number of firearms in the province. But it is public knowledge that in Basilan and elsewhere in Mindanao, the number of loose firearms continues to rise.

No less than National Security adviser Norberto Gonzales admitted during a peace dialogue in Davao City last year that there are around 200,000 loose firearms in Mindanao of which a fourth are in the hands of the rebels.

“In our estimate, we think that these armed groups in Mindanao have 50,000,” he said, adding that the estimated number of loose firearms could even be more.

He cited Sulu alone, where there is an estimated 100,000 guns circulating. This means that there is one gun for every seven people in the island, says the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue which monitors peace and situation order in the island. In March last year, the mayor of Jolo, Sulu declared the town a ‘peace zone’ apparently to cure its image of conflict and lawlessness.

There is no parallel effort in Basilan, thereby raising more concerns on incidents of civilians arming themselves amid unabated kidnap-for-ransom activities.

Bishop Martin Jumoad of the prelature of Isabela feared the number of loose firearms in Basilan could even be rising, taking into account reports that children as young as grade school pupils have started arming themselves.

The outspoken bishop said in Maluso town alone, the use of guns is so widespread even among children, noting that “the problem of the young children and guns is significantly worse than before.”

“It is not good because we are already teaching people that it is normal to kill one another. We do not teach the value of life and that should not be the case,” the Catholic bishop in the predominantly Islamic region said. Catholics comprise only a third of Basilan’s population of half a million.

He said the people of Basilan -- Christians and Moro alike -- including children have realized the military and police could not secure their safety “so they prefer to arm themselves because there are so many lawless elements at this time.”

But Senior Supt. Salik Macapantar, Basilan police director, denied reports that children here have started arming themselves for self-defense and protection.

“There is no truth in those reports,” Macapantar told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

While admitting that it is hard to control loose firearms in the province, the police chief said this is happening not only in Basilan.

“The problem of loose firearms is not only happening in Basilan. It is common in Mindanao and in other parts of the country,” he said.

The Basilan police, he claimed, are trying hard to enforce law and order as he vowed to look into the report of children who have started to arm themselves.


In child psychology, the trauma from gun violence usually lead children to arm themselves for different reasons – for protection or as a means to desensitize themselves or lessen their hesitation in engaging in violent acts.

Children exposed to such environment would most likely grow to use violence as means to resolve problems or express emotions, expert studies showed. The community –including parents, school administrators, and mental health workers –has roles in protecting children and youth from exposure to gun violence and helping them overcome the effects of gun-related trauma.

But in the case of Basilan, the authorities’ apparent failure to ensure law and order has pushed parents to have their children armed when going to school. This, to many parents, gives their children the peace and protection amid the prevailing climate of fear and insecurity.

Eliseo, a 55-year-old rubber plantation worker who asked not to divulge his surname, felt it is “only right for us to allow our children to be armed while going to school.”

“Almost everybody here is armed. Why not allow the children to carry arms when they are the most vulnerable?” he asked.

Aside from giving guns to his own children, Eliseo revealed that he trained them how to use their guns properly “so that they will use them only to defend themselves.”

When asked where they get their guns, the 55-year-old worker said: “Buying guns here is just like buying fish or rice in the market.” A quick survey here showed one could easily get an M16 Armalite for minimum of PhP 15,000 (USD 319) and a handgun for as low as PhP 4,000 (USD 85).

Up until law enforcers completely protect civilians from lawless elements in the area, the province would see more children growing with loaded guns in their school backpacks.

Among them most likely is Joey, who, like his school friend Abdul, casually puts his gun in his backpack and walks home everyday before dusk, confident that he would be able to protect and defend himself when ‘bad people’ come his way. (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project / Antonio Manaytay, the author is a freelance writer and researcher based in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay. He regularly contributes to MindaNews, UCANews, CBCP News and GMANews.TV.)

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