San Pablo’s reputation as a quite city has been broken by the recent killing of one of its residents amid the deployment of government soldiers in seven barangays (villages) along the railroad tracks. Now many residents call their city, a “terror zone.”
BY DENNIS ESPADA
San Pablo City, Laguna (82 kms south of Manila) is well known as “the City of Seven Lakes” and is also a tourist destination. Its reputation as a quite city however has been broken by the recent killing of one of its residents amid the deployment of government soldiers in seven barangays (villages) along the railroad tracks.
Now many residents call their city, a “terror zone.”
Several barangay residents of Calehan, San Antonio, San Gregorio, San Joaquin, Soledad and Wawa said that soldiers belonging to Philippine Army’s 202th Infantry Battalion based in nearby Rizal town first posted in the area last Aug. 13. Since then, incidents of harassment, surveillance and intimidation among folks have reportedly been taking place.
Members of the urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay or Alliance of Urban Poor Organizations) believe that the militarization clearly has something to do with the people’s resistance to the impending demolition of shanties to pave way for the Philippine National Railways (PNR) Modernization and Rehabilitation Project, a national government program for upgrading the transportation from Manila to Bicol and vice versa.
Myrna Olarte, general president of the Kadamay affiliate Samahan ng Magkakapit-bahay sa Tabing Riles-San Pablo City (SMTR-SPC or Railroad Side Neighborhood Association), recounted in a statement last week that several men riding motorcycles with no plate number and armed with caliber .45 guns visited her house in Barangay San Gregorio on Aug. 16 and asked about her whereabouts. She was not around at that time but her son Michael said they went around the house and opened the front window to peek.
She said the armed group later headed to nearby Soledad and looked for Levy Villanueva, an SMTR-SPC member. A former leader reported that earlier that day, these same men visited and forced her to sign a paper “to clear her name” which they claim was included in the military’s Order of Battle.
Rowell and Mercy Pontanar, a couple who are SMTR-SPC officers in Barangay Del Remedio, revealed that an alleged military officer is renting a house near theirs, which they find odd considering the area had no electricity. They also observed that “suspicious-looking vendors” are roaming around Barangays Villa Antonio, II-F, San Antonio II, Triangulo, San Roque and San Crispin asking about the organization, its members and activities.
Olarte recalled that on Sept. 7, two military men met with Barangay San Joaquin Chairman Conrado Samsaman and accused him of being a New People’s Army (NPA) supporter and financier of SMTR-SPC which they tagged as a “communist front organization.” He denied the accusation. They came back the next day and instructed him to cooperate with them.
On Sept. 11, a jeep-load of soldiers in full battle gear arrived in San Joaquin where they conducted house-to-house inspection. Olarte said soldiers were looking for SMTR-SPC members and asking residents whether NPA members are staying in the area. They also wandered in nearby Barangays Santa Ana, Soledad and San Gregorio.
Military detachments were erected. Curfews beyond 7 p.m. were set up. For over two months, she and her fellow colleagues have not returned home in fear. They’re now receiving death threats.
On the morning of Oct. 18, unidentified gunmen shot to death Eduardo Millares, 50, and wounded Victoriano Carino, 42, on his right leg. Both were residents of Barangay Soledad.
San Pablo City Police Chief Supt. Sonny Ricablanca said the slain victim may have been killed by a crime syndicate whom he duped. According to him, Millares was a robbery suspect whom they arrested earlier but recently posted bail.
However, Adel Tolentino, secretary-general of Kadamay-Southern Tagalog, clarified that Millares was not a member of SMTR-SPC, contrary to what was earlier reported in the news.
Although he confirmed that Carino was a SMTR-SPC member, he said he was bothered for his safety. “Di pa namin siya nakakausap dahil natatakot. Nagtangka kaming kausapin at kunin kaya lang ay nababantayan ng militar ang lugar” (We haven’t been able to talk to him because he’s afraid. We tried to talk to him and bring him along but his place is heavily guarded by soldiers), Tolentino told Bulatlat.
Before this, leaders of SMTR-SPC-Kadamay held a dialogue with city council officials to air their complaints against a “martial law-like atmosphere” along railroad side communities. He said they were shocked when Vice Mayor Larry Vidal and Councilor Martin Ilagan expressed approval for the military’s presence.
“Pinagkakaitan na ng trabaho at mga batayang serbisyo, ide-demolish pa ang bahay at anumang oras ay maaaring patayin. Ano pa ang natitira sa mga maralita? Wala na, maliban sa pagkakaisa at paninindigang lumaban!” (They have been deprived of work and basic services, and now their homes are about to be demolished and their lives could be snuffed out anytime. What is left for the poor? Nothing else except unity and resolve to fight!), Tolentino said.