By REYNARD MAGTOTO
DARAGA, Albay – On March 21, 2022, Marites Cello received a text message from a friend while she was attending a Bicol-wide multisectoral caravan. Cello, the local leader of peasant women’s group Amihan in Camarines Sur, had been red-tagged and subjected to surveillance. Her friend advised her not to go home, saying there were 30 to 40 soldiers in the neighborhood.
Cello decided to go home on April 9, 2022, and locked herself in their house for three days because of fear. “My family was too scared. My other child’s eyes were swollen, my mother was crying. They said that the drone almost landed on the roof of our house,” Cello said. “I couldn’t sleep during those days.”
After three days, Cello decided to go out. The soldiers belonging to the 91st Civil Military Operations (CMO) Company told her to cooperate with the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) by providing information about the activities of alleged communist guerrillas in Camarines Sur.
This incident and many others form part of NTF-ELCAC’s dirty tactics in its counterinsurgency program in different areas in the Bicol region, according to human rights group Karapatan-Bikol. Nida Barcenas, Karapatan-Bikol secretary general, said that the task force works with the Philippine military, maximizing its civil military operations to create fear and division among the local residents.
Cello, for one, witnessed how NTF-ELCAC and state forces came up with a list of surrenderers. On April 29, 2022, combined forces of the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines held a protest with support from their former barangay captain Michael Oliva in Sitio Balatongan, Concepcion Grande, Naga City. She recalled that soldiers guarded all the exit areas to their community, with commanding officer Moreno Hubilla telling the residents to burn the flags of the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army and National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) and the flag of Anakpawis Partylist.
One of the members of Amihan in the area reached out to Cello, informing her that their former barangay captain told them to wear a white t-shirt for a gift-giving ceremony.
“When I heard that, I advised them against wearing white shirts. But of course, there was a promise that they would be given assistance,” said Cello.
Serving as proof of attendance during the rally is a list of names of 25 residents written on a bond paper without any letterhead. Two days later, Cello said that a local radio station reported a press release, stating that the 25 residents are NPA guerrillas who surrendered to the authorities.
“The 25 (persons) were not (real NPA) surrenderers,” said Cello.
On July 15, 2023, two NTF-ELCAC operatives named Ryan Imperial and Rex Peñas came to Cello, asking her to sign a document as proof that she cooperated with them. Cello refused.
“I said I will not sign. I told them, ‘How important is my signature to you?’ They said it’s up to me. Then the two left,” Cello shared.
After this incident, posters labeling Cello as a communist started to spread in public places.
Karapatan-Bikol documented other cases of military units using barangay halls, chapels, day care centers, and other civilian homes, facilities, and properties as camps for months. Elements of the CMO and paramilitary unit have encamped outside the house of a former peasant leader in a community in Naga City, Camarines Sur since last year, the group said.
Forced to surrender inside military camps
In Sorsogon province, there were reports of NPA guerrillas who accepted the offer of the NTF-ELCAC. Still, there were civilians who had been forced to surrender with them, Karapatan-Bikol said.
In 2019, the group documented seven forced surrenderers in barangay Rizal, Sorsogon City. Six of them were members of the National Network of Agrarian Reform Advocates (NNARA) – Youth who were taken by the soldiers.
“The youth reached out to me and told me that they were forced to surrender [to the authorities]. They were forced to sign a document stating they were NPA. They were brought to the military camp where pictures of them were taken,” said Regina Barbacena, a neighbor of the six and a leader of local peasant group Samahan ng mga Magsasaka sa Sorsogon (SAMASOR).
“Until now, the others are scared. They were organized by the NNARA Youth Sorsogon Chapter but they were not NPAs,” Barbacena added.
Even Barbacena’s husband, Diosdado, was not spared by the NTF-ELCAC’s operatives. Her husband was visited several times by its operatives from October 6, 2019 to February 5, 2022.
In the early morning of Feb. 5, 2022, Diosdado, 74, was taken, brought to the military camp, forced to surrender as NPA.
“My husband said they forced him to surrender and they wanted him to hold a gun but he refused. They also kept telling my husband that I am a high official of Amihan,” Barbacena said.
Diosdado returned home around 11 a.m. on the same day.
“He is a fisherman but since he’s already old, he always stays at home. Sometimes he goes to the cassava plantation,” said Barbacena. “It’s just wrong for them to force him to surrender. What’s their purpose?”
Promises of livelihood assistance and establishing parallel organizations
The NTF-ELCAC and the AFP are found dangling economic benefits as another tactic at bloating the number of surrenderers.
The 91st CMO Company based in Camp Francisco V Canuto, barangay Sagurong in Pili, Camarines Sur posted its press release through the Facebook page Diplomats Uragon about the distribution of 200 organic chickens to the members of their newly organized women’s group in Sitio Balatongan, barangay Concepcion Grande, Naga City on Aug. 25, 2023.
The post states that former members of a sectoral organization who were deceived by the CPP-NPA-NDF received organic chickens from the Department of Agriculture (DA). The said distribution was held on August 21 for the members of Samahan ng Kababaihang Magsasaka ng Concepcion Grande (SKMCG) and San Roque Camaligan CamSur Transport Association.
Members of the SKMCG, however, were shocked and alarmed by the content of the post. It was only in October when they found out about it, causing them to withdraw their membership from the organization.
According to the members, their women’s group was formed by the CMO as a prerequisite for receiving chickens and other livelihood assistance. SKMCG was an organization formed to divide members of Damayan ng Paraoma (DAMPA) and Amihan in their barangay. The practice of creating parallel organizations started during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya.
The formation of SKMCG was facilitated by Roselle Zamora, a former member of DAMPA in Camarines Sur and now a member of Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) with a monthly salary of P4,000.
Stephannie Marcaida, one of the elected officers of the SKMCG, recalled, “It really started when Roselle told us that there was a meeting for those who would be given the livelihood from DOLE [Department of Labor and Employment] at the barangay hall of Conception Grande. So we went there, 47 (residents) of us attended the meeting. When we got there, there was no one from DOLE but there were soldiers. We also didn’t know that there would be an election of officers for the organization.”
Marcaida said that the soldiers told them that for the assistance to be processed, they must have an organization. “So an organization was formed. A chicken will be given to us. Roselle told us that four people are needed to claim the chickens for the women’s organization,” she said.
Marcaida claimed the three chickens but eventually sold the chickens since she couldn’t stand the smell.
In September 2023, Zamora told Marcaida to follow Diplomats Uragon’s Facebook Page. It was in November when Marcaida’s husband saw the post.
“Indeed, there’s something wrong with the post stating that the NPA deceived us. That’s when it started to get more chaotic,” Marcaida explained.
Marcaida just moved to Sitio Balatongan from San Juan, Metro Manila in 2018 after she gave birth to her third child. She was not a member of any organization until Zamora invited her to join SKMCG.
“My husband said it was not explained to us that this would be the deal. So we were surprised that I was called a former NPA,” Marcaida said.
SKMCG member Jennylyn Sarte was also enraged after reading the post about the chicken distribution. “All we know is that we only claimed (the chickens). Why was there something like that?” Sarte said.
Sarte confronted Zamora. “I said ‘What’s in the picture? What did you do? You didn’t inform us about the post. What does the caption mean?”
Zamora did not respond to her questions and instead said that 13 soldiers would go to the neighborhood.
“Is she scaring us so that we don’t take action? Our family is very scared. We don’t have electricity. What if they went, my family would be harmed,” Sarte said.
“It was my first time to join the organization. I joined since I saw my colleagues participating. Also, we are looking forward to their promise of DOLE assistance,” Sarte said. “They said it was being processed but until now we have nothing.”
Offering food packs, aid to join counter-protests
NTF-ELCAC is also organizing protests against activists.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) Bicol recorded counter-protests against activists this year. These were the State of the Nation Address (SONA) protest in Naga City on July 24 and the 51st anniversary of Martial Law commemoration in Peñaranda Park, Legazpi City on September 21.
The NTF-ELCAC’s counter-protests, according to Jen Nagrampa of BAYAN Bicol, were participated in by CAFGU as well as fake surrenderers. They wore white shirts and held placards denouncing the CPP, NPA and NDF.
Marcaida narrated her experience when she and other members of SKMCG were deceived to join the counter-protest in Naga City on July 24.
“We didn’t know that we would face off those protesters. So it was our first time to witness the confrontation between the soldiers and the protesters,” Marcaida said.
She was shocked since the soldiers invited them for a discussion about free housing at Plaza Rizal, Naga City. “We are not informed. There was no attendance. We were given three kilos of rice, noodles, and sardines,” Marcaida said.
Meanwhile, in Legazpi City during Sept. 21 protest action, the NTF-ELCAC mobilized fake surrenderers from Sorsogon and Albay for its pro-government protest. BAYAN-Bikol said that former members of Kadamay-Albay from Kilicao, Daraga joined the counter-protest and held a Zumba session on the opposite side of the protest venue. NTF-ELCAC distributed food packs for their participants, according to BAYAN Bicol.
‘Withdrawal of support’
After the 2022 national elections, Nagrampa confirmed that a former member of Kadamay and Bicolana Gabriela-Albay Susan Montañez has been cooperating with the NTF-ELCAC. She had never been an NPA member but decided to surrender to the state forces.
Montañez convinced the members of Kadamay in Kilicao, Daraga to form a new organization in exchange for livelihood assistance. She also facilitated the oath of allegiance to the government by local residents.
“These people are innocent civilians being tagged by the NTF-ELCAC as NPAs. Out of their desperation, they are using the civilians for their report on the counter-insurgency program,” Nagrampa said.
According to a reliable source, Montañez and the NTF-ELCAC operatives would brief the members of their new organization, asking the residents to memorize terminologies of the CPP-NPA-NDF before the scheduled program in their barangay hall for the so-called “withdrawal of support to the CPP-NPA-NDF.”
On August 25, 2023, the Facebook account named “93rd CMO company negotiator” posted an update claiming that six “sectoral front organizations in the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon are free from the deception of CPP-NPA-NDF as defenders and protectors of Bicolanos.”
The 93rd CMO further claimed that five sectoral leaders, 20 other officers, and most of their members decided to surrender to the government through a mass withdrawal of support.
Civilians who took part in the program were unaware of the Facebook post, according to a source who asked for anonymity. Residents are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.
“From fake surrenders and now forcing the communities for the withdrawal of support, these dirty tactics are unjust and violate the human rights of those people they are targeting,” Barcenas said.
Whole-of-nation approach in counterinsurgency
Such tactics are part of the whole-of-nation approach in counterinsurgency cited in Executive Order No. 70 of the previous Duterte administration.
“Unlike in the past when local chief executives left the insurgency problem solely to the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP), EO 70 is the collaboration of various Government agencies and their corresponding units at all levels,” NTF-ELCAC posted in its website.
The NTF-ELCAC is now headed by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. with Vice President Sara Duterte as one of the vice chairpersons. The present administration even boosted Duterte’s EO 70 after the approval of the National Security Policy (NSP) 2023-2028 or the whole-of-government approach under Executive Order No. 37.
Issuing Executive Orders to equip the administration’s insurgency programs started during the Arroyo administration patterned after the United States’ Counterinsurgency (COIN). Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed Executive Order No. 546 on July 14, 2006 for her Oplan Bantay Laya I and II.
Benigno Aquino III unveiled on Dec. 22, 2010 the new Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) to support his Oplan Bayanihan after declaring that Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya failed.
Duterte, meanwhile, also implemented its “drug war” campaign, the Memorandum Order No. 32 and the AFP Development Support and Security Plan “Kapayapaan” 2017-2022.
The so-called National Internal Security Plans (NISPs) were outright policies of repression that trampled on the people’s basic freedoms, rights and civil liberties, Karapatan’s 2022 report said.
“These counter-insurgency actions in the Philippines which were directly patterned after the United States counterinsurgency programs, closely followed the narrative of the US “war on terror,” human rights group Karapatan stated.
According to the US Government Counterinsurgency Guide signed on Jan. 13, 2009, COIN is the blend of comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously contain insurgency and address its root causes.
“Unlike conventional warfare, non-military means are often the most effective elements, with military forces playing an enabling role. COIN is an extremely complex undertaking, which demands of policy makers a detailed understanding of their own specialist field, but also a broad knowledge of a wide variety of related disciplines,” the US COIN Guide read.
Karapatan noted that various Oplans made no distinction between actual combatants in the underground armed resistance and activists in the open legal democratic movement.
“This non-distinction was used as an excuse to attack leaders and members of people’s organizations, progressive party-list groups, and vocal critics of the government. The civil-military component integrated into the NISPs implemented one-time social welfare assistance programs or piecemeal dole-outs, while psywar ops, extensive red-tagging and vilification of individuals and groups were simultaneously implemented,” Karapatan stated.
“The Oplans’ so-called community and social programs were essentially smokescreens to military operations in areas designated as targets and “hotbeds of insurgency.” These programs included community and relief services, and small public works infrastructure buildings or roads, many of which were funded by the USAID,” Karapatan added.
Based in the Joint Publication 3-57 released on Jul. 9, 2018 by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CMO are the activities performed by military forces to establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relationships between military forces and indigenous populations and institutions. CMO supports US objectives for host nations and regional stability.
Addressing the roots of the armed conflict
For Barcenas, the counterinsurgency policy resulted in gross human rights violations.
Since Marcos Jr. assumed the presidency until November 2023, Karapatan-Bikol recorded 510 incidents of human rights violations perpetrated by state forces.
“The ‘weaponizing of the law’ against its critics, activists, human rights defenders, and environment defenders through the executive issuances like the Memorandum Order No. 32, and the Executive Order No. 70 creating the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) are the expedient tools of the duty-bearers in the repressive attack against the rights-holders,” said Barcenas.
“It is the obligation of the State to demonstrate utmost compliance to international human rights and humanitarian laws. But the thing is, State security forces commit more violations,” Barcenas said.
The attacks, said Barcenas, affected the work of people’s organizations. “Here in Camarines Sur, no matter how hard it is, progressive organizations still persevere in their work,” she added.
With the NTF-ELCAC’s record in Bicol, Barbacena said the task force should be abolished.
This story is supported by the German Embassy Manila as part of Bulatlat’s project titled, “Advancing human rights reporting in the Philippines as a tool for upholding gender fairness, democracy and accountability.”