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Politics, power and private armed groups in the Philippines

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Philippine President Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr inspects troops during a change of command ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Philippines, 8 August 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan).

In Brief

On 4 March 2023, Provincial Governor Roel Degamo was assassinated in his residential compound by ten armed men, with politician Arnolfo Teves Jr suspected as the mastermind. Degamo's death is a part of a broader issue of political violence in the Philippines where private armed groups (PAGs) are used by elites to maintain power and influence. To address this, legitimate actions like implementing an anti-dynasty law and dismantling the PAGs are suggested, though considerable political will is required.


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On 4 March 2023, Provincial Governor Roel Degamo was gunned down inside his residential compound at Pamplona in Negros Oriental. The attack has claimed the lives of nine people and injured 16 more. Degamo had been in the middle of a meeting with his constituents when around ten heavily armed men entered his residence and opened fire.

A subsequent investigation revealed that at least three of the suspects were disgraced servicemen of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The alleged mastermind behind the killings is politician Arnolfo Teves Jr — the brother of Pryde Henry Teves, Degamo’s chief rival in the May 2022 gubernatorial race.

Degamo’s assassination was the latest in a string of politically-motivated killings that saw at least three more local executives injured or killed between 17 February and 4 March 2023. No stranger to electoral violence, private armed groups (PAGs) have been a staple of Philippine politics since its post-WWII independence. Since the 1940s, political and economic elites have actively employed private armies for two reasons — to influence the outcome of elections and politics and for the protection of self and property.

PAGs found a third function by the 1970s when, under president Ferdinand Marcos Sr, the Philippine government co-opted existing private armies into its counterinsurgency efforts. This strategy was earlier utilised by president Ramon Magsaysay against the communist Hukbalahap (‘People’s Army Against the Japanese’). Marcos’ establishment of the Integrated Civilian Home Defense Forces — armed volunteers supervised by provincial governors and municipal mayors — further legitimised the use of paramilitary forces. Soon enough, groups which had originally been formed to serve political and business interests found themselves facing communist and Muslim insurgents while state-sanctioned groups were subordinated to political and business interests.

While the state’s informal agreement with the oligarchy allowed PAGs to serve as ‘force multipliers’ for state security forces, the tolerance of their existence had established a precedent which privatised control over legitimate violence – a monopoly traditionally held by the state. This was further complicated by the Republic Act 6975 s. 1990 which demilitarised the Philippine Constabulary and empowered local chief executives with ‘operational supervision and control’ over the Philippine National Police (PNP) in their jurisdictions.

Inextricably linked with the political establishment, it was unsurprising that many low-ranking former AFP and PNP personnel would find employment under local warlords and dynastic families. A consistent demand for violence coupled with poverty and the padrino (patronage) found no shortage of men willing to work as hired guns for monetary gain. After all, these were men already licensed to kill — only this time, restrictions were looser and the pay proved better.

In 2009, Maguindanao province became the site of the ‘single deadliest event for the press in recent history’ as the rivalry between the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans ended with the massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists. A Human Rights Watch report later found that members of the Ampatuans’ private army were mostly come state-sanctioned paramilitaries, including members of Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) and Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs).

This was possible because former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed Executive Order No. 546 in 2006, which allowed for the recruitment and arming of CVOs. That same year, the AFP also authorised four new Special CAFGU companies for the Ampatuans – auxiliary units specifically contracted by local governments and businesses to serve as private security.

The rise of president Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 gave state security forces an open endorsement to use violence to support the government’s war on drugs and the intensified campaign against the Communist Party of the Philippines. As the country slid from democratic principles to an authoritarian oligarchy, political and economic elites took the opportunity to consolidate their positions through PAG recruitment. Violence against politicians reached its deadliest climax under the Duterte administration, averaging around 90.2 killings annually from 2016–2022 compared to 43.75 under president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and 54.34 under president Benigno Aquino III.

Degamo’s assassination was only one of many incidents brought about by unbridled PAG proliferation. While sustained gains against communist and Muslim insurgents led to a gradual decline of PAGs, PNP officials still estimate that as many as 155 PAGs operate across the Philippines. This is lower than the 558 active in 1993, but it is still an all-too-common feature of the country’s political establishment. Politicians continue to lord over their jurisdictions like petty kings over tiny fiefdoms, wielding private armies and state security forces in the manner of a knightly retinue.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has inherited one of the first major controversies of his presidency. Marcos Jr would do well to answer Degamo’s assassination by calling for the immediate dismantlement of unauthorised PAGs and outlawing private armies under Article XVIII, Section 24 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

But with the continued prevalence of political dynasties, such a policy forms only part of the solution. Legislators and civil society alike have been trying to introduce an anti-dynasty law for the last three decades. Passing a law like that requires a great deal of political capital — capital which Marcos Jr, part of a dynasty himself, may not be willing or able to expend.

In the absence of an anti-dynasty law, policymakers must dismantle PAGs as a preliminary step toward the dismantlement of political dynasties. To remove the means by which local elites have monopolised violence is to remove the very mechanism by which they remain in power. Doing so will open up new avenues for political opposition, democratic participation and genuine reform through the power of the ballot.

Vincent Kyle Parada is a defence research analyst at the Office of Naval Strategic Studies and Strategy Management, Philippine Navy. The opinions expressed here do not represent any of his affiliates.

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