Florentina Roble, a neighborhood official in this war-torn city 600 miles south of Manila, dropped by the office of the city's military commander last week to volunteer her services in the struggle against the nation's Communist insurgency.
Roble had never fired a gun in her life, she said. But the soft-spoken, middle-age woman told the commander that she would do her best to organize a civilian vigilante squad to keep the Communists out of her neighborhood. The only problem, she said, was her fear that the armed rebels would retaliate.
Col. Franco Calida, Davao City's military police commander, did not even blink. Sitting beneath a poster of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, he asked no more than the woman's name. Then he pointed casually to the 10 handguns lying on the floor beside his desk and said, "Your choice."
Revolver in Purse
Moments later, Florentina Roble slipped a .38-caliber revolver into her purse--one of dozens of firearms that Calida handed out to local civilians that week. She strode confidently out of the colonel's office as the newly deputized leader of one of dozens of officially sanctioned vigilante squads in a city once controlled by the Communist New People's Army (NPA).
Roble is just one of thousands of civilian politicians, former rebels and unemployed youths throughout this city of 1.4 million who are being deputized and armed to fight the nation's intractable, 18-year Communist rebellion.
Calida, a self-styled anti-Communist fanatic who displays bodies of alleged Communists killed by his vigilantes alongside the skeletal remains of the rebels' alleged victims on the lawn outside his office, says he believes his program is at the cutting edge of the Philippine government's counterinsurgency strategy.
Dose of Own Medicine
"We are cooking them in their own oil; we're giving them a dose of their own medicine," he said last week. "We're using their own tactics to turn the public tide against them, and it's working. There are almost no Communists left in Davao City today, just the priests and the nuns, and we'll go after them next."
In recent weeks, vigilantism such as Calida has organized in Davao City has been spreading rapidly throughout the nation. And that has given rise to fears in virtually every sector of Philippine society that the groups could easily degenerate into civilian death squads.
From the slums of Davao City, which has been the insurgents' urban laboratory since the late 1970s, to the remote mountain Communist strongholds of Cebu Island, military commanders, right-wing farmers and anti-Communist local politicians have quietly spent the last several months arming civilians.
Those civilians have now been turned loose by the government to combat the nation's increasingly bloody insurgency in places where the military has been unsuccessful.
The groups, which have adopted such names as "The Uprising Masses" and "The Black Widow Spiders," already have killed scores of alleged Communist rebels on their own--with the sanction of local military commanders like Calida.
Some priests and human rights groups have begun comparing the vigilantes to the right-wing "death squads" of El Salvador that once reportedly massacred hundreds of civilians in that Central American country.
'A Real Blood Bath'
"Myself and a few others suspect there will be a real blood bath one of these days," said Father Jack Walsh, an American priest who has lived in Davao City for 25 years.
Walsh took issue with the claim that the vigilantes have driven the Communist rebels out of Davao City; he said the insurgents abandoned the city during an internal power struggle as long ago as October, 1985. But he added that he fears the Communists will return and a blood bath will occur when they "decide this whole thing has gone far enough."
Nonetheless, in a series of moves last week that stunned the nation's human rights advocates and leaders of the political left, President Corazon Aquino's government appeared to endorse the vigilante groups publicly.
Aquino's military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, after a 24-hour tour of Davao City on Wednesday, praised Calida's vigilante squads as "civilian organizations dedicated to the defense of their community."
Local mayors and governors appointed by Aquino, among them Davao City's politically progressive Mayor Zafiro Respicio, have sanctioned the groups and encouraged their city councils to allocate government funds to support them.
Jaime Ferrer, Aquino's Cabinet secretary in charge of local governments, has publicly commended vigilante groups. A leader of a socialist political party in the ruling coalition, Ferrer has also begun barnstorming the nation, ordering governors and mayors either to create such squads in their regions or risk being fired.
Neither Aquino nor her press secretary have stated the president's official policy on vigilantes, in spite of a rash of headlines last week, such as one that declared, "Cory Backs Vigilantes in Fight Against Reds."
Aquino and her vice president, Salvador Laurel, did, however, turn up their rhetoric against the estimated 23,500 armed Communist insurgents and their political leaders.
Castigated by Aquino
In a speech last Sunday, Aquino blasted them as "those who would subvert our freedom and return us to slavery." She condemned them for walking away from the negotiating table after a 60-day cease-fire ended in violence and bloodshed last month.
The next night, Laurel appeared in the capital to speak to a visiting delegation of Causa International, a worldwide, strongly anti-Communist organization backed by evangelist religious leaders from South Korea and the United States.
In his speech, the vice president declared that communism is "an unmitigated evil and a brutal intrusion into our national life."
"The government must be prepared to combat Communist violence with superior force," he added.
Claims Aquino Support
Despite the president's official silence on the vigilante controversy, Ferrer insisted during an interview that Aquino and her entire Cabinet support the vigilante groups.
"I reported this to the Cabinet last Wednesday, and the president was quite enthusiastic about it," he said. After that meeting, he added, "The president supports the concept."
Ferrer said he would prefer that new groups being formed not be given high-powered firearms and pistols. Instead, he recommended that they either patrol their villages unarmed or with traditional weapons, such as bow and arrows, spears or bolo knives. As for groups that already possess firearms, he said they should be under the constant, direct supervision of local military leaders.
"When a fellow learns to shoot and kills people, it's very hard to disarm them after that," he said.
Most Successful Network
During his two-day trip to Davao City last weekend, Ferrer saw for himself how heavily armed the vigilantes are in this site of the first and, local officials say, most successful vigilante network.
Referring specifically to Calida's armed Davao City vigilantes, called Alsa Masa--Uprising Masses--Ferrer said, "I'm not saying I'm discouraging Alsa Masa, but, in other areas where we are just starting, I don't think we should use Alsa Masa as a model."
Asked whether his sanctioning of vigilantes indicates that the Aquino government is shifting sharply to the right, Ferrer smiled and said, "You don't have to go to the extreme right to do this. But those in the middle are really rightists after all."
CIA Support Denied
Responding to charges that have been leveled by critics on the left, Ferrer, who was the founder of a citizens group in the 1950s that was later linked to the U.S. CIA, flatly denied that the formation of the vigilante network is being funded or supported by any branch of the American government.
He conceded that the strategy is similar to that used by the CIA, U.S. and South Vietnamese armed forces in Vietnam, in a joint intelligence--some say assassination--operation dubbed the Phoenix Program from 1968 to 1972, and by El Salvador, where a counterinsurgency program was designed in part by retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub.
Singlaub has spent much of the last six months in the Philippines but denied that he was there to organize any counterinsurgency plan.
"This is my idea," Ferrer said. "I've not contacted anybody on this. I simply think this is the only way. This is the right approach."
The issue of the vigilante squads was so heavily publicized nationwide last week that many government critics said they suspected it was part of a propaganda campaign to spread fear among the Communists. Ferrer acknowledged that, nationally, there may be less to the program than meets the eye.
"It is psy-war on our part, but also it is actually happening," he said. And simply by building up the vigilante network nationwide, he added, he hopes to create "a bandwagon effect" that will turn public sentiment against the Communists.
'A Natural Extension'
"Basically, it is just citizen participation. It's a natural extension of 'People Power,' only this time directed against the Communists instead of (deposed President Ferdinand E.) Marcos. Once we give the local community leaders the confidence to fight the Communists, the rebels lose the support of the masses. They'll no longer be able to hide in the villages and, thus, they will lose the war."
As Davao City Mayor Respicio phrased it, "He who wins the mass base wins the struggle."
Respicio, though, is among the many national and local government officials who have both supported and expressed strong apprehensions about the vigilantes.
Ferrer's own assistant secretary for regional operations, Lito Lorenzana, said last week: "Our main concern is that this would become some kind of killing machine. . . . I'm still a little skeptical."
Quoting from a confidential government survey on the vigilantes, Lorenzana said there are already more than 13,000 members of civilian vigilante groups nationwide, more than half of them members of Davao City's Alsa Masa.
Even several senior military commanders expressed reservations about the vigilantes.
Arguing that Gen. Ramos' visit to Davao City was meant less as an endorsement of Alsa Masa than as a "fact-finding mission to see what Col. Calida was really up to," one general close to the chief of staff, when asked his opinion of the group, replied, "Did you ever hear the story about Dr. Frankenstein?"
Local officials such as Mayor Respicio echoed those fears.
'A Monstrous Cure'
"Maybe all we're doing is creating a monstrous cure that will be far worse than the disease," Respicio said.
"I'm walking a tightrope. I am concerned about the growth of Alsa Masa, and many of them are being armed. But people are turning against communism here, and I have had to consent to the barangay (neighborhood) captains' being armed because they are the people in the forefront actually risking their lives."
"But I'm jealous of the Alsa Masa," said Respicio, a former political activist who often marched alongside prominent leftist leaders during the 20 years of authoritarian rule under Marcos. "The people are more comfortable with Alsa Masa than with the local government officials. The only solution is to get the government working again in the neighborhoods so there's no need for groups like this."
City's Size a Problem
The biggest problem facing both Respicio and his military police commander is their city's size and character. Ranked the third-largest city in the world in area, Davao City has legal boundaries that include more than 1,000 square miles of urban ghettos, remote mountain villages and uninhabited jungle--too much for the police force to patrol.
And for now, Respicio concedes, Calida's appears to be the only solution to an insurgency that, just one year ago, was responsible for more than half a dozen deaths every day.
The idea for the vigilantes, Calida said, began last July, when the leader of a surrendering group of Communist rebels came to him with a proposal to use the insurgents' own tactics against them.
Joining forces with Rolando Cagay, the ex-rebel leader who now calls himself "Boy Ponsa," Calida decided to make an example of the city's Agdao neighborhood, a slum district where, for many years, the Communists had assassinated so many policemen and a local government "warlord" had retaliated so ferociously that it became known as "Nicaragdao."
"We started by killing everybody, all the known (Communist) killers and hit men," Ponsa said as he and several other vigilantes, all of them armed with M-16 rifles, patrolled their district last week.
Ponsa, who said he was born in the neighborhood and worked there as a junk and tire dealer before becoming a finance officer of the Communist Party nearly three years ago, said the community was so tired of paying what the rebels call "revolutionary taxes," of the murders of policemen and neighborhood officials, and of the rebels' strict policy against "drinking, gambling and womanizing" that its residents "embraced us."
"We will now make this anti-Communist movement spread through the whole country," Ponsa said through a translator. "When I finish in Davao, I will go to Manila, then to the other badly infiltrated parts of the country.
'The Sparrow Hunter'
"I will do it to the last drop of my blood. I want to be famous and known to everyone as the Sparrow Hunter"--rebel hit men are known here as Sparrows--"and I want a movie to be made of my life."
Meanwhile, another local personality is both benefiting from and spreading the anti-Communist fervor throughout Davao's large island of Mindanao.
Juan Pala, a Davao City radio disc jockey, has aligned himself with Calida and his vigilantes. He now spends at least four hours a day broadcasting anti-Communist philosophy--and threatening the lives of priests, nuns, local officials and corporate officials whom he believes are supporting the Communists.
Among the religious figures that Pala has said are targeted for death by the vigilantes is Walsh, the American priest.
Pala, who keeps a machine gun by his side and says he has mined the grounds around the radio station to protect himself, has not confined his threats to individuals.
He has announced on the air, for example, that entire communities will be "wiped out and exterminated" by the vigilantes on a specific date "if you do not openly declare you hate communism." The threats have actually triggered mass evacuations from some villages where the Communist rebels have sought safe haven in the past.
Pala was charged last week with violating government codes on ethics in broadcasting.
Despite the propaganda campaign being waged by people like Pala and by Calida, who is interviewed at least once a day on regional radio stations, many local officials have steadfastly refused to join the armed anti-Communist campaign.
Maria Clara Montera, the leader of a sparsely populated region in the mountains within the jurisdiction of Davao City that has, until recently, been heavily influenced by the rebels, said she and the other neighborhood officials disagree emphatically with Calida's approach.
"We are proposing a peaceful citizens committee," she said. "We will call ourselves 'peace volunteers' and we will patrol our village without arms, instead, talking to the people and looking out for strangers who might be coming through."
As for being armed, she said, "I am against killing my brother Filipino. Never give me anything that will harm my brothers and sisters. Just give me a rosary so I can pray for them."