DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 29 June) – “Karon, di na gyud ko padakop nila nga buhi” (I wouldn’t let them capture me alive this time), Leoncio Pitao, popularly known by his nom de guerre Commander Parago, told MindaNews in an interview in the hinterlands of Paquibato District more than four years ago, on February 21, 2011.
True enough, he wasn’t captured alive. But he was killed when he engaged government troops in a firefight in Purok 9, Barangay Panalum in Paquibato district last Sunday.
“Manablahay na ko nila karon” (I’ll get even this time), added Pitao after he recounted his capture in their house in Toril District in November 1999.
He recalled having two hand grenades with him when police and military operatives surrounded him. “Andam na ko unta pabuthon ang granada pero gi-ingnan ko sa akong asawa nga surender na lang kay basin ma disgrasya pati akong mga anak” (I was ready to explode the grenades but my wife told me to surrender instead, worried that my children will be harmed, too), Pitao said.
While under the custody of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP), Parago claimed that he was visited by his former captive, Gen. Victor Obillo.
He was released in 2001 as one of the preconditions for the resumption of the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF).
During this last interview, he kept on reiterating that he wanted to avenge the killing of her daughter. Parago said the murder of her daughter had fueled his courage and determination to strengthen the revolution in the countryside.
“Kung nagtuo ang militar nga mapahuyang nila ako sa pagpatay nila sa akong anak, nasayop sila. Karon di na ko padakop ninyo” (If the military believes that they have weakened my resolve with their killing of my daughter, they’re wrong. Now, I won’t ever let you capture me), the rebel leader stressed.
There was no occasion during this interview except for a week-long ceasefire (from February 15 to 21, 2011), which was declared by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in deference to the start of the peace talks. So I took the opportunity to have a day-trip and see what the guerrillas were doing during the brief ceasefire.
Fond of lechon
During the February interview, a female fighter told me that Parago loves to eat grilled pork. “Kung mingawon na syag baboy tapos duol lang kami sa masa, magpapalit gyud ni si Tatay” (If he misses pork and we’re somewhere near the masses, Tatay would always request to buy pork.)
After taking pictures and conducting short interviews, we heard a loud wail of a pig at the foot of the hill. We saw NPA fighters butcher a pig. The rebels bought the 107-kilo pig for P7,000 from one of their “masa” in the nearby village.
While some called him Ka Ago or Ka Parago, some his comrades and the people of Paquibato District, where he operated, called him Tatay (father).
Another source in the rebel movement disclosed that the late rebel leader was fond of eating lechon (roasted pig) that sometimes he would request for it.
“If there are occasions and there are some guests from the urban areas, Ka Parago would request the guests to bring lechon as a present,” the source said.
A legendary warrior
In Paquibato District, younger cadres looked up to him not just as a military leader but as a father in the guerrilla front.
On several occasions, friends and sympathizers from the urban areas would come to his guerrilla base to celebrate the movement’s anniversary.
Parago was perhaps the busiest of all the NPAs as almost everyone would have themselves take a souvenir picture or even shake hands with him.
Simon Santiago, spokesperson of the NPA in the Davao Region, said Parago is revered by the masses as defender of the poor and the oppressed.
“Taas nga pagsaludo ngadto kang Ka Parago sa dedikasyon aron alagaran ang katawhan ug pagtisok sa binhi sa rebolusyon diha sa kasingkasing sa katawhan. Tatay para sa masa ug sa armadong pakigbisog sa katawhan” (We salute Ka Parago for his dedication to serve the people and for sowing the seed of the revolution in the hearts of the people. Tatay for the masses and for the people’s armed revolution), Santiago said in a text message to MindaNews.
“His legend lives on,” an activist, referring to Pitao, posted on his Facebook wall.
In this city and abroad, activists mourn the death of Parago as they described him as a “legendary warrior who offered his life for the oppressed.”
On Sunday night, a source from the rebel movement told MindaNews that Pitao could barely walk due to his lingering illness.
Moreover, the source said that Pitao may have been injured after he jumped into a ravine when a firefight erupted with the government troops two weeks earlier.
Santiago confirmed this statement, saying that it is already known to the people Pitao has long been suffering from diabetes and hypertension.
“His health problems had affected his mobility but not his courage and determination to serve the people,” he said.
Despite his failing health, Santiago pointed out that Parago had never thought of giving up the revolution.
“Many of our colleagues had advised him to get some rest and attend to his health needs but he refused,” the NPA spokesperson further said.
‘I thought we’re gonna die’
Parago recalled that sometime in 2004, he thought it would be the end for him as the military launched an intensified assault against them in Paquibato District.
“Many of us were wounded, and we had casualties, too. We thought we’re going to die that time because we hadn’t eaten well for a week as we were far from the masses,” he recalled. It was as running gun battle in the mountains that they almost ran out of ammunition, Pitao said.
Parago said joined the NPA in 1978 after his father was killed by government troops in Loreto, Agusan del Sur.
Since then, he was noted in leading daring raids against military and police outposts. He made it to the headlines in 1998 when he led the abduction of Brig. Gen. Victor Obillio and Capt. Alex Montealto.
Sources from the movement described Parago as one of the brilliant military tacticians in the history of the NPA.
He led several raids carting away firearms without firing a single shot. Among them was the raid on the Davao Penal Colony Farm in April 2007. The rebels seized 5 M-16s, 45 Carbines, 46 shotguns and 7 caliber .38 pistols.
Pitao had several standing warrants of arrests for murder, robbery and multiple frustrated murder.
He was married to Evangeline, who is now reportedly in hiding following the death of their daughter Rebelyn in 2009. Pitao accused government forces as behind the killing of her daughter, but the military has denied the accusation.
His eldest son Ryan joined the rebel movement in 2006 when he was 21. The elder Pitao said his son was forced to join the NPA after unidentified men threatened to kill him.
His second daughter Rio, a nurse, reportedly sought a job abroad after the death of her sister.
Ismael Gesmalin Jr., a taxi driver in the city who hails from the same hometown as Pitao, recalled that his father, who was once a member of the Integrated National Police, was ambushed by Pitao in 1983 but survived.
“I could still remember it, I was still in Grade 1 that time. Our later father told us about it after the incident,” Gesmalin said. “But now, his time has come.”
The first time I met and had a brief interview with Parago was during the 39th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), on December 26, 2008. During this occasion, the CPP usually invites several journalists to cover the annual event.
In the same occasion, what caught my attention was his customized M14 assault rifle with an M203 grenade launcher attachment. That was the first time I saw that modification of an assault rifle.
It took me a while to approach him because he was so busy entertaining the visitors and the “masa.”
Along with other journalists, I got to interview Parago several more times as we made trips to Paquibato District.
The most frequent was in March 2009 after the killing of her 20-year-old daughter Rebelyn.
During this time, Parago was open to media interviews to air his sentiments and criticize the justice system of the government.
Four days after the killing of her daughter, Parago granted our request for an interview. Along with four other journalists, we went into his lair in Paquibato.
We took a motorcycle ride from Panabo City going to Paquibato. As we reached the end of the dirt road, we hiked uphill for less than half a kilometer.
As we entered into the woods, Parago emerged from the group of NPA guerillas. Clad in his black sweatshirt and pants, he was in full battle gear – M203 grenade launcher ammunitions were wrapped around his chest, along with several magazines of his M16 assault rifle.
“Gusto gyud ko makadungog dako na buto karon” (I really want to hear a big explosion this time), he quipped while approaching us. One of his comrades added: “He really wanted to give justice to his daughter’s death.”
Anger was written all over his face. He uttered tough words but remained calm. While he was known as a tough rebel leader, he was a soft-spoken warrior.
Parago named several military intelligence agents as behind the killing of her daughter. In the early part of the interview, his voice cracked. But he managed to bring back his composure.
Towards the end of the interview, he managed to smile and cracked some jokes. He admitted that while it is tough for him to have lost a daughter, he had to work hard to give her “revolutionary justice.”
In my last interview, I asked him when was the last time he saw the downtown of this city.
“Basi magkitaay lang ta sa mall” (Who knows we’ll bump into each other in the mall), said Parago with a chuckle.