SPECIAL REPORT Fisherfolk say martial law stopped extortion and piracy in Sibugay seas

IPIL, Zamboanga Sibugay (MindaNews / 05 October ) Subsistence fisherfolk in Zamboanga Sibugay say that if there is one good thing about martial law in Mindanao from May 23, 2017 to December 31, 2019,  it is this: extortion and piracy in the Sibugay seas practically disappeared.

“We really had pirates here before. Some of our members of the Bantay Dagat were killed, while we, on the other hand were able to kill some of them,” said Danilo Octavio, chair of the Gagmayng Mangingisda sa Bato (GMB), a group of subsistence fisherfolk in Siay town where Octavio is based.

Octavio related that since the 1990s, piracy and extortion were rampant until President Duterte imposed Martial Law in May 2017.

Map of Zamboanga Sibugay courtesy of Google Maps

“Aside from the problems of depleted fish and illegal fishing, we had to contend with the pirates who took not only our fish catch but also our boat engines,” he said.

“I am afraid that they will be back now that the martial law has been lifted,” he said.

Zamboanga Sibugay province is one of three provinces comprising the Zamboanga Peninsula. Thirteen of its 16 municipalities are situated along the coastlines facing Busan Bay towards Moro Gulf and are replete with mangroves. making aquaculture and fishing two of its major industries.

“Dako ang nahimo sa martial law kay ang extortion ug piracy nawala,” (martial law was a big help because it eradicated extortion and piracy in the seas) said Roberto Ballon, chair of the Coalition of Municipal Fisherfolks Association of Sibugay (COMFAS).

Ballon, who also heads a fishers’ group in his hometown, Kabasalan, said the province is unfortunately also home to Barracudas, the Abu Sayyaf Group and pirates.

Extortionists

Felix Badon, Municipal Environment and Resources Officer of Ipil, the capital town of Zamboanga Sibugay, attested that extortion even extended inland. with extortionists collecting money using legitimate money courier services.

“The extortionists, using cellphone, will just contact the fisherman to send the money through legitimate money wire services,” said Badon.

Rosalie Inso, chair of a fisherfolk’s organization in Ipil said they would choose through a raffle draw among the fishers who will send the money to the extortionists using two popular service providers “so nobody among us fishers could be suspected as having a connivance with the extortionists.”

Inso said that the extortion was prevalent before and only stopped when martial law was declared. “Ingon nila, naundang tungod ra pud sa paningkamot sa mga intel,” (Some said it stopped because of the efforts of the intelligence officers), Inso added. She declined to elaborate.

Ronelito Manuel, Municipal Environment Officer of Tungawan town said the monthly dues for extortionists ranged from 300 to 1,000 pesos a month. “It all really depends on the size of your fishing boat and income.  They even put some markings or codes on the boats, too,” he said, adding that the once the boat is marked, it indicates that you are obligated to regularly give to the extortionists.

Law enforcement

But Colonel Edwin Verzon, formerly of Sibugay Provincial Police Office,  now commander of the Zamboanga del Norte 1st Provincial Mobile Force Company (PMFC), said rigorous law enforcement was the key why the extortion and piracy stopped. “We regularly conducted sea patrols ,” he said.

When he served as deputy provincial commander of the Sibugay police, he formulated a plan that made law enforcement in the coastal areas effective by engaging the help of the military and local government units.

“Martial law or not, we will continue to patrol the seas,” said Police Major Chamer Lacay, who served as Tungawan police chief until July 2018. He said their presence in the seas is most effective way to prevent criminalities.

“Even without the martial law, the strategy is still there, so the fisherfolk need not worry anymore because of the stringent patrolling of the seas. Even without martial law, the piracy and extortion will surely stop,” he added.

Lacay is now with the PFMC based in Malangas, Zamboanga Sibugay.

Police Captain Michelle Baclayo, head of the intelligence unit of the provincial police, narrated that the people responsible for the extortion and piracy have long been identified.

“There are only two criminal groups operating here in the province. One is the group based in Barangay Mamagon, Naga municipality, and another in Barangay Tenan, Ipil, the capital town of Zamboanga Sibugay” she said.

Accordingly, these groups, who allegedly have ties with the Abu Sayyaf, were behind various crimes in the province like kidnap-for-ransom, robbery, extortion, sea-piracy and illegal drugs. At one time, the province of Zamboanga Sibugay became the second province with the most number of kidnapping incidents in Western Mindanao.

Baclayo served as intelligence officer of the province for seven years until August, 2019.

A government source said those who collect extortion money from the fisherfolk were summarily executed either by the police or the military, an allegation denied by both institutions.

On June 8, 2020, a certain Mamay Aburi was killed in a firefight with the police when served with an arrest warrant in Naga town. Aburi was allegedly a sub-leader of Abral Abdusalam Group, one of two criminal groups in the province. and allegedly one of the few remaining notorious criminals operating in the province.

Task Force Zamboanga Sibugay

In March, 2019, the 102nd Brigade of the Philippine Army based in Ipil, together with the police and the local government units,  formally launched Task Force Zamboanga Sibugay to further strengthen the patrol and monitoring of the municipal waters of the province.  This time, almost all government agencies are involved in keeping the peace and security in the seas, complemented with more patrol boats and communication equipment.

Criste Basadre, station manager of a local radio station here said news reports of extortion and sea piracy are now few and far between. “If there is any, it is an isolated case,” she said.

Councilor Rolando Gasal, Indigenous People’s representative to the Sanggunian Bayan of Ipil, said martial law actually  did something good for the province of Zamboanga Sibugay.

“Martial law during the time of  Marcos time was a lot different,” he said  (Joseph Arnel Deliverio / for MindaNews)

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