Inquirer Visayas

Samar can’t shake off ‘hot spot’ tag

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SAMAR—As the people were getting ready to dance on the eve of the fiesta celebration in Hinabangan town in Samar province, a single gunshot rang out and hit the guest of honor, Mayor Reynaldo Uy of Calbayog City. Not even Uy’s bullet-proof vest and a bunch of bodyguards could save him.

The lone bullet that killed Mayor Uy also pierced the arm of a two-term provincial board member, Eunice Babalcon, who was standing beside him.

Two years after the attack on April 30, 2011, not a single suspect has faced the court.

Uy’s murder is but one of the unsolved election-related killings in Samar (formerly Western Samar), which has two congressional districts, 24 municipalities and two cities—Catbalogan and Calbayog. Coupled with intense political rivalry and the presence of communist insurgents, the killings have consistently placed the province on Samar Island on the list of “hot spots” of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

In 2004, the mayor of Tarangnan town, Anieto Olaje, was shot and killed inside a cockpit in Calbayog. The vice mayor, Francisco Montero, took over the municipal government, but he, too, was gunned down two months later while crossing a street in Catbalogan City.

The mayor of Daram town, Benito Astorga, was felled during a fiesta dance in Barangay Birawan in his town in 2007.

Still another mayor, Carlos dela Cruz of Matuguinao, was killed outside his house in Catbalogan in 2009.

How come these killings were never solved?

In Uy’s case, the  Special Investigation Task Force Uy was formed, involving the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

Authorities eventually released an artist’s sketch of the suspected gunman. A P3-million reward was offered to anyone who can help identify the killer and mastermind.

Still, no arrest was made. No new witness or information ever surfaced.

Just like in the Uy case, the absence of witnesses is the main reason political killings in Samar have remained unsolved.

Samar is one of the 15 provinces classified by the Department of the Interior and Local Government as election hot spots in the country in connection with the May elections. According to Comelec records, it has 481,275 registered voters, with a total of 858 voting centers.

Since the start of the campaign for local candidates on March 29, there has not been any election-related violence in the province. Chief Supt. Elmer R. Soria, police regional director for Eastern Visayas, attributed this to the joint efforts of the Comelec, law enforcement agencies and other concerned groups.

“The collaborative effort among the Comelec, PNP and our Armed Forces of the Philippines, together with the support of other government agencies is a laudable effort that greatly contributed  to the tranquility of the election atmosphere,” Soria said.

Aware of the volatile situation in Samar, the PNP official reactivated the Regional Special Operations Task Group to go after private armies late last year. The group, based at the provincial police headquarters in Camp Lukban in Catbalogan, is headed by Senior Supt. Edgardo O. Babas, regional police director for operations.

On Jan. 13, a peace covenant was signed by over 100 candidates at  St. Peter & Paul Cathedral in Calbayog. Soria initiated the move in coordination with the Church, military and the Comelec.

The three agencies have also formed the Joint Security Control Centers to serve as focal points for all security coordination related to the elections.

Other preemptive police operations to ensure peaceful polls included the setting up of checkpoints, going after armed followers of politicians and wanted criminals, and seizing loose firearms.

It is not only the law enforcement agencies that are concerned about the situation. The people of Samar also want an end to election-related killings.

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