Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Next to the logging and construction industry, probably the next largest industry in Cotabato was the security industry.

Heavily armed, uniformed security guards were everywhere. Almost every business establishment hired security guards—banks, hotels, schools, large restaurants and nightclubs, and so on. And remember that Cotabato City was already under Philippine Constabulary (PC) control.

For example, right next door to Imperial Hotel II, the hotel where I was staying, was a bank, Consolidated Bank. There were always at least four security guards posted at the front entrance—two outside the doors, and two inside the doors who had to unlock and lock the doors every time a customer entered or exited the bank premises.

In addition, there were many private and free-lance bodyguards and gunslingers all over the province, called “djangos.” It was not unusual to run into groups of armed men, half of them in army fatigues without any patches, and half of them in civilian clothes, and they would turn out to be a bigwig’s security detail.

One time, for example, we befriended the security detail of a Muslim Senator who was staying at the hotel. The head of the detail was a regular Philippine Army captain assigned to the Senator. The rest were either enlisted soldiers or “djangos.”

My company had its forward base camp at a town called Baguer. The camp itself was within a secure area of town, under the protection of the Baguer police department. In addition, Baguer itself was under the protection of a detachment of the regular Philippine Army, encamped probably a couple of miles away. For a long while, my friend Sgt. Bert commanded that detachment.

As a final layer of security, my company had its own security force. The decision was made to hire our own security guards, instead of contracting with one of the security agencies. The reason was simply one of economics. Hiring our own security guards cut down the security expenses substantially by more than half.

Quite predictably, half of the security force were former military and law enforcement people. The other half was something else. They were all former convicts and inmates of the nearby Davao Penal Colony. When I pressed the construction superintendent about the rationale and the prudence of having such men in our employ, he had a unique point of view.

He said that these men would be extremely loyal to a company that hired them, considering their “undesirable” employment status. He also said that there was an extra benefit to hiring them. He reasoned that the criminal elements had to be extremely stupid or desperate to try breaking into our compound or picking a fight with the company, knowing the company had that kind of security within its compound.

Of course I made it a point to talk to all these ex-cons. One of them was named Fred. In my conversations with him, I learned that he was sent to prison for murder, was originally meted a life sentence, but was paroled after 17 years for good behavior, and the fact that the prison was overcrowded. He had prison tattoos all over his body, including a giant flying eagle on his back. In addition to a company-issued firearm, he was armed with a razor-sharp machete slung over his back.

Eventually, he was even promoted to “roving” security. Every time extra security was needed, Fred got the assignment. He usually rode in the open cab at the back of the company pick-up, cradling his shotgun. He became a fixture in front of Imperial Hotel II with other body guards, security guards and drivers. Where else but in Cotabato City would you find a recently paroled murderer armed to the teeth in the main streets of the city?

It is hard to assess whether his presence actually deterred any violence that was threatened or contemplated against myself and other employees of the company. While I never really got used to the violence and danger all around me, I eventually got used to the security people, just enjoying the human presence and loyal vibes I felt from them.


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