Norberto Manero Jr and the llagas of Cotabato, southern Philippines (1977-2003)

manero family
Photo is from Coronel, 1993: 104. The excerpt below comes from an article published in 2003 in the Philippine Political Science Journal, Vol. 24, No. 47.

Norberto Manero Jr, or “Kumander Bucay,” was leader of one of the most ruthless band of killers Central Mindanao has seen. Manero first hit the papers when he and his common-law wife, Leonarda Lacson alias “Kumander lnday”, reportedly executed and then ate parts of the bodies of the Mamalumpong brothers in Kinilis, Polomolok, South Cotabato in November 1977 (Coronel, 1993: 1 02-117). He and his wife soon grew to become larger than life. As Mindanao’s top journalist described him, Bucay was “either cursed or praised in North and South Cotabato.” To his enemies, “Bucay” easily became a word that elicited fear — his role was to terrify supporters of Muslim and communist rebels. He built a reputation as a fearsome figure on which legends were spun (Arguillas, 2001 ).

Yet despite the notoriety, Bucay enjoyed significant local support. Despite the warrants issued for their arrest, the couple easily moved from village to village, especially among llonggo-speaking poor peasants that the communists themselves were trying to win over to their revolution. Bucay eventually became a major asset, serving various politicians and the military strategy for Mindanao.

But Bucay’s notoriety came to a point when even the military could no longer protect him. He admitted once displaying the heads of 30 Moro rebels at a checkpoint they had set up (Patino, 2000: 21 ), but his best-known exploit was the April 11, 1985 killing of the Italian priest Fr. Tullio Favali in Tulunan. As Favali was shot and his skull blown off, Bucay’s band picked portions of the priest’s brain and ate it. With fragments of the brain still clinging to their clothes, they resumed their drinking spree, loudly singing “Baliling,” a Visayan folk song. Bucay later nicknamed his brother Edilberto, who shot the priest, as “Baliling”, in commemoration of Favali’s killing. (Coronel, 1993: 102-11 7)

As a result, shoot-to-kill orders were issued by Manila. Bucay was captured on Negros Island on July 16, 1985. On October 3, 1985, Manero and fourteen of his men were arraigned in Kidapawan, where they appeared with their heads shaven save for a tuft of hair in the shape of a question mark. Bucay’s tuft was different- it was shaped like a heart. Their lawyer made it a point to establish that the Maneros surrendered and were not captured (Arguillas, 2001)

Bucay and his men were in supposedly maximum security prisons when the Marcos government was ousted in 1986. But he was seen a number of times roaming around Zamboanga City. On September 4, 1987, they were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. They would have been given the death penalty, had not the newly reinstalled Congress abolished the death penalty a few months earlier. Later that month, the convicts arrived in Muntinglupa to serve their sentence. In a bizarre twist, on February 1988, Manero became a Muslim, taking the name Abdullah Manero Jr, a conversion facilitated by the University of the Philippines Muslim Students Association. A year later, his request to be transferred to the Davao Penal Colony was granted. In comparison to the tough Muntinglupa prison, the Davao Penal Colony was like a retirement home. The transfer drew sharp criticisms from many quarters, especially the Catholic Church. By April 1989, Bucay was sent back to Muntinglupa.

Despite his notoriety, Bucay was never at a loss for friends in high places. Aside from Col. Miranda and Army generals, another known high-profile friend was Representative Narciso Monfort (a fellow llonggo) who spoke on Bucay’s behalf in February 1990 to request another llonggo, then Justice Secretary Franklin Drilon, to transfer the convict to the Davao Penal Colony. Drilon (now the Senate President), granted the request on October 1990. On May 13, 1992, at the height of frenzy around the presidential elections, Bucay quietly walked out from prison. This was not discovered until October 1992, when well-placed local businessmen arranged for Manero to get a face-to-face meeting with newly installed president Fidel Ramos on a visit to Kidapawan. That audience with the President was scuttled only because Kidapawan’s newly re-elected representative – Gregorio Andolona – was around. Andolona, a church counsel and the main lawyer of the case filed against Manero, got the shock of his life on seeing Bucay waiting for President Ramos. With his cover blown and his living-out status exposed, Bucay was sent back to Muntinglupa. In the following years, he submitted petitions for amnesty. On February 6, 1998, his four sentences, including his “evasion of service of sentence” was commuted to 24 years (Arguillas, 2001 and Letters a, 2001 ). On December 1999, a new president, Joseph Estrada, granted Bucay conditional pardon. Bucay’s arrival in Tulunan on January 20, 2000 sent witnesses against him scurrying in fear. But folk in Kinilis met him with hugs, tears of joy and a solemn celebration. Later in February, Armed Forces of the Philippines Southern Command Chief Lt. Gen. Edgardo Espinosa announced that the military was willing to accept Manero back as a CAFGU or paramilitary volunteer. Other local mayors in South Cotabato followed suit, saying Bucay will be an asset of their municipalities’ security. Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas, who was also a top-ranking official of the Iglesia ni Cristo, defended Manero’s release (ibid.).

In contrast, the Catholic Church was furious. They petitioned Estrada to recall the conditional pardon. The media was again in hot pursuit of Bucay. Pressed by an enraged public opinion in Manila, Malacanang’s explanation was that someone secretly ‘inserted’ Bucay’s petition into a pile of papers waiting presidential signatures. On February 25, 2000, Bucay turned up in Manila, and ‘surrendered’ to PNP Director-General Panfilo Lacson accompanied by Evelyn Silvestre (another common-law wife), lawyer Ruben Platon, and retired Army Colonel Raffy Galvez, a respected officer and key member of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). Bucay asked Lacson to provide him with security on his way back to South Cotabato. He was also whisked around Manila in a Mercedes Benz, and was billeted in a hotel (Arguillas, 2001 and Patino, 2000: 13). On February 28, Bucay walked into the Sarangani Provincial Jail as Prisoner 357. Eventually, other members of the Manero gang were brought to the Sarangani Jail as well.

While at the Sarangani jail, Joseph Estrada was ousted in Manila on January 2001. Two months later, Bucay again walked out of jail along with his first common-law wife Leonarda Lacson, with the help of Julie Yee, the same businesswoman who almost got him an audience with Fidel Ramos in October 1992. A nationwide manhunt was announced, and as the troops were looking for him, an ABS-CBN crew interviewed a relaxed Bucay, ‘somewhere in General Santos City.’ By this time, Bucay had become a national symbol. To those who despise him, he symbolised the incompetence and corruption of the government and the justice system. To those who loved him, he had become a national hero. Fr. Peter Geremia himself, the colleague of Favali, observed that, “Manero has become a symbol of the movement of fanatical groups and vigilantes, their most famous champion.” Geremia called for an investigation of his protectors, to know their real motives and intentions for continuing to terrify local people by aiding Manero. The priest also called for an investigation of Manero’ s many’ common-law wives,’ especially Julie Yee, to see if they were really motivated by “faithful love or some other interest.” Geremia explained that the star witness in the Mamalumpong case retracted her testimony after a visit by Julie Yee. Manero had to be recaptured, if only to do justice to his victims which Geremia estimated as running into hundreds (Geremia, 29 March 2001 ).

In early April 2001, Manero’s ‘recapture’ came in style. Newly-appointed Presidential Assistant on Mindanao Affairs Jesus Dureza presented the fugitive as a trophy to visiting President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Arroyo shook Manero’s hands and smiled, sending church officials furious again, saying it was sickening to see a President smiling and shaking hands with an escaped, convicted cannibal-criminal. Fr. Eliseo Mercado Jr, president of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City wrote, “there must be something surreal about Manero … his web of powerful connections and his women are phenomenal.” Mercado attributes Bucay’s special status to “the years of beneficial relations on both the side of Manero and his band on the one hand, and the AFP and local politicos on the other that created symbiotic relations that continue to this day. Manero will always find ‘padrinos.”‘ (Mercado, 15 April 2000).

Bucay’s padrinos remain mostly anonymous. One has come out openly — the businesswoman and farm owner Julie Yee. It appears that Yee, as she expanded her business into the Koronadal Valley, fell victim to mulcters and petty bandits. It was Manero who came to protect her. So great was her debt of gratitude to Manero that in 1992 when Manero was an escaped convict, she worked to secure his pardon. A generous benefactor of church projects, Yee brought the escaped convict in early October 1992 to the residence of Fr. Ronilo Villamor, vicar-general of the Diocese of Kidapawan, and asked the church to forgive Manero for his crimes by signing a petition for his pardon (Arguillas, 2001 ). Yee would later be rumoured to have become a mistress of Manero, which shocked people who know her in General Santos City. She is described as a very respectable and religious married woman, who in her student years was a scholar sponsored by Senator Jovito Salonga (Letters b,2001 ). Yee, like the Maneros, is a native of Janiuay, Iloilo. A local newspaper reported her maiden name as Juliana delos Reyes. She was later on reported as married to retired police Colonel Alfonso Lumibao. In 1992, she was the Liberal Party coordinator for presidential candidate Jovito Salonga in the Socsargen area. She also had attempted to donate an 8- hectare property owned by Manero to the Bureau of Prisons. She studied law at the Ateneo de Davao University and became an insurance underwriter (Sunstar General Santos,27 March 2001 b).

There are others, mainly landowning contract growers of the Dole plantation in Cotabato, who like Yee enjoyed Bucay’s protection. Manero also served in the “Detach Service” of DolePhil. They were hired by the company on a contractual basis, renewable every five months, and used not only to provide security, but also for union-busting and intimidation of occupants of contested lands (Patino, 2000: 20). At some point, their ‘services’ were exported to other provinces. Brothers Edilberto and Elpidio, both involved in the Favali killing, once guarded the cacao plantation of a big Manila businessman-politician in Agusan del Sur (Coronel, 1993: 110). With the growth of Kumander Bucay’s reputation for violence, especially his vicious cannibalism, petty mulcters and small-time bandits are easily intimidated when potential victims — businessmen, traders, truckers, landowners, and other property owners — demonstrate their connection to, and therefore the protection by Manero and his men. Even while inside prison, his reputation was respected because a number of his brothers and trusted men remained in their haunts, and over the years, Manero himself displayed how easily he can walk out of prison. The terror he instilled whenever he walked out of prison was not only on those who testified against him, but more importantly, on those who have crossed the paths of the people he protected. A criminal on the run who wishes to keep his freedom will hide deep, and avoid contact especially with people who know him. Manero is exactly the opposite. He goes back to his territory, roams around and shows himself. This in itself is a political statement on the power he possesses.

This underscores a crucial element – Manero plays a crucial role in the local political economy. His visible role is to terrorise; but his invisible role is that of an enforcer of one set of property claims in a region where land rights and other economic rights are highly and continually contested. In this sense, he has become indispensable to some people with certain economic interests to defend. Church leaders have asked that Manero’s protectors and padrinos be exposed. This is misleading because in many senses, it is actually Manero who is the protector and padrino of those who need his help. It is thus not surprising that many municipal councils and local mayors not only passed resolutions endorsing Manero’s application for a pardon, but also eagerly offered him or his brothers with positions like Chief Security Officer when they were released. Manero was an incredibly important asset despite his notoriety. Manero remains rooted firmly within his peasant society, while he maintains key contacts with favoured local politicians.

Manero’s career is traced back to the llagas. The llagas are a dreaded group of armed men in the Cotabato region that was created by the local politics of the area, having been set up by the “Magnificent Seven” or the “Seven Christian Datus” of the Cotabato provinces in the late 60s (George, 1980: 145-146). The Magnificent Seven assembled an army dominated by llonggos, with Tirurays as the storm troopers. Feliciano Luces, an llonggo Christian and friend and protege of Philippine Constabulary Colonel Manuel Tronco, became the leader of these dreaded troops. He assumed the name Kumander Toothpick, because of his thin frame. His cousin who also became a commander in the llaga army was called Kumander Toothbrush. Toothpick became a near mythical character, not only because of his brutality (he started the practice of cutting off the ears of the men he killed) but also because he came to be regarded as a god-like figure who was impervious to bullets (ibid.: 147-149). Bucay comes from a whole family of llagas. His father, Norberto Sr. – a World War 2 veteran and originally from Barangay Madong in Janiuay, Iloilo – is proud that he produced nine sons all of whom became anti-Muslim and anti-communist fighters. Norberto Sr showed journalist Sheila Coronel in 1985 a picture of his nine sons, all armed in front of their house. He also disclosed that he himself killed one of these sons, whom they buried in a tomb inside their house that serves as their dinner table (Coronel, 1993: 105). The llagas believed in anting-antings, amulets that supposedly made them invincible.

In 1972, many of the llagas became members of the Civilian Home Defense Force. Carlos Cajelo, a constabulary officer, started organising the CHDFs in the 1970s when he became provincial commander and later on, governor of Cotabato. llaga troops later on evolved into various groups: the pulahans (reds), itumans (blacks), grenans (greens) and putians (whites). The Maneros were from the Pulahan group. These groups were essentially fragmented, and were identified mostly through their kumander. They mixed religious rituals with their armed activities. These groups called their assembly the “Rainbow Coalition.” They would assemble during Holy Week in a place they called the “New Israel” which was somewhere in the mountains of North Cotabato, where they perform rituals, chant, pray and make amulets, under the leadership of a Suprema or high priestess. Special vests will be manufactured and blessed by the Suprema. The vests make the wearer invincible to bullets. Bucay has his own vest. On certain occasions, they invite special guests, including police and military officials, businessmen and politicians to this assembly (Patino, 2000: 20).

Manero met Leonarda Lacson in the Rainbow Coalition, and the couple grew to be major military assets when Manero became commander of the entire CHDF formation in North and South Cotabato. Leonarda became Kumander Inday, and over the years, has managed to evade the limelight. A local newspaper reported that she parted ways with Manero in the early 80s, hence there was no mention of her in the Favali incident. She appears to have laid low, but continued to move around South Cotabato. However, when the Mamalumpong murder case was revived in 2000, she surfaced and surrendered, and was brought as well to the Sarangani Provincial Jail like Bucay (Sunstar General Santos, 27 March 2001 a). There are indications that Manero may walk out as a free man again, because some of the witnesses in the Mamalumpong case have died, and those that remain have disappeared (Letters b, 2001 ). And Manero knows just what to do when that happens, he will continue to play the role he has been thrust into. Shortly after he ‘surrendered’ in April 2000, he called for an llaga revival in Mindanao, because of the worsening peace and order situation. He said his brothers will regroup and strengthen the llaga, while he is inside the Sarangani Provincial Jail. He will continue to be the terror, who knows how to play his cards right.

Update: Norberto Manero was reported arrested again on July 9, 2017 on a new murder charge, see this news report and photo below.

Manero arrested in July 2017 (2)
Manero in July 2017. Photo from ABS-CBN News website.

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