GENERAL SANTOS CITY – Circa 1975. Norberto Manero was leading a force of more than 250 fully armed civilians trekking the mountains of Davao del Sur and the then undivided South Cotabato.
For five long months, they scoured the perilous jungles and crossed the treacherous rivers in search for Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels who had opened up several war fronts as Mindanao came almost on the brink of civil war.
Inside his backpack were reams of amnesty papers signed by no less Juan Ponce Enrile, then defense secretary under the martial law regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.
Manero, a.k.a. Kumander Bucay, was barely out of his 20’s. By then, he was already cultivating an image that would become one of the most feared if not hated figures in the history of the Mindanao conflict.
From the accounts of his armed forays in the mountains of Mindanao hunting down the MNLF and NPA rebels, Manero could have become a good military commander had he joined the Armed Forces.
Norberto Manero was then emerging from the shadows of the late Feliciano Luces alyas Kumander Toothpick, the man who he said was the founder of the dreaded and infamous Ilaga group.
Yet, two years earlier, Manero literally faced the firing squad of the Marcos regime for multiple murder, massacre and arson.
He was being un-cuffed and was already facing a squad from the defunct Philippine Constabulary when a radio message from then Central Mindanao Command chief Maj. Gen. Fortunato Abat arrived, which spared him from execution.
It was his closest brush with death.
For that, Manero would be forever grateful to the late lawyer Cornelio Falgui, former mayor of Kiamba town which is now part of Sarangani province.
It was Falgui who pulled some strings to let Manero off the hook.
That harrowing experience would soon be transformed into storied brutality which culminated in the murder of Italian missionary Fr. Tulio Favali in Tulunan, North Cotabato a decade after.
To protect himself from the clutches of a Davao del Sur mayor who filed the murder charges against him, Manero joined the group of Lost Command chief Lt. Col. Laudemer Lademora and a certain Sgt. Valdez. Lademora’s group sowed fear and terror throughout Mindanao and even as far as Samar. Manero said he was once sent to Samar to go after the NPA rebels.
When Manero was exonerated, the mayor of Magsaysay town who filed the murder and massacre raps against Kumander Bucay, sold all his properties and migrated to the US. So too was the officer of the would-be PC firing squad, Filipino Amoguis, who likewise settled in the US upon retiring as a general in the Philippine National Police.
Faction and fiction
The Maneros are from Janiuay in Iloilo but came to settle in Mindanao in 1947.
“I was born in 1946,” he said.
At 62 years old, Norberto Manero said the physical toll of imprisonment and youthful cadence has slowed him down but his memory remains as sharp as it was during his younger days.
He could still rattle off the villages that he once “conquered and liberated” from the MNLF rebels and the areas where he neutralized the New People’s Army (NPA).
Looking back, he said, he had no regrets what happened to him over the last two decades.
Of his 23 years in prison for the murder of Fr. Favali, he said it may have saved his life.
“How many congressmen, mayors and judges were assassinated (by the NPAs) while I was in prison?” he asked.
Manero became a celebrated figure, albeit on the wrong side, when he and his men were tagged in the brutal slaying of Fr. Favali in Tulunan, North Cotabato.
To this day, he still maintains he did not fire the rifle that snuffed the brains out of the Italian priest’s head.
“It was my brother Edilberto who shot Fr. Favali,” Manero revealed during this interview at the office of lawyer Tomas Falgui II, only son of Cornelio who saved him from the PC firing squad.
But Kumander Bucay was his brother’s keeper. During the course of the trial, he said he never pointed to his brother as the real assassin.
Although he now says the incident was a result of their impetuousness, Manero said it was one episode he would rather forget.
He eyes lit up when the Ilaga issue was raised.
“No, we were never land grabbers. It was the politicians who concocted the Ilongo Landgrabbing Association (Ilaga),” he said.
Waxing metaphor, he said the Ilagas (rats in the Visayan dialect) took a page from farm rodents who are by nature nocturnal hunters.
Manero said it was the Muslims who, in fact, coined the Ilaga. “They (Muslims) called us dumpao (Maguindaoan term for rats) because we fight at night,” he revealed.
The name stuck and a myth soon would emerge.
During the height of the Moro war in the early ‘70s, the Ilaga became the precursor of vigilante and cultist groups in the ‘80s. Their members were reportedly invincible from bullets and could become invisible because of the katya (amulets) carefully tucked around their waists.
But Manero said it was a myth.
“If you were to ask me, a bullet can’t harm or kill you if don’t get hit,” he now said with a tinge of joyful sarcasm.
The katya he said was not an amulet. Rather, it was one way of identifying members of the Ilaga (the katya was a small cheap X-7 perfume bottle popular at that time, which Ilaga members filled and with oil and tree barks and roots).
Ilaga gained notoriety for its murderous anti-Mulsim campaign, often arrogating to itself the messianic task of “liberating” the whole island from the secessionist movement although many believed it became a private army of politicians in Mindanao.
Notwithstanding its notorious image, Manero said the Ilaga had “served its purpose.”
The Ilaga, he said, should be credited for providing the organizational impetus of the Barrio Self Defense Units (BSDUs) in Mindanao which later became the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDF) that is now the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu).
Kumander Bucay, for his part, was once awarded the country’s most outstanding CHDF commander by the Marcos regime.
Throwback to the ‘70s
Manero claimed he was present when a band of some 300 armed civilians, who introduced themselves as the Reformed Ilaga Movement, recently held a press conference somewhere in North Cotabato.
“Some of them were my relatives and some were my former comrades,” he revealed although he also insisted he was not behind the resurrection of the dreaded group.
For all his avowals that he is a changed man, Manero could still not exorcise the ghost of his past.
“If the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) cannot control their leaders, there is a possibility that Christians will regroup,” Manero warns.
He said the situation could erupt into another Christian-Muslim conflict of which Manero now admits he was used as a tool of many politicians.
He mentioned the late North Cotabato governors Carlos Cajelo and Nicolas Dequina as his benefactors when he took over reins of the Ilaga after the demise of Kumander Toothpick.
In the mid-70s, he was summoned by the late South Cotabato governor Sergio Morales to help “pacify” the province.
It was in these provinces that Manero’s name became synonymous with terror.
Tales of Manero and his group engaging in cannibalism spread like wildfire.
But Kumander Ligaya, sister of the Kumander Toothpick, said they just cut off the ears of their victims as trophy for their “exploits.”
Manero believes the situation could revert to the hated and lamented days of religious conflict in Mindanao if the government fails to arrest the situation.
“Regardless of your religious sect, when a member of your family becomes a victim, creating a group to defend yourself will enter your mind,” he warned.
And the Maneros are not wanting in relatives and friends in this part of the island.
These days, Manero is busying himself tending fighting cocks formerly owned by World Boxing Council (WBC) lightweight king Manny Pacquiao in Malungon, Sarangani.
Pacquiao gave up his cock farm and turned it over to Malungon Mayor Reynaldo Constantino for whom Manero now works as a farm caretaker and consultant at the municipal hall.
The mayor’s late father, incidentally, was also a former godfather of Kumander Bucay.
He still gets to be invited by some military officials and politicians and gets to be interviewed for his views on the present conflict in Mindanao. He was present when Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan relinquished his post as head of the Philippine Army’s 1002nd Brigade to Col. Rainer Cruz III late last month.
He now commutes by public transport whenever he goes to personal appointments.
During this interview, Manero kept on holding his left palm.
It has a scar left behind by a bullet wound.
It was a reminder that his past will continue to haunt him even as he says he is now a reformed man
He knows even as he already made amends to some of the victims of his past associations and convictions, there are still who wish he keeps his silence forever.(Norberto Manero fotos by COCOY SEXCION)