A hard-hitting Rambo broadcaster barely cheats death in Vigan ambush
BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven () - April 1, 2003 - 12:00am
No sooner does one get lulled into believing that Ilocos Sur has become "peaceful", and has put far behind its past reputation of being "Ambush Alley", otherwise known as the Land of the Tambang, than death strikes.

Vigan was happy and festive, although the afternoons were somnolent in the summer heat (with the sun striking one with even more ferocity during the Lenten season), when this writer left the Ilocos Sur capital two days ago. Yesterday morning, we got word that one of the most outspoken radio commentators, Efren Rafanan, had been ambushed by well-armed assassins. A former provincial board member, Rafanan – nicknamed Rambo for his hard-hitting and pugnacious commentaries – was enroute to his daily anchoring stint at Radio Station DZXE when his REVO van was overtaken by the gunmen and peppered with M-16 "Armalite" bullets.

Rafanan, though badly wounded, survived the attack which he later angrily ascribed to "politics". His wife Evelyn, 48, his younger brother Dennis Rafanan, 31, and his bodyguard Elgin de Ocampo, were killed on the spot. His son, Raffy Bryan Rafanan, 15, was grievously wounded and expired while undergoing emergency medical treatment in San Fernando City, La Union. His daughter Renelyn Rafanan, 22, was wounded but is expected to recover.

Efren, who was rushed to the Metro Vigan Cooperative Hospital, requested the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), through our cousin, Congressman Salacnib Baterina (1st Dist., Ilocos Sur), to join the investigation. The NBI Regional Director (Region I), Atty. Victor Bessat, is responding to this request. The Provincial Police Director, Senior Supt. (Gen.) Mario Subagan, is heading the police inquiry into the incident.

Efren Rafanan had run as an opposition candidate for governor in the 2001, but lost to the incumbent Governor Deogracias Victor Savellano who had been then Governor Luis "Chavit" Singson’s vice governor. Savellano condemned the tambang and offered a P200,000 reward to anyone providing a lead to the identity of the killers and the mastermind of the murders.

When I rang him up on his cellphone yesterday, Chavit Singson said that Rafanan had been one of his protégés, and that he, in fact, had given him his start as a radio announcer by entrusting him with the public service program of the government on DWRS. This projected him to widespread popularity in the province, and he was elected one of the leading provincial board members (bocal). They parted ways, however, when Chavit supported Savellano instead for Governor in 2001.

Rafanan, who had been assailing Chavit relentlessly on the air in his broadcasts, was quick to accuse Singson of being behind the "ambush". To which Singson angrily replied: "Why should I?"

What compounded yesterday morning’s tragedy was that, if the police report is correct, Rafanan and his group had just come from Manila where they had fetched his wife. She had reportedly just flown in from Madrid where she had been working! What a sad day it was for everyone.
* * *
If you’ll recall, during Crisologo Rule, Vigan had been a No Man’s Land. A judge was gunned down at High Noon while crossing the main square. During the years in which Congressman Floro Crisologo was representative of the first district and his wife Carmeling Pichay Crisologo was Governor, there were ambushes and murders galore. Their private army of saka-sakas (literally "barefoot ones") went around often in Philippine Constabulary uniforms, or blackshirts, and even had an armored car to back them up in a firefight. They even shot down a Police provincial commander.

"Chavit" Singson became the mortal enemy of the reigning Crisologos when he defied them, despite the fact that his mother was the sister of Tata Floring Crisologo. He himself was ambushed five times by the Crisologo goons, once on the outskirts of Plaza Soliven in my hometown of Sto. Domingo. Singson and a companion, Tony Villanueva, had been driving from Laoag City to Vigan when they were intercepted by the bushwackers near the municipio. Although he was armed only with a .45 caliber pistol, he managed to pick off 11 of the attackers. The survivors fled – leaving the field to their intended victim.

We called that period "The Crisologo Wars". The late President Ferdinand E. Marcos tried to stop the bitter fight between Chavit and his aunt Carmeling and uncle Floring. I was with Apo Macoy when he flew to Vigan to harangue the two factions and make them shake hands. Alas, it was a truce that didn’t last more than a day.

On that occasion, I remember standing beside the then PC Chief, General "Banjo" Raval – himself a tisoy from Ilocos Norte. Our cousin, the elder sister of Congressman Baterina, was the bravest Provincial Board Member of that day, openly opposing the Crisologos and denouncing their Tobaco Blockade and the Reign of Terror. Virgie Baterina walked up to us, and told Raval: "General, those men down there in PC uniforms, beside their fake PC armored car, are not your men. They are Crisologo saka-sakas masquerading, as usual, as Constabulary. Since they are armed impostors, shouldn’t you go down there and arrest them?"

Banjo looked at me helplessly, then shrugged. "If they’re wearing our PC uniforms, they must be our men!" He didn’t go down, however, to investigate.
* * *
When this writer was covering the Vietnam War in the 1960s, I was surprised when I bumped into Rep. Crisologo outside of Saigon. He was leading a three-man Congressional delegation to "look into" the South Vietnamese situation, as subcommittee chairman of defense. "Tata Floring," I exclaimed in mock astonishment, "What are you doing here?" To which Crisologo replied in jest: "It’s because I’m safer here in the war zone than in Ilocos Sur."

On Oct. 17, 1970, this was proven right. Floring was hearing Mass in the Vigan Cathedral and was walking towards the aisle during Holy Communion when he was shot dead by a gunman. This had been a two-man team of outsiders (unrecognized by the Ilocanos present, I was told later). The hitman had concealed his automatic in a newspaper. When the shot was heard, his confederate started running out of the church, thus diverting attention from the real culprit. It was a very neat "operation", done very professionally.

The hit-men, it was subsequently bruited about, had been themselves "liquidated" to protect the identity of the mastermind.

The mystery of who had ordered the hit became as mystifying as the Mother Goose query, "Who killed Cock Robin?" Chavit denied he had been behind his uncle’s murder. So did the Palace.

"Those who live by the sword die by the sword." Wasn’t that the biblical injunction?

There used to be a saying that Ilocanos are honest, hardworking, patient and kind. The bitter political wars also tacked on an unwanted trait to their character – "homicidal."

During the "wars", Chavit – who had a degree in mortuary science, incidentally – owned the local funeraria or funeral parlor. Thus, when the Crisologo goons murdered our leaders, they at least had a free burial. Once, two cars of Crisologo gunmen overtook a funeral procession of one of the slain leaders and strafed it with automatic weapons fire. We had to bury two instead of one.

Another Singson supporter was ambushed outside of Vigan and rushed to the Vigan hospital. When the victim was on the operating table, two gunmen shoved their way in and "finished" the job.

When Godofredo "Pedong" Reyes from Sta. Maria was Governor, by the way, he too wanted to give up politics after so many of his leaders and supporters were shot down by goons. He was a doctor, and he was weary of having to "operate" in surgery in attempts to save the lives of his followers.

Whenever I had to fly to Vigan on a spot visit aboard the "Manila Times" plane (lent to me by my late publisher, the great Tatang Chino Roces), I had to warn the pilot to stay close to the aircraft at all times. I said to him: "If you see me in a car or jeep, arriving in a cloud of dust, please start the engine immediately!"

Floring’s and Carmeling’s son, Vincent "Bing Bong" Crisologo, was among the province’s most feared bravos. He was later convicted and sentenced to jail for the death of an old lady in Barrio Ora of Bantay town which had been set ablaze by him and his men. (The press renamed the scene of tragedy Barrio "Ora Pro Nobis!"). Vincent, long ago released from prison, became a "Born Again" preacher and minister and was elected a councilor of Quezon City.

The hairy days of the "Crisologo wars" are now, hopefully, just a memory.

I don’t believe Chavit, having experienced such pain during those wars, would ever resort to such methods. When we fought back, we fought back fiercely – and in the same kind of violence. After all, we had our backs to the wall. But those days are gone – please God, forever.
* * *
I hope the attempted assassination of Rafanan and the terrible murder of his wife, brother, son, and their bodyguard will not provoke a resurgence of violence in an already long-pacified Ilocos.

In the North, blood feuds used to be the order of the day (with brother even shooting brother in arguments over politics) – it was a place where Sicilian mores, the lex talionis, and the vendetta were common. I even used to tote a Sicilian-type lupara or sawed-off shotgun, and always had to keep a Spanish "Star" submachinegun or AK-47 under the bed whenever I visited Vigan – plus a Browning .380 under the pillow and three hand-grenades within easy reach.

This was because there was a P5,000 murder contract on my head – in those days that wasn’t a piddling sum, although I confess I felt "insulted" by the small amount. One of the goons even had to soothe my ruffled feelings by intimating: "Boss, that’s a big reward. We usually do it for only five hundred pesos."

That was many years, of course, before the deteriorated rate of the peso to P53.58 to one.

When he was embattled by the Crisologo saka-sakas, Chavit Singson’s home in Vigan was a veritable fortress. It had reinforced concrete walls with gun-holes in the windows, and you could dive from his bedroom into an indoor, well-covered swimming pool. Even his posh and newer place on outskirts of Vigan is named Baluarte, which means Fortress.

There, he keeps an old "friend", a 20-year-old python named "Galema". I’ve seen Galema in the years I’ve known this huge snake swallow a chicken whole. On my last trip, of course, I greeted Galema – who usually lies half-asleep on the patio – with the usual pat on his reptilian behind, but, as always, he was "cold" to me.

Chavit also has four full-grown Bengal tigers in cages. He denies, with a grin, that he feeds "enemies" to them. "I only feed them chickens," he says. Each tiger consumes five chickens in the morning, and another five chickens in the afternoon. (If you owned a chicken farm, they’d soon eat you out of business.) I guess that if you’re "chicken" in Ilocos Sur, you’ll get fed to the tigers. And to think they were such cute little cubs when he bought them in India.

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