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Holding the Fort: How prison gangs rule in Philippine jails

Squatting in organized lines like a school group in an auditorium, hundreds of men in yellow stare straight ahead. They aren’t watching anything in particular. The men nudge, scratch, and fan themselves with ice cream carton lids and torn cardboard box flaps while Philippine pop music blares overhead. They’ve all gotten used to the smell. The shadow of overhanging tarps draws a harsh line through the basketball court, separating sun and shade. Fighting for a slice of the cool, the men press together. They move like an interconnected machine along with the changing sky: when the clouds move to conceal the sun, then men diffuse. When the sun reveals itself, the men retreat into the congested comfort of the court’s shaded corner. The men all wear yellow—a yellow replica Lakers jersey here, a yellow Spongebob t-shirt there, but mostly the official government-issued yellow t-shirt emblazoned with “PDL Person Deprived of Liberty.” In smaller letters lining the shirt’s hem is the too-cheery motto, “Changing Lives, Building a Safer Nation.” This is Quezon City Jail.

It’s a 92-degree-Fahrenheit morning in Manila, and today is “Friendship Day.” On typical jail visitation days, only immediate family is allowed. But today, friends and distant relatives have arrived from around the island nation. The visitors—mostly women—stand in a winding line enforced by steel barriers, waiting with Tupperware containers of home-cooked meals and biscuits. The guests wait to be patted down or strip-searched, or for the unlucky few—cavity-searched for hidden drugs. Guests are welcomed to Quezon City Jail (QCJ) with Filipino signs: “Prohibited are ADDICTS at QCJ: Abuse, Drug Addicts, Irresponsible, Corrupt and Complicit in Smuggling Drugs.” Another Gatsby-esque sign features only two towering, knowing eyes: “May Kontrabando Ka Ba?”—“Do you have contraband?” Inside the jail, visitors weave through the basketball court’s dense canary-colored sea. “Friendship Day” is also the reason so many men are sitting on the jail’s outside court; making space for guests who meet inmates inside the cells, the court-bound men have no visitors. 

Overlooking the central court from three floors above, three grey-uniformed Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) officers sit in a watchtower. The jail’s total area is 1,233 square meters—one-fourth the size of an American football field. In the watchtower hangs a mini-whiteboard with the jail’s exact population: 5,117 inmates. UN standards dictate that a facility this size should house 262 people. Space shortage means cells are left unlocked day and night; inmates are free to roam to find a place to lie down—for some, that means sleeping on the basketball court, on steel staircase steps, or in toilet stalls. Quezon City Jail houses many who wait for years before receiving a sentence—some lost completely in the justice system. 

Over 80 percent of QCJ inmates are charged with drug-related cases—a number that has skyrocketed since President Duterte stepped into power. “You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out, because I’d kill you,” Duterte proclaimed in the last speech of his successful 2016 campaign. “I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay and fatten all the fish there.” In the bloody war on drugs that followed his inauguration, 5,000 were extrajudicially killed, according to Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency statistics. Human Rights Watch has the death toll at 12,000. Within four hours alone in May 2018, Quezon City saw seven drug suspects killed on the streets by vigilantes and national police on Duterte’s indirect orders. Over 24 hours in February 2019, 1,406 people were arrested and 65 sachets of shabu—Philippine crystal meth—were confiscated by the police. 

While uniformed BJMP officials in the watchtower loom over the thousands of inmates, a less formal, but more heeded, system keeps the prisoners in check: four prison gangs or “pangkat”—Sputnik, Commando, Bahala Na Gang and Batang City Jail—hold Quezon City Jail together. With a guard to inmate ratio at approximately 1:300—and an ideal ratio closer to 1:7—prison gangs and their internal leadership fill institutional gaps in the established jail management system. Inmates elect their own gang leaders and work collaboratively with official guards. Outside, in Metro Manila, chaos reigns. People do what they must—even if that means breaking laws—to survive. Here, in the prison, inmates follow their own rule of law to survive. In a facility riddled with institutional deficiencies within a country in political turmoil, it is prison gangs—composed of the Philippines’ supposedly most unruly, most disobedient, most criminal—that maintain control, instill self-discipline, and create a culture of respect. 

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“It’s sort of a family,” said Ronel—whose name has been changed for privacy reasons —of his gang. Unlike most at Quezon City Jail, Ronel is already convicted but is waiting on a stubborn few documents before he can be transferred to the 26,000-inmate-strong national penitentiary, New Bilibid Prison, to carry out his six-year sentence. Ronel, a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency officer for over a decade, was arrested in May 2018 on charges of “malversation of public property.” In his words: he was caught “not returning government property” entrusted to him. His family does not know he is imprisoned. Ronel’s LinkedIn profile—still online and untouched since 2018—lists him as an Intelligence Officer.

Ronel, now 45 years old, is a proud member of the Commando gang. Slipping in and out of English and Tagalog, Ronel whispers and folds and refolds his hands as he speaks. 

Kasi first timer, diba?”—“Because I’m a first timer, right?” Ronel said of his choice to affiliate with a gang. Working in the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Ronel had heard of the prison gang system from ex-offenders he interviewed. Upon his own arrest and facing the notoriously forbidding Philippine jail system, Ronel craved a sense of security. Soon-to-be prisoners usually choose their gang affiliation before even stepping foot in the jail during lock-up in police station holding cells, where other detainees actively recruit members for the four different gangs. 

Three years before his arrest, Ronel got a full-shoulder tattoo of a Viking riding a tiger—coincidentally, each a symbol of two different gangs, Commando and Bahala Na Gang, respectively. With two options, Ronel chose the former. “After I chose Commando I had to get a symbol—three balls,” Ronel said, holding up his right hand emblazoned with a triangle of small dots, marked by another Commando member, in the area his thumb meets his index finger. Other gangs require tattoos of either one, five, or four dots. When Ronel first entered Quezon City Jail, the officers checked for this insignia, wrote his official gang affiliation on the prison record, and then, as is policy, separated him into a gang-assigned cell. Pangkat have become institutionalized.

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Raymund Narag is an academic armed with a Fulbright, three book publications, and a PhD—and the title of former QCJ Mayor de Mayores of Querna. Following a fraternity brawl at the University of the Philippines Diliman that left one dead days before his college graduation, Narag was wrongfully charged with murder—two counts of frustrated murder and three counts of attempted murder. Narag was an inmate at Quezon City Jail for “six years, nine months, and four days, to be exact,” he said. After his acquittal in 2002, Narag researches criminal victimization and correctional administration while working as an assistant professor in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University. Narag sees the pangkat gang system as a structural response to the jail’s root problems: overcrowding, slow judicial work, inadequacies in facilities and personnel. 

“In one way or another we have to accept that the gang has helped us maintain peace and order,” said Lucila “Luz” Abarca, a QCJ officer. She calls the relationship between gangs and officials “shared governance”—both cooperate to hold down the jail. Violence sometimes erupts, though. When there is tension among gangs, it is clear. The basketball court falls silent—“as if everyone is watching each other, on the watch for any attack,” Luz said. When any trouble arises, officials conduct investigations into who started the trouble. But unless the transgression is particularly offensive, the gangs can control the punishment. “It’s between them,” Luz said.

Jayrex Bustinero, a BJMP officer for the past 11 years, said that working together with the pangkat is a “natural coping mechanism” for under-resourced guards. Five times a day, starting at 5:30 a.m., BJMP officials conduct a prison-wide head count. To compensate for understaffing, gang leaders organize their own members in time for the count. Each gang, too, has their own Magna Carta posted in their cell, mandating self-discipline, good behavior, and protection and love for visitors and fellow inmates. Jayrex said that the rules are in line with BJMP policies, adding that the first rule for every gang is “Respeto al Empleado”—“Respect the Employees.” 

Scotch-taped onto the wall of every gang’s main cell is a pangkat “gallery” of the gang’s leadership. For the Querna, their smiling headshots overlaid on a red and blue gradient background are posted up in a pyramid foundation under a bubble-lettered title. 

At the top of the Philippine jail gang hierarchy sits the Mayor de Mayores, who sets rules and attends weekly meetings with other gangs’ Mayores and the BJMP jail warden. There are two assistant leaders called Mayors. The Kulturero, or gang secretary, writes letters of concern to the QCJ warden to request, for example, an additional electric fan or light bulb replacement. He also can access the jail records to provide case file assistance to fellow gang members who cannot read or write. The Treasurer takes care of the gang’s funds—to purchase cleaning materials and medicine—in an empty five-gallon water bottle full of the gang’s peso bills hanging from the cell’s ceiling. The Jury is a group of more than five—who served time in the national penitentiary—that oversee discipline. While punishments are not always violent, the Jury can choose to inflict paddle blows as punishment—an underground practice discouraged by BJMP officials. The Bastonero is the individual, armed with a baston or cane, who carries out the paddling.

All Quezon City Jail gang leaders are elected democratically and confined by term limits. Jail officials supervise the elections, which happen often because of the high Mayores turnover rate due to convictions, releases, and cross-facility transfers. BJMP officials screen potential gang leader candidates for their reputation and any jail violations. On election day, officials place a ballot box in each cell, and democracy commences for the Persons Deprived of Liberty. 

Former QCJ officer Jayrex Bustinero remembers one election during his 2014-2017 QCJ guard term. Once the prison-wide voting process ended, officials set up an elevated stage at the right side of the jail’s basketball court. QCJ then-warden Ermilito Moral, clad in a white embroidered Barong Tagalog—traditional Filipino formal attire—facilitated the oath-taking of new gang leaders. Moral spoke into the microphone while the newly-elected gang leaders lined the stage with their right hands raised. Sitting in plastic chairs on the court and peering down from the jail’s second floor, the inmates watched as the gang Mayores swore to perform their jobs, to follow the regulations set forth by management, and to protect the welfare of the inmates.

To celebrate the election, jail officials set up a boodle fight, a Filipino tradition of communal feasting derived from Philippine military meals. On the court, officials cover long rows of plastic tables in deep-green long banana leaves with a trail of white rice running down the middle. Scattered on the leaves were tiny mounds of pancit noodles, adobo chicken, and ulam, which the group ate together—keeping with local tradition, by hand. Hundreds of inmates joined the warden and officers for the feast in what Jayrex described as a “symbol of unity” that reflects the Philippines’ collectivist culture. Jayrex described the untranslatable concept of “pakikipagkapwa” as a harmonious relationship. “If you have good pakikipagkapwa with someone, they will return good pakikipagkapwa to you,” Jayrex said. “You can see that in all the Philippine jails.” Moments like the shared, hands-only food fiesta are a rejection of guard-gang-prisoner animosity and are uniquely Filipino. “I don’t know, it’s normal,” Jayrex said. “It’s normal here.”

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Marco, a 32-year-old Bahala Na Gang member whose name has been changed is one of at least 4,300 QCJ inmates charged with violating Republic Act No. 9165: possessing and selling, or delivering drugs. Marco claims that he was set up by Barangay captains—village watchmen—who snuck shabu onto him during his 2005 arrest. “If you don’t belong to a [pangkat], you can be bullied,” Marco said, his voice muffled underneath a disposable earloop face-mask. But still, if he could go back and choose again, he would stay gangless. He doesn’t think the pangkat life worth it, with the daily restrictions and the potential for violent punishment. In the Philippine jail system, unaffiliated inmates automatically become a part of Querna, its own cohesive unit mirroring the pangkat, with Mayores and a miniature bureaucracy. At Quezon City Jail, at least 800 inmates are Querna and live separate from the gangs.

“[The Querna] don’t have rules,” Marco said. But then he backtracked—“They have rules, but not like us.” He said that Bahala Na inmates can be hit or made to do “community service,” like cleaning, for small infractions. The Querna, on the other hand, get “padlocked” in a private cell temporarily for transgressions. Raymond Narag affiliated with Querna because it sees less intra- and inter-gang violence. Unlike the gangs, though, Querna are not obligated to each other in the same way. When a Sputnik member is ill, for example, others get him water, clean up his sick, and pay for medicine with the water bottle-held funds. Sputnik sees strength in numbers, and members back each other up when they feel threatened. Narag chose to forgo these benefits to preserve his individuality and freedom of action. 

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More than just a structural and organizational benefit to the jail, gangs grant inmates an essential sense of importance. “If you are a member of Batang City Jail, then Batang City Jail will always tell you ‘You’re number one. You’re good. You’re family to us.’ And if you talk to Sputnik, they will also say ‘We are number one. We are the best here,’” said Narag. This belonging is a source of recognition and pride for inmates who, outside Quezon City Jail, are stripped of their good names. Inside, they are part of a family. With the Mayores as the father, the inmate’s role is the “dutiful brother.” They begin their jail term as the bunso—the youngest in the family—and grow to become the kuya—the eldest. Ray, the gang’s Mayores, is in his late 30s. Like all gang members, 45-year old Ronel calls Ray “Tatay” or Father.

Ronel is considered “walang dalaw,” a label for the class of people with no outside family or friends to visit them. Instead, on days like today when his fellow Commando members have visitors, they allow Ronel to tag along and eat lunch with the group. 

Parang na sa bahay lang”—“It’s just like being at home”—Ronel said of life in the gang. Each of the 16 cells has its own television set—but every cell has 130 to 1,220 people. The gang takes a majority vote to choose which channel to watch. Usually, it’s an action movie. Ronel had just watched 2007 Crime Drama Hitman with the other Commando members. “Ganda rin,” Ronel said. He enjoyed the film.

In 2016, the Philippine government proposed separating inmates by risk—splitting violent offenders from those with drug-related cases—rather than by gang. But Quezon City Jail lacked both the resources and physical space to do that. Maybe it was for the better. 

At the end of the 92 degree morning, a group of inmates take part in a rehabilitative seminar: balloon sculpture making. At least 30 men representing different gangs sit in green plastic chairs at a long row of collapsible tables, closely following a woman demonstrating. The yellow of their shirts peeks through a mass of pink and white balloons, which hover inches over the table like a giant cloud. With their differently-dotted hands, the men use delicate fingers to help each other tie balloons together. The men shout in collective fear when one balloon pops.

Without gangs, Jayrex said, “I think the system will collapse.”