Chris Magno is a doctoral student and teaches Radical Criminology in the Department of Criminal Justice, Indiana University Bloomington. He is now writing his dissertation on how crime becomes political capital in Philippine politics. He is the author of the book Corruption and Revolution: Joseph Estrada and the Uprising of the Urban Poor in EDSA III, soon to be published by Ateneo de Manila University Press.
“Criminal community” is the popular identity of a place within the larger urban poor region where I conducted research for my Masters Degree at the University of the Philippines. Although I completed my thesis after one year of living and working in the community, I am still contemplating how the community acquired the image of criminality.
The community is located on the public land of North Triangle, Barangay Pag-asa Quezon City, in the Philippines. It is surrounded by many governmental, commercial, and transportation establishments.
Despite the fact that the community is surrounded by commercial establishments, governmental social service offices, and headquarters buildings, 60% of the adult members of the 5,000 families (as of 2001) who live in the community are unemployed, 40% are employed. Seventy percent of the employed work in private companies, 25% is self-employed and 7% work in governmental offices. All of the people who live in the community lack security of housing, 70% have no health care and, and 30% of the children ages 5-16 are illiterate. Among the unemployed, the most common modes of survival include prostitution, pick-pocketing in the nearby mall, stealing, drug dealing, and illegal gambling games such as jueteng.
The community started to gain its criminal identity when President Ferdinand Marcos criminalized squatting through Presidential Decree 772 in 1975. During this time, the North Triangle community experienced demolition and the burning of their houses. Many were put in prison for violent resistance against demolitions. When P.D. 772 was repealed after the lifting of martial law, the community’s criminal identity was retained and reinforced by the illegal activities of some community members in surrounding establishments. For example, a gang member who lived in the community killed a Philippine Science High School student for refusing to surrender his wallet during a robbery. There were also weekly incidents of hold dapping of buses, taxis and jeep-neys (Philippine public transportation) that stop around the community.
The image of criminality has a huge impact on the lives of the community. The daughters of a resident named Sonia, for example, were not accepted as sales clerks in a nearby department store when its human resources officer learned that they were living in North Triangle. Teodora’s son was not accepted in Philippine Science High School even though he passed the school entrance exam and had a high GPA. I also observed that Catholic residents cannot go to church in nearby high class subdivision because they are usually halted by community guards and chased by dogs. Most of the time residents cannot acquire care in the highly specialized hospitals because they are not capable of paying the required deposit, which only residents of upper level subdivisions can afford.
Despite the criminal stigma that robs community residents of many opportunities, they survive through the services of politicians, professors, nuns, priests, seminarians, students, non-governmental organizations, religious organizations, medical practioners and social movements who go into the community with different agendas but the same objective of “helping”. Professors and students from exclusive schools visit the community for their research and provide tutorials to members of community youth organizations. Catholic seminarians from San Jose Seminary and Saint Francis of Assisi teach catechism classes throughout their immersion in the community. Medical students in the hospitals surrounding the community use it as a laboratory for practicing medicine under sponsorship of the community’s medical mission. Churches in nearby subdivisions such as Phil-Am usually distribute used clothes and groceries to the community every Christmas and conduct a Catholic catechism class among its youth every summer. Non-governmental organizations organize the community to attain their collective interest of security of housing, which, until now, remains a goal rather than a reality. Politicians sponsor mass weddings, mass baptisms, sports festivals, and celebrations of birthdays.
After the students become professionals; researchers earn their degrees, medical students become doctors, nurses, and therapists; professors become prestigious in their research; seminarians become priests; religious and corporate organizations become famous philanthropists; NGOs receive plaques of recognition for serving the community; and politicians become popular and win elections, the situation of the community remains the same. Its residents remain poor, squatters, and stigmatized as dangerous and criminal.
The community’s poor condition and lack of opportunity due to the stigmata of criminalization made them more dependent on the specialized knowledge, capabilities and resources of outsiders. The multiple practices of helping do not have the motive to uplift the condition of the community or even change its criminal identity, because this criminal identity, as David Campbell (1998) explains, is instrumental in the rationalization, normalization, moralization, correction, civilization, punishment, discipline, disposal and formation of society.