Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Disquieting News

Since yesterday evening, the people of Lianga could not stop talking about it. Early this morning when I got out of the house for a short stroll, I could see friends and neighbors already outside their houses and getting together in small groups at the street corners to discuss the startling news.

Ramil Tolentino, the 37 year old scion of one of Lianga's more well known families, was caught together with four other suspects by law enforcement personnel in Cagayan de Oro City after a bungled attempt to rob a commercial establishment in that city late Sunday night (see SunStar Cagayan de Oro story). Ramil was a former branch manager of the Enterprise Bank, a rural bank and micro-financing company based in Lianga. Two of the other arrested suspects are from Lianga's neighboring town of Barobo while the fourth hails from San Agustin which is the next town north of here. All these towns including Lianga belong to the province of Surigao del Sur.

The shock and disbelief with which local residents greeted the disquieting news is not surprising since Tolentino in particular as well as one of the other suspects are not only well known locally but are also related by consanguinity and affinity to many of the townpeople here. When a local boy from a rather prominent local family, whose father happens to be a former municipal councilman and now a businessman of note, goes spectacularly bad then that is, in the case of small towns like Lianga, earthshaking news indeed and one that will get the local rumor and gossip mills roaring and spinning for weeks to come.

They are many here who say that Ramil's alleged involvement in the reported robbery attempt could be the consequence of an unfortunate methamphetamine drug habit which he has been struggling with for years now. If that is indeed the case then his case is certainly not that an uncommon story and he is simply one among the countless of others whose lives and the lives of their families have been damaged if not destroyed and ruined by this insidious narcotic.

I had been told almost a decade ago by a police official specializing in narcotics and drug enforcement in Butuan City that Lianga, despite its small size and remote location, was on their watchlist of towns in Surigao del Sur with a seriously emerging drug abuse problem particularly among its youth and young adult population. Since that time, successive political administrations who have controlled Lianga have made a lot of noises and promises to fight the problem and meet it head on.

The case of Ramil Tolentino is proof positive that nothing really concrete or substantial has really been achieved. Methampetamines or "shabu" as it is locally known remains the popular drug of choice among the many immersed in Lianga's drug culture which draws in not only those from the poor and uneducated masses but also those from the more affluent of town society.

The town, in recent years, has been trying to shake off its image as a hotbed of the local Communist insurgency and has been desperately trying to project itself as a safe, alternative destination for local and foreign tourists interested in sampling the area's pristine beaches and ecotourism sites. The Tolentino incident and the reports of it in both the local and national media will not bode well for the town's attempt to build a new image for itself. Neither will it help moves to combat the public perception of the province of Surigao del Sur as a breeding ground for lawless and criminal elements.

Publicity experts say that in most cases any form of publicity, even bad or negative ones, is still publicity. In this case, it would not be far off the mark to say that this is one form of negative publicity the town of Lianga, the province of Surigao del Sur and most importantly, the families of the suspects now in custody in Cagayan de Oro City, if given the choice, would rather do without.

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