COMMISSION on Elections (Comelec) Commissioners Rowena Guanzon (5th from right) and Antonio Kho Jr., (4th from left), along with Army and police officials visit Moises Padilla in Negros Occidental after declaring the town under Comelec control on Monday. (Glazyl Masculino)

By: Glazyl Y. Masculino

BACOLOD City – It is not a war zone.

This was stressed by Commission on Elections (Comelec) commissioner Antonio Kho Jr., who officially declared on Monday the town of Moises Padilla in Negros Occidental under Comelec control, following the ambush slay on a reelectionist councilor and his uncle last April 25, 2019.

The declaration was announced at the municipal hall yesterday, in the presence of municipal employees, Vice Mayor Ella Celestina Garcia-Yulo, Comelec commissioner Rowena Guanzon, Comelec regional election director Jose Nick Mendros, Brigadier General Benedict Arevalo, commander of 303rd Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army; Police Colonel Romeo Baleros, director of Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office (Nocppo); Police Brigadier General Jesus Cambay Jr., PNP deputy regional director for administration; Provincial Election supervisor Milagros Salud Villanueva, and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG)- Negros Occidental director Carmelo Orbista.

Kho, along with the other officials, met with the municipal employees to hear their concerns after the declaration.

He told them to submit a list or report of all the firearms acquired by the municipal government.

All gun ban exemptions are cancelled unless the Comelec decides to lift it, Kho said.

Kho said the town was placed under Comelec control mainly because of the ambush incident that happened at Barangay Inolingan on April 25 which killed Councilor Jose Antonio Garcia, and his uncle Jose Marcelino Garcia, the nephew and the brother of Garcia-Yulo, respectively.

The slain councilor was among the three government officials who were gunned down since the start of the election period this year.

Moises Padilla Councilor Jolomar Hilario, and Escalante Councilor Bernardino Patigas Sr. were the other two reelectionist councilors killed in the province.

Earlier, Negros Occidental Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr., and members of the Joint Peace and Security Control Center (JPSCC) in the province and region recommended placing the town under Comelec control after the ambush incident last month.

The town was initially placed under red category because of intense political rivalry and presence of armed group and New People’s Army (NPA).

While the town is under Comelec control, Kho said there will be no ousting of local officials, but they will be under scrutiny to see if they are complying with election laws.

A task force composed of the police, army, the DILG, and the Comelec was created to act on the concerns of the people and to inform them how the Comelec control will be exercised. It will be supervised by former provincial election supervisor Jessie Suarez.

Kho said the people of the town should not take such declaration negatively.

“It is not a war zone and it will really not be considered a war zone,” he said.

The presence of more soldiers and policemen in the town is to provide security in the upcoming elections, he added.

Checkpoints will be conducted to ensure the safety of people coming in and out of the town.

The Comelec has the power to reassign or reshuffle policemen, Kho said, which resulted in the automatic reassignment of 24 town police officers, including its police chief, Police Captain Junji Liba.

Liba, who was moved to Nocppo headquarters, was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Adrian Acollador, former deputy provincial director for administration of Nocppo. The other officers will be transferred to the towns of Candoni and Hinoba-an.

Meanwhile, about 150 soldiers from the 62nd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army who were initially deployed in the town to aid the existing military forces were also sent off for the elections on the same day.

Kho reminded the security forces to remain apolitical and really do their jobs for a peaceful and orderly elections.

He also encouraged the people to file the necessary complaint if they make accusations.

Be intelligent and conscientious in your actions, he said.

The town of Moises Padilla is the first place in Visayas placed under Comelec control, Kho said.

For his part, Mayor Magdaleno Peña, in an interview at the town’s police station, said he sees no problem on the decision of the Comelec.

Peña, who is running for reelection against Garcia-Yulo, said he is thankful for the Comelec’s response, he added.