Thousands of militiamen trained and armed by the Philippine government have protected the country's major cities and towns from Muslim and communist rebels for decades by backing up an overstretched army.
But the part-time soldiers are often ill-disciplined fighters drawn from the ranks of the unemployed, landless farmers and ex-soldiers, and have gained notoriety for abusing civilians, looting homes or ending up in the pockets of political warlords as their private armies.
With militiamen accused in last month's massacre of dozens of civilians and an ongoing standoff to free 47 hostages in the volatile southern Philippines, the strategy of arming these groups is once again being called into question.
The Nov. 23 carnage in Maguindanao province, where militiamen allegedly followed orders of a powerful clan to kill 57 people in a rival's election convoy, prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to order the dismantling of all clan-dominated private armies and paramilitary groups.
But the military faces a dilemma, fearing that if it disarms the 55,000 militiamen, its 120,000 troops won't be able to fight rebels, terrorists and criminals alone.
"It's too early to say if we can do without them or not because we're still doing the study. They are force multipliers," said armed forces spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner.
Many far-flung provinces in the sprawling archipelago have largely been outside the government's reach for decades, some ruled by clans, tribal laws and others controlled by armed groups.
Those areas on southern Mindanao Island became battle zones between government troops and communist and Muslim rebels, leading late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the mid-1970s to start arming civilians as a government policy.
The south has been awash with weapons since.
Following Marcos' 1986 ouster and the restoration of democracy, President Corazon Aquino dismantled the militias. But as the communist rebellion wore on and the Muslim insurgency intensified, the militias were reborn in 1990s as CAFGU, the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit. Police have their own auxiliary force, called the Civilian Volunteer Organization.
Militiamen are part-time soldiers under the Department of National Defense and are given a monthly allowance of 1,800 pesos ($38), plus two months of basic training, said Brawner. They carry rusty firearms, like the M1 Garand and carbines.
But there have long been concerns the service attracts the wrong types of people.
"Some of them will fight even without salaries as long as you feed them and give them guns," said security analyst Rex Robles, a retired navy commodore.
Human rights organizations have regularly warned that militiamen do more harm than good and are responsible for widespread abuses.
"The presence of militias in many communities appears not to have quelled local conflict, but has served to stimulate fear, mutual distrust and communal violence," New York-based Human Rights Watch has said.
Sam Zarifi, an Amnesty International official, said this week that militias "have engaged in systematic attacks on civilians, arson and even murder, often with the knowledge and involvement of provincial authorities and the military."
Left-wing Rep. Satur Ocampo echoed those concerns, adding that the military's strategy of defeating Muslim and communist insurgencies by force alone was "unachievable."
"Many abuses have been attributed to militiamen and they have not helped in the success against the insurgency," he said. "They just pitted families against each other and resulted in abuses."
More than 100 government militiamen are among the suspects in last month's massacre of 57 people, allegedly on orders of the Ampatuan clan, which has ruled Maguindanao province for years with militiamen on its payroll. The Ampatuans, facing murder and rebellion charges, deny involvement.
On the other side of Mindanao, in the remote hinterland of Agusan del Sur province, 15 dismissed militiamen who turned bandits took more than 70 villagers hostage Thursday after police tried to arrest them on murder charges. They demanded that the charges be dropped before releasing 47 others. Ten people were freed before nightfall Friday.
The gang leader, Joebert Perez, told reporters the charges were fabricated and originate from a bloody feud with a rival family, the Tubays, that has left about 10 dead on both sides since last year.
Nestor Fajura, provincial police operations officer, said the negotiations with the gunmen for the release of the hostages included the disarming of both clans.
"The Perezes will not disarm if the Tubays have the firearms. So both will be disarmed," he said.
Arroyo spokesman Cerge Remonde said members of the commission that will supervise the dismantling of the militias will be announced soon.
But any action is likely to be taken after Arroyo leaves office following national elections in May, and will be up to her successor to follow through with.
Former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, one of presidential candidates, said criminals among militiamen should be weeded out, but the force was "needed to complement the lack of soldiers in problem areas such as Maguindanao."
Robles, the security analyst, blamed the lack of discipline and human rights abuses among militiamen on poor national leadership.
"The CAFGU concept should be really reviewed because it has become a runaway," he said.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.