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Mayor Aleli-3



Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco did not choose to
become a public servant; the city chose her to be one.

Fate, indeed, has a way of changing the course of even the best-laid out plans. A good example is the story of Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco.

“My father told me before not to run [for an elective post] because politics is a thankless job,” she says. “That someday, after years of service, I will walk down the street and people will not recognize me.”

When the opportunity to help the city came knocking, however, she took a leap of faith. That decision proved to be a turning point not only in her personal life but in the political history of Zamboanga City.


By the early 1990s, Climaco had found her niche as a teacher at her alma mater, the Ateneo de Zamboanga University, where she earned a degree in education before pursuing her master’s degree in family counselling at the Ateneo de Manila University. A few years later, she found her way into mass media, working as a part-time newsreader at a local television station.

Aside from the above, she was also known as an advocate of quality education and cancer awareness. She was, in more ways than one, already serving the city as a productive citizen.


Climaco describes herself as a late bloomer. “I was very shy. I had been supportive of my father, during the campaigns, making sandwiches, being at the sideline,” she recalls, referring to her father, then Zamboanga City Vice Mayor Jose Climaco. “He would bring me around Zamboanga City, to show me the people and what it’s like to be a public servant.”

“I was fearful because that was a career change,” she recalls feeling as she became a first-time city councilor in 1998. “My life was to change, but I never expected that it would last long. I’m not really ambitious in a sense… I just thought, ‘well, I’ll be a city councilor, that’s it.’ In fact I did not really resign from the Ateneo de Zamboanga, thinking that I would go back anytime. So my primary career has always been and will always be as a teacher.”

Before she knew it, however, the niece of Martial Law activist and Zamboanga City Mayor Cesar Climaco and granddaughter of suffragist Isabelle Cortez Climaco had been entrusted with being the city’s chief executive.


The first few months of Climaco’s first term as mayor in 2013 was eventful, to say the least. Less than three months after assumption of office, she had her baptism of fire. On September 9, 2013, a band of rebels staged what eventually became known as the Zamboanga Siege. A faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) laid siege on the city and held hundreds of residents hostage as they wanted to declare the formation of an independent Bangsamoro Republic. The 19-day-long crisis resulted in the displacement of about 100,000 residents and billions of pesos worth of damage to property. “I would say it was by faith alone that I was able to manage that crisis.” Climaco shares as she looks back on the fateful events that made headlines even abroad. “I look back at the interviews, videos and listen to the recordings and I am amazed at the words that came out of my mouth, very calmly, very sincerely. I really looked at it as ‘Here is a challenge, the magnitude of which we did not expect, and my penultimate goal is really to save the hostages.’ That was what was at the back of my mind, and to take care of the displaced residents. The tools that I had, entering a major crisis, were the tools I could trace back to college, being taught what leadership and service really meant, and that’s how I applied inclusiveness, involving our Muslim brothers, respecting the diverse voices of our community, and reaching out to the diplomatic community and international humanitarian organizations.”

“That is the reason that even up to now, nine years since the siege, we still have our humanitarian partners continually helping us,” the mayor reveals. “We have the United Nations Childrens’ Emergency Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Community and Family Services International (CFSI), all implementing programs for Zamboanga City and Mindanao.”

Climaco sees the above-mentioned continuing to play major roles not only in Zamboanga but in adjacent provinces in the years to come. “I have invited them to make Zamboanga City their base because I want that Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi would also equally benefit. I understand that Zamboanga City is the center of gravity in terms of commercial, economic, educational and health services in the region and we would want to keep it that way because it is one way of protecting ourselves inside our regional bubble,” she stresses.


Through the years, Climaco has had a holistic approach to addressing the concerns of the city.

“To sum up the three major points of our administration, it is SHE—Security, Health, and Education,” she states. “It is gender-fair because if you remove the S, it becomes HE. That is because I am an advocate of gender equity.”

She reveals that the city government put in Php2.2 billion pesos in the nine years of her administration, investing on security. The city now has an elaborate command center that enables law enforcers to make use of technology to respond to security and peace and order concerns. A new police station was also built for the city police, aside from being provided with new vehicles, firearms, communication equipment, and Kevlar helmets. As a result, the Zamboanga City police force was adjudged as being number one all over the country in 2018.

To further beef up security, the city has two combat-ready battalions, one each from the Marines and the Army. Together with the Philippine National Police (PNP) and all the force multipliers, these soldiers have made the city a showcase of how peace and order can bring about not just economic growth, but development whose benefits trickle down to the people.

Climaco’s efforts to highlight the importance of human security as a pillar of national resilience—as embodied by the inclusion of human security in resilience programs—has really made a big difference.

“We introduced the human security pillar because we realized that Zamboanga City’s edge has to be staying a safe city in order for investors to come in,” she says. With this, the people’s mindset has changed because “down to the barangays, in the communities, we have asked the people to always be alert, on the lookout for suspiciouslooking items and people. This has led us to zero kidnapping, zero bombing, zero kidnapping, and zero piracy incident in the past six years.”

With resources and systems in place, the city government was still able to deliver needed services even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In terms of the pandemic,” Climaco shares, “it’s really ‘heal the sick and feed the hungry,’ with the competencies of curada, comida, busca vida, y vacuna: cure, food, livelihood and vaccination. These are the four core elements of our pandemic response program.”

The city government, recognizing the need for decisive and proper action to address the pandemic, had to shift resources and focus on pandemic response. Funds were set aside for RT-PCR tests and isolation facilities. Meanwhile, frontliners were provided with the needed equipment and ayuda (assistance).

With regard to education, the city government provided books for learners, ranging from daycare children to college students at the height of the pandemic.


The city is known as a melting pot of people of different faiths and ethnicities. As such, Mayor Beng made sure to turn this into a positive factor with regard to peace and order and advancement of general welfare among her constituents.

“We have really adopted [the principle of interfaith harmony],” Mayor Beng, who was a principal author of World Interfaith Harmony Day in Congress, reveals. “We really engage ourselves with NGOs and citizens’groups. There is ZABIDA (Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance) organization of Father Angel Calvo funded by AECID (Agencia Espanola de Cooperacion Internacional y Desarollo) and Manos Unidas from Spain. And there is also the Silsilah Foundation headed by Father Sebastiano D’Ambra.”

Mayor Beng takes pride in the formation of the City Interfaith Council. “The City Council passed an ordinance creating the Interfaith Council. We have representatives of different faiths sitting together and charting programs,” she says.

Part of the mandate of the council is to formulate and recommend policies on various interfaith initiatives; establish and sustain linkages with various faith-based groups; and conduct interfaith activities. “This created a ripple effect of inclusivity,” stresses Climaco. “Our Muslim leaders and even the Indigenous Peoples, such as the Sama Banguingui and Subanen tribes, have been recognized. For the first time in our history, we adopted indigenous peoples’ representation in the council. This has had a very important impact on peace and order.”

Zamboanga City eventually became the first city in Asia to become part of the Strong Cities Network, a global network of local governments working together to eliminate hate, polarization, and extremism in all its forms.


Not a few awards have come Climaco’s way. She was given recognition by Xavier University in 2013 in relation to the Masterson Award which she received with Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman. This was followed four years later by being chosen by the Philippine Federation of Local Councils of Women to receive the Jesse Robredo Most Outstanding Mayor award.

Also in 2017, Zamboanga City was conferred the Seal of ChildFriendly Local Governance by the Departments of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). After two years, Zamboanga City became a the lone Philippine City to emerge as finalist in the Childfriendly Cities competition in Cologne, Germany.

Another major personal award came in 2018, as Climaco became part of the All-Female Selection and finalist for the World Mayor Prize of the London-based City Mayors Foundation. This was in recognition of her efforts toward inclusivity in the rehabilitation of Zamboanga City

In all of the above, the lady chief executive is quick to deflect credit to the people who make up her team, particularly the city government’s department heads and the milennials who introduced innovations in the delivery of public service.


From two-term city councilor (1998-2004) to vice mayor (2004- 2007), to two-term congresswoman (2007-2013) and three-term city mayor (2013-present), Mayor Beng has proven her mettle as lawmaker and local chief executive.

Despite her record, Climaco claims that she is “not [a] sigurista, that is why it has never been my ambition to become a councilor, congresswoman, vice mayor or mayor at all. I’ve never really chartered my political career.” Still, she is a hundred percent ready to face another challenge, this time as Congresswoman of the 1st District of Zamboanga.

“Given the chance, God willing and with the people’s support that I get elected, it will be a very meaningful opportunity because I was eligible for one more term in 2019 but I ran for mayor instead,” she says. “So this is a continuation of what I had begun, and I really have my sights on really helping out to finally settle issues [the district is facing],” she says.

Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco, public servant, may very well be donning another hat come June 30, but one thing is certain. She will still be offering the “leadership of care, of compassion, and concern for the welfare and benefit of others” that she has demonstrated for more than two decades.

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