Thursday, April 16, 2009

Davao Death Squad

Although the staggering number shocks the conscience, the issue had received little national media attention until the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) began a three-day public hearing in Davao City on March 30, 2009 on the 814 “extra-judicial killings” that have taken place in this Mindanao city between August 19, 1998 to February 1, 2009.

In his April 10, 2009 column, which appeared in the Manila Times and other international publications, Fr. Shay Cullen wrote: “The courageous chairperson of the commission, Leila De Lima, who led the public enquiry last week, said the majority of victims are very young, mostly youth, terribly poor, semi-illiterate street children. Few if any had been arrested, charged and found guilty of any crime. Their living presence is the embarrassing evidence of gross social inequality and injustice.”

De Lima called the killings "selective vigilantism" noting that “no big-time criminals, like drug lords or rich drug pushers and drug users, appear among the victims of the so-called "Davao Death Squad".

Witnesses who testified before the commission attributed the killings to the DDS which officially stands for the “Davao Death Squad” but is unofficially referred to by local citizens as the “Duterte Death Squad” pointing to the 6-term mayor of the city, Rodrigo Duterte, as the leader of the nefarious group.

In an article which appeared in Time Asia on June 24, 2002 (“The Punisher”), Mayor Duterte acknowledged “jokingly” to correspondent Phil Zabriskie that the first D in DDS does indeed refer to him.

Zabriskie wrote: “Duterte is unapologetic about his willingness to venture beyond what legal niceties might permit. Criminals and rebels, he says menacingly from his perch at the bar, "do not have a monopoly on evil." A long, hard stare leaves little doubt that this is not idle talk. One day his methods might be unnecessary, he says. But for now, he insists on what most people from this town have also come to believe: "The only reason there is peace and order in Davao is because of me."

In a speech before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines in February of 2009, Mayor Duterte explained his perspective: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”

If you don’t count the summary executions (“salvagings”), you may agree with Duterte that Davao is “the most peaceful city in Asia”. In his Time Asia piece, Zabriskie wrote: “Duterte has achieved his results at a grim price, disregarding due process and anointing himself legislator, judge, jury and possibly executioner all at once.”

Beyond Davao City, CHR Chair De Lima expressed deep concern about “the growing culture or mentality of public acceptance of the executions. This is worse than apathy and indifference.”

Indeed, Manila Mayor Fred Lim told Zabriskie in 2002 that "if we had 20 more mayors like Duterte, the peace and order situation in the Philippines would improve."

But at what price?

In its April 2009 issue, Human Rights Watch ( documented the summary killings in a paper entitled “You Can Die Any Time, Death Squad Killings in Mindanao”. The group interviewed Clarita Alia, whose four sons were murdered. Alia said that back in 2001, a senior police officer came to her home to arrest her oldest son but Clarita Alia demanded to see an arrest warrant before handing him over. The officer warned Alia “Ok, you don’t want to give your child to me, then watch out because your sons will be killed, one by one!”

Shortly after that threat, 18-year old Richard Alia was stabbed to death in July of 2001, followed by 17-year old Christopher Alia in October of 2001, Bobby Alia, 14, in November 2003, and Fernando Alia, 15, in April 2007. When the police officer made the threat in 2001, Clarita Alia said, “I was really shocked he mentioned the other sons as they were just little kids then, but he was very angry because I was pushing him out.”

Human Rights Watch also reported on the case of 20-year-old Jaypee Larosa who was walking to a nearby Internet CafĂ© a block from his home when he was shot by three men in dark jackets who were riding a motorcycle. Witnesses reported that after they shot him, one of the men removed the baseball cap Larosa was wearing and said, “Son of a bitch, this is not the one,” before leaving the scene.

“Dozens of family members have described to Human Rights Watch the murder of their loved ones, all killed in similar fashion. Most victims are alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children, some of whom are members of street gangs. Impunity for such crimes is nearly total—few such cases have been seriously investigated by the police, let alone prosecuted.”

When it resumes its hearing on April 17, 2009, the CHR will reportedly also investigate the recent murder of Rebelyn Pitao, the 21-year-old daughter of Leoncio Pitao alias “Commander Parago,” a leader of the communist New People’s Army.

Witnesses reported that armed men abducted Rebelyn, a private school teacher in Davao City, while she was going home aboard a tricycle on March 4, 2009. The next day, her body was found in a creek in the neighboring town of Carmen with an autopsy finding that she was raped and tortured before she was killed.

Before the CHR conducted its investigation, Human Rights Watch, an international organization based in New York, charged that “the administration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has largely turned a blind eye to the killing spree in Davao City and elsewhere. The Philippine National Police has not sought to confront the problem. And the inaction of the national institutions responsible for accountability, namely the Department of Justice, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights, has fueled widespread impunity.”

Where is the outrage?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sarah Balabagan

On the Friday evening before Good Friday, I visited the Jesus is Lord church in Daly City to hear Sarah Balabagan, a Muslim convert to Christianity, describe her ordeal in the Middle East, a traumatic experience that was made into an award-winning film in 1997.

Sarah grew up in a poor Muslim family in the town of Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao province. She had thirteen brothers and sisters but they were so poor, she said, when one of them got sick, they would just watch helplessly by as the brother or sister got sicker and eventually died. Her parents had no money for medical care so only six of her siblings survived early childhood diseases.

Sarah realized early on that education was her ticket out of the incredible poverty she was born into so she worked as a maid for relatives just to be able to go to school in return for a wage. But that only got her through fifth grade. At the age of 14, she decided to seek employment abroad.

A recruiter secured a job for her by listing her age as 28 (double her actual age) which Sarah learned only when she had already boarded the plane for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Assigned by contract to work for a 67-year old widower with four sons, Sarah was apprehensive about living with 5 men but she comforted herself with the thought that, being a Muslim, they would respect her.

But they did not and Sarah was continuously subjected to sexual harassment. The young sons would regularly order her to bring towels to them after they stepped out of the shower naked. Sarah would just close her eyes and resist their sexual advances.

On July 19, 1994, barely a month after she started working, her employer, Mohamed Abdullah Baloushi, entered her room at night and pressed a knife at her throat. He would stab her if she refused sex, he threatened. Sarah refused and Mohammed stabbed her, not enough to kill her but enough to allow him to rape her. In the course of the rape, however, Mohamed let go off his knife which Sarah then picked up and used to kill him.

Sarah was jailed without bail and in June of 1995, was sentenced by a local court to seven years in prison for manslaughter and ordered her to pay the Baloushi's family $41,000 in diyah, for "blood money". The court also found that Sarah had been the victim of rape and awarded her compensation in damages.

But the state prosecution appealed and a retrial was ordered. The second court found no evidence of rape and sentenced her to die by firing squad in the desert.

An international outcry led by Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos led to a reduction of her sentence to one year and 100 lashes, plus payment of "blood money" to her employer's family, which was paid for by a Filipino-Chinese businessman.

The 100 lashes were to be administered to her on five consecutive days of 20 lashes a day. Sarah described the kind of wood that was used as one designed to inflict the maximum pain. She was whipped before an audience of family members and friends of Mohamed Baloushi. She did not want to give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry so she bore the pain of the lashings quietly. But it took her 3 months before she could sleep on her back.

After serving almost two years in Al-Ain prison in Dubai, Sarah was deported back to the Philippines in 1996, arriving in Manila to a hero’s welcome. A Philippine movie studio made a 1997 film about her, “The Sarah Balabagan Story”, which starred Vina Morales and was a box-office hit.

What money she received for the film she sent to her family and used to go to school. She wanted to be a lawyer to represent her fellow overseas workers who needed legal assistance but she got pregnant, three times, and that affected her educational goals. She took computer classes and voice lessons where she learned that she could sing and sing very well. She started a career as a singer whose songs have resonated with overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as they often speak of the plight of the OFWs.

But fame can cause its own prison and Sarah got depressed with having to raise her three children, taking classes, and regularly sending money to her in Mindanao.

In the middle of her despair, she met a Christian singer named Dulce Amor who introduced Sarah to her pastor, Rev. Gasti Maribojoc. The minister told Sarah that the 100 lashes she received were also received by Jesus Christ, only 100 times more. After Sarah read the Bible and learned more about Jesus, she decided in 2003 to accept Jesus as her savior and to renounce her Muslim faith.

This “apostasy” – converting from Islam to Christianity – was especially difficult for her mother to accept as she believed the penalty for it is death. She didn’t speak to Sarah for six months and when she finally called, she told Sarah of her fear that Sarah’s lifeless body would end up in the Pasig River.

Sarah told her mother that she does not fear death because now she has found meaning in her life. She has dedicated herself to spreading the good word of Christ and if it is his will that she die, then so be it. She has also devoted her life to the cause of the OFWs and especially the domestic servants who have gone through what she went through.

When Sarah arrived in the Philippines in 1996, another domestic helper also returned on that same day, Elisa Salem, only she returned in a coffin, the victim of her Jordanian employer’s rape, one of 130 OFWs who died in 1996. In that year, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration received 14,000 complaints of abuse.

When Sarah sings of the pain and anguish of the OFWs in the Middle East, there is soulfulness to her music. When she sings of her love for Jesus, there is a joy in her heart and a fervent wish for everyone who has gone through hell to go to heaven.

Sarah will be speaking and singing at the Faith Worship Center at Serramonte Del Rey in Daly City on Sunday, April 12, at 10 AM. From April 17 until she returns to Manila on May 6, she will be in Los Angeles. She can be contacted at

Happy Easter.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Erap's Private Army, Part 2 (Conclusion)

Former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada’s 2007 conviction for plunder was apparently insufficient to convince former President Cory Aquino to not issue her December 22, 2008 public apology to Estrada for her role in the January 2001 People Power uprising that deposed him. But perhaps Estrada’s recently disclosed role in ordering the execution of his opponents may cause Aquino, a devout Catholic who reportedly values human life, to reconsider her apology.

In his February 14, 2009 affidavit, Col. Cezar Mancao disclosed the moment in October of 2000 when he heard his Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) boss, Gen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, order Col. Michael Ray Aquino, PAOCTF chief of operations, to liquidate his opponent, Gen. Reynaldo Berroya (“Bero”). Aquino agreed to do so but informed Lacson that “Bigote” had ordered him to finish off Delta first.

In paragraph 10 of his Affidavit, Mancao explained: “Delta” referred to media and PR man Salvador “Bubby” Dacer (Dacer), while “Bigote” was the commonly-known pseudonym of Erap. Lacson however insisted that Aquino rather operate on both Berroya and Dacer simultaneously, saying “Ipagsabay mo na at tingnan natin kung sino na ang mauuna”, which obviously meant that Aquino operate on Dacer and Berroya at the same time and to just see who between them is killed first.”

The PAOCTF surveillance of Dacer and the tapping of his phones had revealed that Dacer was set to meet former President Fidel V. Ramos for lunch at the Manila Hotel on November 24, 2000 where Dacer would show Ramos “highly incriminating” documents exposing the stock manipulations of the Best World Resources company of Erap crony Dante Ang.

What happened to Dacer and his driver, Emmanuel Corbito, as they headed for the Manila Hotel on the morning of November 24, 2000 is laid out in detail in the extradition complaint for Mancao that was filed by US Attorney Jennifer Keene in the Southern District of Florida on September 24, 2008.

Keene narrated that Dacer and Corbito were “abducted at the intersection of Zobel Roxas St. and Osmena Highway in Manila . Police Officers Thomas J. Sarmiento and Ruperto A. Nemena were identified as among those who abducted Dacer and Corbito. Immediately thereafter, the Sarmiento group made a U-turn at the intersection and headed towards the town of Dasmarinas , Cavite …At about 8:00 o’clock in the evening of the same day, Dacer and Corbito were brought to a creek in Barangay Buna Lejos, Indang, Cavite , where they were killed by strangulation. The bodies of Dacer and Corbito were then placed upon a heap of collected wood and tires, doused with gasoline and burned.”

In paragraph 11 of his Affidavit, Mancao recalled that “at around 11:00 in the morning of November 24, 2000, while Dumlao and myself were at my office at task group Luzon, Dumlao suddenly excused himself because he received a text message from Aquino saying that Dacer was already in the custody of Vina somewhere in the province of Cavite and thus directing him to proceed to the area to conduct tactical interrogation on Dacer. As Dumlao was leaving my office, I told him to share with me the results of his tactical interrogation.”

Mancao noted that “after Dumlao left, I immediately called Vina and verified about the alleged operation. Vina confirmed to me the operation and told me he will take care of it and that the same was upon the orders of Aquino”. Vina was also responsible for getting rid of Dacer’s car.

Later in the day, Mancao remembered that “when Dumlao returned to the office, I inquired what happened to his tactical interrogation of Dacer and he told me that he did not obtain any valuable information from the subject.”

“After learning about Dacer’s abduction”, Mancao added, “I immediately informed Lacson and asked for his guidance on the matter. Lacson instructed me to head the investigation of the incident since doing so will allow PAOCTF to control the situation by covering up the involvement of PAOCTF personnel. Accordingly, I dispatched my men to conduct a regular investigation of the incident; I also required all investigating police stations to forward to us all relevant documents, making us the repository of these documents, and thus enabled us to cover-up for the involved PAOCTF operatives. Due to my successful cover-up of the incident, Lacson and Aquino became warm and appreciative of me again.”

“Several days thereafter, news broke out about Dacer’s car being found dumped in a ravine in Margondon, Cavite ,” Mancao stated. “I chanced upon Dumlao in our office and asked him why it happened that way when Vina continuously assured me that he will take care of the situation. I remember me saying: “Akala ko plinantsa niya ng maayos?! Mapapasama tuloy tayong lahat dito!” (I thought this was supposed to be ironed out well. We’re going to look bad).

In an affidavit executed by Mancao on March 1, 2007, Mancao recalled that “sometime in August of 2001 in a Las Vegas hotel, Michael Aquino was blaming fellow officer Teofilo Vina for sloppily dumping Bubby Dacer’s car into a ravine in Cavite where it was easily discovered. Aquino was complaining that the task had not been carried out correctly. This sloppy work resulted in an investigation which later implicated Michael Aquino in Dacer and Corbito’s disappearance.”

Such sloppiness would not be tolerated. In January of 2003, Col. Vina was shot and killed, supposedly by a balikbayan who had accused Vina of sleeping with his wife. The Vina killing remains unsolved.

In her column which appeared on December 3, 2000, just 9 days after the Dacer-Corbito abduction, Philippine Inquirer columnist Solita Monsod noted that "the circumstances under which Dacer was abducted are strikingly similar to those surrounding the (October 3, 2000) attempt on Chavit Singson [governor of Ilocos Sur province] — the one that convinced him to tell his story. The latter too, was stopped — allegedly for a traffic violation, with other cars trying the ‘sandwich’ operation. The only difference is that Chavit Singson was in a bullet-proof car, and, probably being very familiar with this kind of situation, was able to call for help which came immediately. He was lucky — his mayors were around. Dacer had no such luck.”

Neither did Pagcor casino employee Edgar Bentain. Soon after his name appeared in the press as the person who leaked the embarrassing video of Estrada gambling at the Heritage Hotel casino, Bentain disappeared. In his sworn testimony before the Philippine Senate on August 17, 2001, PAOCTF civilian employee Odor Mawanay revealed that PAOCTF men abducted Bentain and immersed him alive in cement inside a drum. Mawanay identified Col. Michael Ray Aquino as the officer who ordered the drum to be covered and buried near a bridge in Pampanga.

If Estrada had not been deposed in January of 2001, who knows how many more Dacers and Corbitos would have been killed on orders of “Bigote”?