NUEVA ECIJA, Philippines – Arriving home from Malaysia on April 27, 2010, Cristina Sergio told the Lacanilao couple that she left Mary Jane Veloso – the Overseas Filipino Worker who got a reprieve from death row – in Malaysia. She also said she was going to Camarines Sur for a few days to attend to her mother’s wake. They took her word for it.
While Sergio was supposedly in her native province, Veloso’s family got wind of the information that she had been arrested in Indonesia for drug trafficking. When told about Veloso’s fate, Sergio claimed innocence.
“Paanong mapupunta ng Indonesia eh sa Malaysia ko iniwan si Mary Jane!” Sergio told the Lacanilao couple, Ramon and Sisa. (How could she be in Indonesia when I left Mary Jane in Malaysia?) They believed her when she showed them her passport showing she passed only through Malaysian immigration.
When they learned that Sergio had returned, Veloso’s family also confronted her. They stormed the Lacanilao house demanding an explanation, Sisa recalled.
Sergio told them the same thing: that they travelled only to Malaysia together and was clueless why Mary Jane was arrested in Indonesia. The confrontation got so ugly that the Lacanilao matriarch had to ask Veloso’s family to leave their compound. (READ: Sergio's counsel denies she admitted being part of drug trade)
In their own version, Veloso’s family said Sergio warned them “not to tell anyone or approach the media.” She also warned them that she “belongs to an international drug syndicate” and that they would do everything, including spending millions, “just to get Mary Jane out of jail.”
In her own narration of facts before the Indonesian district court which sentenced her to die by firing squad, Veloso said that on April 24, a Saturday, Sergio asked her to go to Yogyakarta, Indonesia the following day to meet with a certain Mr Jhon aka "Prince Fatu". Sergio gave her a round trip Air Asia ticket.
Before Veloso left, Sergio also asked her to meet with a certain Mr I.K. who provided the travel bag where the 2.6 kilogram of heroin was hidden in a secret compartment. (READ: DOJ: Sergio was part of int'l drug ring)
Despite what had happened to Veloso, Sergio tried to keep a straight face in the village. Assured of the silence of Veloso’s family, only a few knew about her case. Shortly after, Veloso’s parents left Talavera and moved back to Cabanatuan.
The Lacanilao couple said they found no reason to doubt Sergio or even suspect that she could be involved in any illegal activity. After all, she did not go into hiding, and remained in the village. And the Candelarias, the in-laws of Mary Jane Veloso, did not entirely blame her for what happened.
“How can they be angry with her? She (Sergio) only tried to help,” said the Lacanilao couple. In fact, the Candelarias acted as if nothing had happened. “They would still go here in our house and we’d play cards.” Besides, only a few months after Veloso got arrested, her husband Michael found another woman.
But neighbors observed that after Veloso’s arrest, Sergio tried to keep a low profile. “Before, we’d learn that she was talking with prospective jobs applicants, not here, but in other villages. But after Veloso was arrested, she lay low with recruiting people,” one of the neighbors said in Filipino.
To keep their son and his lover busy, the Lacanilao patriarch gave them the opportunity to handle their plastic and glassware business, but it went bankrupt. Another business also went kaput. Finally, Julius was convinced to go to Saudi Arabia to work there but returned only after 5 months after having a problem with his employer.
“If my son or Tintin were involved in drug trafficking, do you think he’d even go to Saudi Arabia to work there? Would Tintin even allow him to go there?” asked the Lacanilao patriarch. (READ: Desire to work abroad exploited by human traffickers)
Gecko and drugs
Some time after the arrest of Veloso, Sergio became more visible again, acting as if nothing had happened. In social gatherings in the village, she’d be seen with Julius. In the last barangay elections, she even helped in the campaign of the elder Lacanilao, who won as barangay councilor. From time to time, she’d be away for several days or weeks. Everyone took her word that she was into real estate, selling condominiums.
But no secret remains hidden for long.
As she kept a low profile after bungling Veloso’s alleged attempt to smuggle drugs, the town of Talavera caught the tuko (gecko) frenzy that hit the countrysides in 2011. Prized for their supposed curative qualities against cancer and HIV, geckos were being smuggled illegally outside the country. Hoping to cash in on the fad, many started catching geckos and selling them for P500 each.
Sergio convinced the Lacanilao patriarch that she had found a buyer of geckos. The bigger the gecko, the higher the price it supposedly fetches in the market. In his effort to cash in, the elder Lacanilao scoured the entire barangay for geckos.
The elder Lacanilao also went to Sergio’s hometown in Nabua town in Camarines Sur to look for geckos. There, he met Sergio’s children and husband. For some reason, Sergio did not introduce the elder Lacanilao as the father of her live-in partner. He said he respected Sergio’s decision.
However, it backfired. Sergio’s husband thought that the old man was Sergio’s lover. “I had to explain to the husband that I have no desire for his wife. That I was only there to look for livelihood,” the elder Lacanilao recalled telling the husband.
Whether Sergio finally told the truth to her husband, only she knows. “The thing is, her children know about her affair with my son,” the elder Lacanilao said. In fact, two of Sergio’s children stayed with them for some time in Talavera.
One time, Sergio asked a female neighbor if she could use their desktop. “She said she wanted to use the Internet for her business,” the neighbor said.
But after using the desktop, Sergio forgot to switch off the machine. The neighbor, out of curiosity, wanted to find out what Sergio was up to and clicked on the "history" tab. It showed online sites that she had visited.
The neighbor learned that Sergio was searching for information about geckos. And one of the sites Sergio looked up was a web reference on geckos being used as a creative way of smuggling drugs.
The neighbor did not give much thought to what she found out. “It only dawned on me that she could actually be involved in illegal drugs after Veloso’s case was reported in the news,” the neighbor said. The neighbor later informed the NBI about that incident.
Frequent Internet user
Is it possible that the Lacanilao couple did not know about Sergio’s alleged links to an international drug syndicate?
The Lacanilao patriarch said that apart from leaving from time to time, usually disappearing for a week, there was nothing suspicious in Sergio’s activities. “She’d say she was in Manila.” Sometimes, while in Talavera, Sergio would excuse herself, saying she needed to go to an Internet shop.
Photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler
The neighbors, too, found nothing unusual with Sergio’s activities to link her to a drug syndicate. However, just before Veloso’s case became national news, she apparently had resumed her recruitment activities. “We’d see young women dropping by the Lacanilao house asking for Sergio,” neighbors said.
Even if rumors finally spread around the barangay that Veloso was in jail for drug trafficking, Sergio acted as if she had no participation in it. She’d be seen in social gatherings or going around town with her lover Julius.
Barangay captain Jimmy Dumaguit said there were no reports that Sergio and Julius Lacanilao could be involved in a drug ring. What he knew is that the two had travelled together abroad based on their conversations.
Just last month, in one event where some exotic food was served, Sergio was overheard telling her lover, ”Dad, parang ito yung kinain nating exotic food nung nag-tour tayo.” (Dad, this looks like the same exotic food we had during our tour.)
But one can only pretend to be normal for so long. Paranoia could get the better of you.
One time, the Lacanilaos were having a party in their compound when Julius, microphone in hand, cursed the residents of barangay Talavera. Apparently, his live-in partner complained that she fell off the motorcycle after someone placed a kite’s string across the road.
“Meron daw gustong pumatay sa kanya,” Mark Candelaria, Veloso’s nephew, said. (She said somebody wanted to kill her.)
Hearing the invectives being hurled by Julius, the people of barangay Esguerra confronted the couple. “Kung gusto namin patayin, dapat noon pa,” they told the couple. (If we wanted to kill her, we could have done that long ago.)
At the barangay station, the neighbors said Sergio displayed her acting skills.
“Parang yung na-interview siya sa TV na paiyak-iyak. Pa-Ingles-Ingles pa siya na alam niya karapatan niya.” (She was crying, just like during that TV interview. She spoke in English, saying she knew her rights.) The neighbors were referring to a TV interview where she denied having a hand in Veloso’s arrest.
A day before she turned herself in to authorities, Sergio told the Lacanilaos she was only going to an Internet shop. She never returned.
The day after, she called Mrs Lacanilao asking for some fresh clothes to be brought to the PNP regional office in Cabanatuan. As Mrs Lacanilao prepared Sergio’s clothes, she broke down in tears.
“Naiyak ako kasi nakita ko pati underwear niya gutay-gutay. Yan ba ang involved sa drug syndicate?” she asked. (I cried when i saw her worn-out underwear. Is that someone involved in a drug syndicate?)
As for their son Julius, the Lacanilao couple said his only fault was that he loved a woman so much he was willing to be with her even in jail.
“Kasalanan lang ng anak ko eh magmahal nang sobra,” the couple stressed. (Our son’s only fault is that he loved someone to a fault.) And the object of his affection was none other than Cristina Sergio, the woman who allegedly put Mary Jane Veloso in harm's way. – Rappler.com
Michael Bueza is a researcher and data curator under Rappler's Research Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.