human rights in the Philippines

Endemic disappearances cloud hope for 11 latest desaparecidos under Marcos Jr.

Jairo Bolledo

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Endemic disappearances cloud hope for 11 latest desaparecidos under Marcos Jr.

DESAPARECIDO. Union leader Armando Portajada was abducted in 1987. Thirty-six years later, he has yet to be found by his loved ones.

Jairo Bolledo/Rappler

'For now, I think that the institutions of government are useless in defending victims of human rights violations, hindi lang enforced disappearance,' Edita, mother of missing activist Jonas Burgos, says

MANILA, Philippines – On All Souls’ Day on November 2, Nicole Ortiz brought flowers and candles to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City, not for the dead, but for someone she prays and wishes is still very much alive: her brother Norman, the latest recorded in a long list of desaparecidos in the Philippines.

The Philippines is a country where people go missing – 1,911 to be exact from 1986 to the present, according to data from rights group Karapatan. The period marks the end of the Marcos dictatorship to current presidency of his son, Marcos Jr.

Nicole is new to this – on Wednesday in Bantayog, she sat and listened to the other families of desaparecidos, nodding and clapping at various moments, and crying in some. Her brother Norman is just 25 years old, a hardworking farmer, she said, in their hometown of Nueva Ecija.

The last time they heard from Norman was on September 28 when he told his family he would visit his cousin in Barangay Bantug, Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija. Norman told Nicole he would text her once they leave the area.

Nicole told Rappler that they grew wary when they did not receive any message from Norman on September 29. This pushed them to ask for help and visit the place where her brother was last seen.

A few days later, on October 2, they visited Barangay Bantug, where they were told by some witnesses that individuals were abducted at around 1 am, September 29, by more or less 10 individuals allegedly clad in military uniforms. Vehicles were not usual in the place and the presence of the abductors triggered the unusual loud barking of dogs, alerting the townspeople.

Nicole told Rappler that there was no clear reason why her brother was abducted. Norman is not involved in anything except for farming, she said, which is their family’s source of livelihood. Karapatan said Norman was abducted along with Lee Sudario, who was alleged to be a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), a group designated as terrorists under the disputed Anti-Terrorism Law, a pet law of former president Rodrigo Duterte.

Nicole told Rappler that since 2020, their family has experienced intimidation from the military. She said members of the armed forces frequently visited their residence asking for Norman’s whereabouts.

After her brother disappeared, Nicole said they tried looking for Norman in several military camps but to no avail. They have yet to locate Norman and the police have yet to give an update on his case, Nicole added.

Nanawagan po ako sa estado na ilitaw po ‘yong kuya namin, kasama po ni Lee at ng iba pong nawala. Kung meron man po silang kasalanang nagawa, meron naman pong batas, tapos may legal na paraan naman po para do’n. Ilitaw lang po sila nang buhay at ligtas,” Nicole said.

(I am calling on the state to surface my brother, along with Lee and other desaparecidos. If ever they did something wrong, we have our laws, and there are legal ways to sanction them. Surface them alive and safe.)

Persisting disappearances
Clothing, T-Shirt, Photography
CONSOLE. Ligaya Portajada’s grandchild hugs and comforts her after she became emotional recalling her abducted husband’s case on November 2, 2023, at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Photo by Jairo Bolledo/Rappler

If Nicole is new, Ligaya Portajada is an old-timer. Her husband Armando has been missing for 36 years, last seen on July 31, 1987, when he went out of their house to buy formula milk for their youngest child, who was only six months old then. Ligaya recalled that her husband was in a rush that day, so Armando just pushed the carton inside their house and immediately left.

That would be Ligaya’s last memory of her husband.

At 1 pm that day, Ligaya was told her husband was abducted in Makati in broad daylight. The abductors used two vehicles with sirens, and the men in the second car had long firearms. Ligaya told Rappler her husband was the union president of Coca-Cola Bottlers of the Philippines at the time, and was set to lead a rally to protest against contractualization.

Ligaya was left with their five children. To survive, she accepted laundry work and became a scavenger. Aside from economic struggle, Ligaya and her children were also concerned about their safety at the time.

Naku, parang maloloka ako noon. No’ng mga unang-unang araw, isang linggo, isang buwan, para akong loka-loka. Biro mo, may threat pa kami. Sa gabi, pagtulog namin, lumilipat kami sa ibang bahay. ‘Di kami natutulog doon sa amin kasi may threat,” Ligaya told Rappler. (I thought I was going insane. In the first few days, weeks, months, it was like I was losing my mind. Imagine, we received threats. At night, when we slept, we would transfer from house to house. We didn’t sleep in our own house because of the threats.)

Ligaya sought the Commission on Human Rights’ help for her missing husband, but to no avail. She said her husband’s case did not progress and ended up being forgotten. Ligaya did not try reviving her husband’s case, but instead joined causes to help people like Nicole.

She and her children somewhat survived life, straight into the path of advocacy. Ligaya is an active member of Desaparecidos, while her eldest child also serves with Karapatan.

Sa totoo lang, sinasabi ko, mas mabuti pang patay eh, na nakita namin ‘yong bangkay, na nailibing na namin at alam na naming nandoroon siya. Hindi katulad ngayon, hindi namin alam kung patay o buhay, kung saan namin aalalahanin,” Ligaya said. (In truth, I’ve been saying that death is somewhat a better option, that we saw the dead body and buried it, because we would know he’s lying there. Unlike now, we don’t know if my husband is dead or alive, or where we would visit him.)

[Hindi] katulad ng mga namatayan na may sementeryo at puntod silang pupuntahan at aalalahin, kami wala, hindi namin alam (Unlike those who had loved ones who passed away, and have cemeteries and graves to visit, families of desaparecidos have nothing because we don’t know).”

A country where they disappear

In the one year and three months of Marcos, a total of 11 Filipinos have disappeared. That’s as of November 2023.

Ligaya, who has spent three decades longing for her husband, doesn’t believe that the government or the available remedies have helped them in her fight.

There is a law signed to hasten the resolution of desaparecido cases. Republic Act No. 10353 or the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act, signed in 2012 by the late former president Benigno Aquino III, made the crime of carrying out an enforced disappearance punishable by life imprisonment.

The law was authored by Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman, whose brother Hermon disappeared during the Marcos dictatorship. The law states that enforced disappearance (ED) is committed when the “perpetrators are state agents or working with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of the state,” among others. 

The anti-desaparecido law was praised for being comprehensive and being the first of its kind in the entire Asian continent. Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances co-chairperson Nilda Sevilla told Rappler in 2022 that the law is vital because it “does not only provide for penal, civil, or administrative sanction, it also provides for preventive measures, guaranteeing prosecution and also reparations for victims and families of victims.”

But 11 years since its passage, the law has yet to be fully implemented and reach its full potential. So far, no person has been sanctioned with life imprisonment, which is the law’s maximum punishment. 


No Philippine president since the dictator Marcos has been able to solve this endemic problem. Corazon Aquino’s administration had the most desaparecidos at 821, followed by the elder Marcos with 759, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo with 206, according to Kaparatan’s tally. Their caveat is that their data includes documented disappearances only.

Edita Burgos, mother of missing activist Jonas, and also a Desaparecido board member, said that cases involving desaparecidos hardly progress. Other remedies like protective writs – writs of amparo (protective order) and habeas corpus (against unlawful detention) – seem to not be as effective, she said.

Burgos said even though they were granted the writs of amparo for her protection and habeas corpus, which compelled the military to surface Jonas, her son remains missing. She said the military did not comply with the order, and more than a decade since they secured these legal victories, they have yet to receive a significant update on Jonas’ case.

“Even if you win your cases like you’re given the writ of amparo, unless the institutions cooperate, it is useless,” Burgos told Rappler. “…Even after the Supreme Court declared that ED victim si Jonas, wala naman nangyari (that Jonas is an ED victim, nothing happened).”

Moving forward, Burgos believes that to genuinely help the victims of enforced disappearances, the anti-desaparecido law should be fully implemented. She also believes that the establishment of a truth commission – like the one in Argentina – would help families.

After Argentina experienced authoritarian rule between the 1970s and 1980s, the country established a truth commission that housed all relevant information about victims of human rights abuses, including the names of the torturers and killers. The South American country’s truth commission was able to prosecute hundreds of suspects. (READ: Learning from Argentina: Remembering the victims of Martial Law)

On top of these, political will of Philippine leaders and care for human rights are needed to ensure that the people’s basic rights are being protected, Burgos added.

“For now, I think that the institutions of government are useless in defending victims of human rights violations, hindi lang (not only) enforced disappearance. And I think [unless] the top officials of the country have this political will to really respect human rights, I think nothing will happen to our country.” –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.