Roel Degamo

Negros Oriental killings: Janice Degamo paves her own path to justice

Ryan Macasero

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Negros Oriental killings: Janice Degamo paves her own path to justice

INTERVIEW. Reporters speak with Pamplona Mayor Janice Degamo in Siaton Town, Negros Oriental last March 16, 2023.

Francis Pabiana/Rappler

Janice Degamo, the mayor of Pamplona, Negros Oriental, leads the call to stop the killings in her province, while seeking justice for the assassination of her husband Roel Degamo

MANILA, Philippines – For almost 27 years, Janice Degamo always stood a step behind her husband, the late Negros Oriental governor Roel Degamo.

But today, Janice, the third-term mayor of Pamplona, Negros Oriental, stands at the forefront. 

Since the governor was assassinated in a broad daylight attack on March 4, the once quiet small-town mayor and former teacher was suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

Her distinct husky voice could be heard on the radio, on television, and on live streams almost daily since the assassination until Holy Week.

“Everything now is on my plate,” Janice said during a Rappler Talk interview last March 29.

Negros Oriental killings: Janice Degamo paves her own path to justice

After her husband’s killing, Janice was busy organizing and entertaining guests at the wake, funeral, and coordinating with authorities on the investigation into her husband’s death. Janice also had to take over managing the family’s fishing business alone, on top of her duties as mayor of Pamplona, the mountainside town where she is from, and where the governor was murdered.

“The marketing of the business, paying the bills, taking care of the problems of my constituents and making sure the people my husband was helping aren’t neglected, that’s all on me now,” Janice, a Silliman University mass communications graduate, told Rappler.   

And while Janice may be part of the handful of families with power and influence in the province, she knows she cannot just expect the same system that failed to protect her husband in the first place to deliver justice without her participation.

Bilang kanyang maybahay at asawa, rest assured, di talaga ako mag-stop hanapin the justice that the governor deserves (As his partner and wife, rest assured, I will not stop seeking justice that the governor deserves),” Janice said.

FAREWELL. Family and supporters attend the burial of slain Negros Oriental governor Roel Degamo at Siaton Town on March 16, 2023.

Rest assured malalapitan ‘nyo na ako at willing ako makinig in our fight for justice (Rest assured, you can approach me for help, and I am willing to listen in our fight for justice,” she said, addressing her constituents and residents of Negros Oriental province.  

‘Hindi ako nawalan ng pag-asa’

Janice, who has one adopted child with the late governor, does not deny her grief. But she is able to keep moving forward because she is clear in her purpose. 

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Hindi ako nawawalan ng pag-asa, dahil alam ko ‘yung priorities ko sa buhay (I haven’t lost hope, because I know my priorities in life),” Janice told reporters moments after her husband was buried in Siaton town.

And beyond seeking justice for the eight killed that day, Janice is using her newfound platform to raise more awareness about the long-running problem of the dozens of unsolved killings in Negros Oriental. 

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On March 24, Degamo’s legacy Facebook page posted a graphic of 24 people who were killed in Negros Oriental.

While many of the names on the graphic were barangay and municipal politicians, it also included three radio journalists, three activists, and two “land grabbing victims.”  

That number is likely to be much higher. According to human rights group Karapatan, at least seven people have been killed from July to December 2022 in Negros Oriental after Ferdinand Marcos Jr. began his term as president.

Calling for Senate investigation

From 2016 to 2022 under the Duterte administration, Karapatan counted at least 74 extrajudicial killings in Negros Oriental.

Janice is calling for a Senate inquiry into all of them.

Negros Oriental killings: Janice Degamo paves her own path to justice

Speaking to the media during the governor’s burial on March 16, Janice said that the root of the majority of the killings in Negros Oriental is land issues.

Amin talagang hinihiling na (We are asking that) if there will be a Senate hearing, and I hope it will be very soon, please call all the others [victims]…. I think [the] DENR should be investigated as well,” Janice said.

“DAR
(Department of Agrarian Reform), titingnan nang mabuti kasi marami sa mga patayan sa Negros ang cause ‘yung lupa. It has been the cause of so many killings in the province. I know kasi pumupunta ‘yung asawa ko na biktima, kaya alam ko ‘yan…. Namatay ‘yung abogado, napatay ‘yung human rights…pero ano’ng nangyari? Meron ba? Wala naman eh,” she added.

(DAR, look at everything carefully because there are many killings in Negros because of land. It has been the cause of so many killings in the province. I know because my husband has been working with the victims. A lawyer has died, a human rights worker, what happened? Anything? No, nothing.)

Human rights workers, church workers, police officers, politicians, lawyers, and even doctors, have been killed in Negros Oriental over the past several years.

Janice knows that by speaking out, she could be next. 

In almost every media interview, she calls out Degamo’s political foe, Congressman Arnie Teves, as the main mastermind.

She also names other police or ex-military personalities, whom she believes are involved in the killing.

Teves, who has been the main focus of the joint task force investigation into the slaying, has denied involvement in the Pamplona massacre. Teves said he has nothing to gain by killing the governor.

Janice told Rappler on March 29 that while the fear is there, she won’t let it stop her from naming names. 

“’Yung fear will always be there. Kasi ano tayo, tao lang tayo. Ayoko talaga ‘yung fear ang lalamon sa amin dahil lang takot kami mamatay (the fear will always be there. Because we are only human. But I don’t want fear to prevail just because we are afraid to die),” she said. 

‘Waking up’ a community

“We owe it to our community na talagang gisingin at paalala ulit sa mga tao na we have to be vigilant kung sino pinipili natin (We owe it to our community to wake them up, and remind the people we have to be vigilant with whom we choose),” Janice said. 

It appears that the community, who has lived with violence in a climate of fear their entire lives, is starting to get the message. 

In the days following the Pamplona massacre, Janice and her allies would often say, “If it could happen to a governor, it can happen to anyone.”

Whether or not she intended to, the Pamplona mayor has become the voice that galvanized a community to speak out against the never-ending killings in their province.

“Karon nga nakita namo nga nagkagrabe na jud ang patay diri sa amoa, di na mamahimo nga muhilom pa mi (Now that we see killings are getting worse, we can’t keep staying quiet),” Joan, not her real name, told Rappler at the wake of Degamo last March 15.

Her brother was gunned down in Santa Catalina town recently. She said the reason was that a “big politician” allegedly threatened him off his land.

Joan went to the wake of Degamo because she said she understood how difficult it is to lose a loved one to violence.

Kahibalo mi sa kalisod mawad-an og paryente. Kami ang manguna mismo sa pagtawag og hustisya. Mao unta ang gobyerno maminaw namo,” she added. (We know how hard it is to lose a loved one. We will be the first to call for justice. We hope that the government will listen to us.)

Janice, who identifies as a Christian, said forgiveness is not out of the question, but insists that justice should “happen on earth.”

“While God promises us justice in the heavens, it is only but right to see justice happen on earth. Kadtong masilotan gyud ang nakasala (those who have erred must be punished). It’s not that we don’t forgive, but it will be given at a time when punishment is given to whom it is due,” she said.

Kung dili mahatagan si governor og justice, sa ato pa, mabutang gyud sa huna-huna sa mga daotan nga they can do anything to anyone and get away with it ra diay (If the governor is not given justice, it will put in the minds of the evil people that they can do anything to anyone and get away with it),” the mayor added. – Rappler.com

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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at ryan.macasero@rappler.com