human rights in the Philippines

Play the psy-war game: Young activists try to crack the case of disappearances

Lian Buan

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Play the psy-war game: Young activists try to crack the case of disappearances

FREE. Environmental activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro arrive at the Department of Justice on November 7, 2023, to submit their counter-affidavit in relation to perjury charges filed against them by the Department of National Defense.

Rappler

The two cases that can change the game in endemic disappearances have one thing in common: victims used effective psy-war tactics

Second of 2 parts
Part 1: In pattern of ‘fake surrenders,’ 1 case links abduction to military intel service

MANILA, Philippines – Jonila Castro was prepared for death when she and fellow environmental defender Jhed Tamano were abducted in Bataan on September 2, 2023.

“Pinaghandaan ko naman na ‘to dati. Expected naman ‘to, ginagawa naman talaga ‘to sa aktibista (I have been preparing for this since before. This is expected, this is really what they do to activists),” Jonila, 23 years old, told Rappler.

She and Jhed both studied at the Bulacan State University, but only met when they became activists full-time and were assigned to monitor a reclamation project in Bataan.

Rain was pouring all day on September 2, so they left their apartment only when the rain stopped, around 7 pm. The streets were unusually empty, Jonila said, and then it happened so fast. She turned around, was shoved into a van with Jhed, and then thought to herself, “Yun na ‘yung worst case scenario (This is it, it’s the worst case scenario).”

When Jhed and Jonila were abducted in September, Cebu-based activists Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dayoha were in the thick of pursuing the perpetrators of their abduction in January of the same year. In September, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) had already been sending subpoenas to the armed forces in what could be a game-changing investigation where the abduction links back to the military’s intelligence service.

By this time, Armand and Dyan, and Jhed and Jonila, were already the 13th and 14th cases of so-called “fake surrenders,” where activists are abducted and forced into executing an affidavit to denounce their affiliations, and declare themselves as “returnees” joining the fold of civil government.

It’s curious that even after Armand and Dyan blew the cover of their captors after their release, and given an ongoing CHR investigation, Jhed and Jonila were still abducted. And they survived.

‘It’s a psy-war’

“Psychological war talaga (it’s really a psychological war),” said Jonila.

Jonila and Jhed played along with their captors long enough to gain their trust to present them to the public as returnees. They had a gutsy plan, to announce in the press conference that they were not surrendering, and that in fact, were being held captive by the military.

Jhed and Jonila did just that in a press conference with major television networks on September 19, where Jonila went off-script stunning the officials on the panel with her.

Play the psy-war game: Young activists try to crack the case of disappearances

Jonila said what worked for them was that they knew how to mislead their captors. The trick was to say some hints of truth with the lies. While Jhed and Jonila were dropping crumbs of their willingness to surrender, they always tried to negotiate not naming or even badmouthing fellow activists. This, Jonila said, preserved their activist persona so their captors would not suspect they were lying.

Their captors’ biggest psychological weapon, at least to Jonila, was Jhed, a shy and meek 22-year-old, and very new to organizing. “Sumali lang ako [sa activism] after the 2022 elections, dun ko nakita na kailangan meron akong gawin sa labas ng eleksyon (I only joined activism after the 2022 elections, that’s when I knew that I needed to do something outside of the elections),” said Jhed.

The 2022 elections saw Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the dictator, overwhelmingly win the presidency, alongside Sara Duterte, the daughter of the strongman and former president Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s crackdown on the Left during his time saw a jump in numbers of charged, detained, and killed activists.

Ang pinang-guilty sa ’kin noon si Jhed, na hawak ko na ang buhay niya (They used Jhed to me feel guilty, that her life was in my hands),” said Jonila.

‘She made a mistake’

The 14 cases of fake surrenders since 2018 do not include Cebu-based development worker Elena Tijamo, abducted in Bantayan Island on June 13, 2020, and discovered to be dead on September 1, 2021. In more than a year of disappearance, Tijamo managed to make phone calls. Her organization Farmers Development Center-Central Visayas (FARDEC) told Rappler they cannot recall a case was ever initiated.

Dyan said one of her captors was a woman who always wore a face mask. The woman talked in soft tones, Dyan said, balancing the aggressiveness of the male captors in convincing her to give in to the demand to execute a surrender affidavit. She would tell Dyan, “Just cooperate, our boss is very kind.” Dyan asked her if they also abducted Tijamo. The woman nodded, Dyan said. “Why didn’t you return her if you’re kind?” Dyan asked.

“She made a mistake,” the woman said.

Thinking about it now, Dyan said the mistake could have been the phone calls. Tijamo exposed too much emotion, or gave away too much information. Dyan and Armand resisted communicating with their families and friends – they wanted them to think they were missing to sustain a surface campaign.

Jonila said perhaps her best strategy was that she remained the way she was: spunky and stubborn. They were able to communicate because Jhed always made an excuse to use Jonila’s bathroom, they’d play sudoku, and use the paper to write messages to each other. When their captors entered the room to watch them, Jonila would tease: “Pinapaparinggan ko ng, ‘Grabe naman, binabantayan ‘nyo pa kami.'” (I would make snide remarks that it was too much to have to watch us closely in that situation),” Jonila said.

Jhed and Jonila were able to speak to Lieutenant Colonel Ronnel dela Cruz, the battalion commander of the 70th Infantry Batallion (IB) of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, on September 12, 2023.

In Dela Cruz’s version, the two had already surrendered to them by that time and he met them only to facilitate the surrender. While Jhed and Jonila also only met Dela Cruz on September 12, they said they saw markings of the 70th IB in the place where they were held captive. The security forces have repeatedly denied Jhed and Jonila’s accusations.

In Jonila’s version, she endeared herself to Dela Cruz when she egged him on to organize a big press conference “to disseminate the truth faster.” The plan, as it turned out, was to turn the tables on them in a sensational manner.

Naiisip ko talaga, hindi na kami makakalabas, hindi na kami ilalabas katulad nung mga nangyari na sa mga nauna (I was really thinking we wouldn’t ever get out, they would not show us to the public like what happened to others),” said Jhed.

Trust in the justice system

Like Jhed and Jonila, Dyan and Armand also came face-to-face with their captors. Dyan remembers four faces. Armand, an artist, had been sketching them. If the CHR investigation prospers, Dyan and Armand only need to see their captors again to identify them.

But Dyan concedes,“Matagal ‘to, mahirap ‘to (This will take long, it will be hard).” Alfred Balajola, their CHR investigator, said the same: “Posible talaga mapatagal ‘to, kasi may mga resources din itong suspect natin.” (It is really possible that this would take long, because the suspects have resources.)

The lukewarm outlook reflects a reality for activists when it comes to holding the state accountable, and in this specific pattern, the weakness of the decade-old Anti-Enforced Disappearance or “Desap” Law.

“It’s really because there has been no precedent that the Desap Law has been used, and which resulted into something concrete,” said Edre Olalia, the chairperson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers.

Jhed and Jonila have filed a petition for a writ of amparo before the Supreme Court, naming Dela Cruz as among their respondents. If granted, the court can give a protection order, or a form of a restraining order, against the respondents. Dela Cruz has filed a perjury complaint against the two, with a preliminary investigation ongoing at the Department of Justice (DOJ).

“Alam naman natin historically speaking, mahirap sila mapanagot. Pero siyempre, gagawa at gagawa pa rin tayo ng paraan (it’s hard to hold state agents accountable. But of course, we will always find a way),” said Jonila.

Among the 14 incidents of abduction with fake surrender was Alexandra Pacalda, taken September 2019, and who later alleged that her affidavit of surrender was forced upon her through “mental torture.” She filed for a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to question why the military held her in custody without a charge, but the Court of Appeals denied her plea, saying that the eventual charge against her for illegal possession of firearms and explosives rendered the request moot.

This frustrated activists at the time because it added to the successive losses in amparo and habeas corpus petitions, raising questions on whether the writs – extraordinary by nature, and created specifically to address human rights abuses – had become useless. (Habeas corpus will have an effect of freeing somebody who is detained).

In late 2020, in a rare statement to address the surge in lawyer killings, the Supreme Court promised to review the efficiency and strength of the writs.

“We confirm that our review of the writs of amparo, habeas data, and habeas corpus will have initial but indicative results by first quarter of 2024. However, so as not to prejudice the objectivity of the studies, the Court has opted not to release any preliminary observations,” Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, chairperson of the human rights committee, told Rappler in a statement sent through the Court’s Public Information Office (PIO) on December 21, 2023.

Dyan said she and Armand have tempered their expectations. If someone falls in this case, “for sure it would be low-ranking, someone they can let go,” she said.

“Tingin ko, hindi lang sa kaso naming dalawa, but kailangan ng mas malaking movement and clamor from the people para mas i-punish kung sino ‘yong mga really behind these attacks,” said Dyan.

(I think that beyond our case, there is a need for a bigger movement and clamor from the people to punish who were really behind these attacks.)

Jhed is reluctant to be the face of activism in these times. “It’s overwhelming sometimes,” she said, “[pero] nakikita ko ‘yung pangangailangan na magsalita, kasi importante siyang marinig ng tao.

(But I see the need to speak, because it’s important that people hear it.” – Rappler.com

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  1. ET

    Because of the “psy-war” done by the activists, the AFP would now think twice about conducting “fake surrenders.” They will have to improve their act before doing so. It will also be helpful if Rappler can determine if the activism of both Jehd and Jonila endangers any commercial interests. If this is so, then their case may be analogous or related to the anti-“war profiteering” advocacy of former US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.