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The list had six names.
The first man died past 3 in the afternoon. Police found his corpse sitting propped on a plastic stool. He had been shot in the face.
The second man was driving past a cement plant when bullets smashed into his windshield. He was declared dead in the hospital.
The third man was killed inside a van on the road to Cebu City. His wife survived with a gunshot wound on her arm. Investigators recovered 73 bullet shells from the scene.
The fourth fled to a town 339 kilometers away. The killers found him anyway. They shot him dead an hour past dawn.
The four men were hardly the only people to be murdered in Cebu province in the first quarter of 2019, but they were bound together by certain undisputed facts. All four were incumbent government officials running for public office in the municipality of San Fernando. All four had been ambushed, one after another, in a six-week period beginning ten days into the new year. All of them were part of a list that accused them of involvement in the illegal drug trade.
One of the dead men spoke of the list before he was shot. The highest official who was named, the mayor, survived the ambush that killed her husband. The last person was described “missing” in a newspaper article.
The list of six was not official. They were names enumerated in a series of comments posted on a Facebook thread.
They were followed by a threat.
“Please do not try me in San Fernando, because I will kill you, period.”
‘The bullets should stop them’
The second-class municipality of San Fernando, population 63,000, sits just south of Cebu City.
The town went quiet in the weeks after the murders. While the municipality had never been a place for late-night carousing, the teenagers who used to spend nights practicing hip-hop across the municipal hall had disappeared. Three tricycles were all that were left of the entire row that once parked nightly waiting for commuters. A 7-11 store remained open, along with a 24-hour bakery and Angel’s Burger, but very few of the residents were willing to venture out after sunset.
Those who insisted only drug dealers were killed still kept their sons away from the streets – “Better to be safe,” said a father of three young men. Many of the residents were firm believers that dealers and addicts deserved what they got. San Fernando is where a dead drug suspect’s uncle will shrug at the killing of his nephew – “It’s okay with us, if only they paid for the burial.”
It is also where the local parish priest will say, on the record, that if drug lords cannot be stopped, “I think the bullets should stop them.”
San Fernando’s dead candidates joined the long list of elected government officials across the country who were shot and killed after the declaration of President Rodrigo Duterte’s crusade against illegal drugs. It was, as the government said, a country at war. The order of battle included suspected addicts, dealers, human rights activists, judges, cops, and politicians who supported, protected, or were involved in the business of illegal narcotics.
Early in the war, mayors were bused to the Palace to speak to the President. His message was repent, resign, or die. Months after he told the public to “kill them all,” the President read out a list of several dozen public servants he accused of involvement in the narcotics trade.
Politicians were killed, one by one. Some of the dead were on the President’s list, others had been linked publicly to illegal drugs. In the town of Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao, the mayor and nine of his men were killed in what was reported to be a police shoot-out. The mayor of Ozamiz City in Misamis Occidental was shot dead in an encounter that also killed his wife, his brother, his sister, and eleven others.
The mayor of Ronda, a municipality in Cebu, was murdered as he slept inside his office in the town hall, just seven months after his vice mayor was ambushed by unidentified gunmen. The mayor of Albuera was placed in police custody after allegedly being found with high-powered firearms and 11 kilos of crystal meth. He was killed inside his jail cell by cops who said they shot him in self-defense.
In Tanauan City, an unknown sniper’s bullet found the 72-year-old mayor, as he stood singing the national anthem just outside the city hall. He too had been called a narco politician, and was stripped of police protection.
The President’s former spokesman dismissed the possibility that the President’s threats could have encouraged assassinations.
It was election season, Harry Roque said. People would have died anyway.
San Fernando Mayor Lakambini “Neneth” Reluya was not included in the President’s public narco list. Only a single official from her municipality had been named.
In 2016, President Duterte named Fralz Sabalones a narco politician. He described the San Fernando vice mayor as a man who “ran for mayor but actually maybe lost.”
Fralz Sabalones immediately filed a blotter report at the local police station, claiming his inclusion in the list was “just a classic example of mistaken identity.”
“The honorable president Rodrigo Roa Duterte may have been referring to his brother Franz Sabalones, his brother who is rumored to have been involved in the drug trade,” police wrote in the blotter report. It ended with a clarification. “But the truth of the matter is his name is ‘Fralz’ with an ‘L’ and not ‘Franz’ with an ‘N.'”
Most everyone in San Fernando knew about Franz Sabalones, the vice mayor’s older brother, who went to Manila in August 2016 to surrender and confess his crimes on national television.
“I just want to change,” Franz Sabalones told the media.
The national police chief called Franz “the Number 2 Drug Lord in Central Visayas.” In a span of 12 years, according to court records, Franz, a former traffic enforcer, had accumulated an estimated P350 million worth of assets.
Police officials said Franz had given them “very good” leads, “so much information” that police investigators “were nearly overwhelmed.” One cop described him as “the best” source among the drug personalities who had turned up at the national headquarters.
Franz was eventually released from police custody “after discreetly giving authorities vital details on how his drug group works.” He left behind a matrix of public servants whom he claimed were involved in his drug syndicate. Several municipal councilors were raided in the aftermath.
President Duterte had long declared Cebu and the Visayas a hot spot for illegal drugs. Data from the Philippine National Police (PNP) lists Central Visayas as the region with the fourth highest number of operations conducted in 2018. The office of the Cebu Police Provincial Director said that since the beginning of the drug war, over 48,000 people have surrendered to Cebu authorities, with more than 8,000 arrested and 130 dead in police operations.
San Fernando’s numbers, as of February 2019, count 569 surrendered and 270 arrested.
Those numbers did not include the Number 2 drug lord of Central Visayas.
“We are still trying to find out [Franz’s] location so that we can send a letter to invite him,” Cebu Police Provincial Director Manuel Abrugena told Rappler in an interview in his office on February 5.
“At the moment, we don’t have a case against him,” the police director said, “so the only thing we can do is shed light on why his name is being mentioned. When we arrest drug personalities, especially those we get kilos [of drugs] from, during the conduct of debriefing, they always mention his name – that they belong to the Sabalones drug group.”
At various times from 2016 to early 2019, police tagged four San Fernando officials for their alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade, naming municipal candidates Johnny Arriesgado, Edwin Villaver, Alfonso Donaire IV, and Reneboy Dacalos.
Donaire “strongly denied” drug allegations when he was arrested in 2017, as did Villaver and Arriesgado. Donaire and Arriesgado admitted to owning firearms seized during police searches. Both accused their rivals of arranging their arrests.
Member of a syndicate?
On January 10, 2019, Reneboy Dacalos, considered by police a high-value target, was murdered by unidentified gunmen as he sat outside his brother-in-law’s store in the village of South Poblacion. His wife said he had received no threats to his life. Authorities said he belonged to the Sabalones syndicate.
Police claimed they tried to convince Dacalos to surrender, but said the councilor told them he would consult with his lawyers.
Six days after Dacalos’ murder, armed men shot through the front window of a multicab as it was being driven by Magsico village captain Johnny Arriesgado, himself a former ex-officio municipal councilor.
In the aftermath, Barangay Captain Ricardo “Nonoy” Reluya Jr – husband to the mayor, candidate for vice mayor, village chairman and ex-officio municipal councilor as head of the Association of Barangay Captains (ABC) – told the media about death threats posted online. It named him and the mayor as drug protectors. Four others – Dacalos, Arriesgado, Donaire and Villaver – were described as “involved in drug-related cases.”
According to Sunstar, Nonoy had shown screenshots of comments allegedly posted by Mayor Reluya’s rival, a local businessman named Ruben Feliciano. Nonoy said Feliciano warned the couple to “retreat or die.”
The same comments were accessed by Rappler from a source inside the municipal office. Reluya’s son, city administrator Ricci Regens Reluya, confirmed they were the same threats that worried his father.
“He also said, ‘I will kill you all,’” Nonoy Reluya told Sunstar. “I did not make these up because Feliciano posted these on social media.”
Less than a week later, Nonoy Reluya was dead.
‘Where is Sir?’
On January 22, 2019, the assistant municipal treasurer of the municipality of San Fernando sat in his office filing remittances.
Departmental meetings had ended. The Reluya couple had just left for home. Edsel Laguda had been working less than an hour when he received word a van had just been ambushed on the road to Cebu City.
He called the mayor. There was no answer.
“We were still hoping it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t them,” he said.
Laguda was the last department head still in the municipal hall. People crowded past the glass doors, asking what happened, if the mayor was safe, who had died – was it the right van?
“They could see from our faces that we were really worried. I had to be strong,” he told Rappler. “I had to comfort them, to provide them some idea, because at that moment I didn’t really know what happened.”
There was screaming in the office. People were shouting, crying, demanding why. He told everyone to calm down. He said they had to wait. He kept repeating the same words. We have to wait. We have to wait for word.
Someone posted the plate number on Facebook. It was the mayor’s vehicle. The media reports came rolling in, one of them claiming the mayor had been killed. It was only later when Laguda confirmed the mayor was alive.
“I asked, ‘Where is Sir?’ They told me, ‘Sir is gone.’”
There was confusion in the immediate aftermath as to who would serve as acting mayor, or even who was willing to speak to the public from the municipal office. The mayor was recovering in the hospital. The vice mayor, Fralz Sabalones, had been on leave for months. The city administrator, who happened to be the mayor’s son, refused to leave his mother’s side.
A number of municipal councilors were either dead, in hiding, or unwilling to appear at the emergency session to vote in the person next in line. Journalists attempted to secure statements, but later reported “no one from the municipal council was present in their offices.”
It all fell on Edsel Laguda, who was careful to say he was only the acting municipal treasurer – the previous treasurer had retired.
To understand the difficulty of this requires understanding who the Reluyas were in the life of an unassuming 44-year-old accounting major from Negros.
Laguda was the private secretary of Mayor Neneth Reluya before she was elected mayor. She and Laguda’s wife were friends. The Reluya couple were godparents to Laguda’s only child. They had vacationed together and eaten barbecue together and had laughed together long past the working day. It was Nonoy Reluya who would sometimes appear at Laguda’s office door to beg for a packet of the biscuits Laguda habitually kept in his drawers.
Laguda may have been overwhelmed by the series of incidents that made an assistant treasurer the default spokesperson of a municipal government, but he did the job. He confirmed the deaths. He spoke to reporters. He went office to office to reassure the rank and file. He explained to contractual employees that checks couldn’t be signed until the council declared an acting mayor. His office was crowded with staff because “everyone was longing for sir.”
He did not cry immediately. It wasn’t because he was strong, he said, only that he was in shock. It was only when he had to take calls from residents asking what had happened that he broke.
“That was when the tears began,” he said. He tried to smile, then shrugged. “You don’t expect it to happen, you know? After they were so alive?”
‘Finish off the victims’
This is how it happened.
At a little past four in the afternoon of January 22, the mayor’s van, a white Grandia, arrived to pick up the Reluyas in front of the municipal hall. A road-widening project had forced the driver to enter the compound from the reverse side. It meant that it was Nonoy Reluya who took the mayor’s usual seat behind the driver, the mayor beside him on the right. One bodyguard sat in front. Another sat on the back row, beside a staff member who was hitching a ride to the city.
The seating arrangement would have been irrelevant any other day, but at half-past five in the afternoon, rush hour, with storefronts bright and tricycles crossing the Nicanor Bacalso Road in Talisay City, a sedan swung beside the white Grandia and rolled down its windows.
Gunshots rang out.
The driver swerved, and the van swung drunkenly up onto the sidewalk in front of PJB Paint Center. Three of the four men inside the sedan, armed with high-powered fireams, leapt out into a road so crowded a pedestrian managed to roll video. All three men were masked, wearing bulletproof vests as they pumped bullets into the van. One of them ran to the back and shot into the rear window. Police told media it was “to finish off the victims inside.”
By the time authorities responded, the gunmen were speeding down the road to Cebu. The Grandia’s headlights were still on. Bright yellow streetlamps lit the road, with swags of bunting still hanging cheerfully over the crime scene. The right-hand side of the van, where the mayor sat, had stopped almost parallel with the paint center’s storefront. The entire left side was exposed to the road and studded with bullet holes.
Driver Allan Bayot died on the spot. Village Chairman Nonoy Reluya was found slumped against the window. Local economic investment and promotions officer Ricky Monterona was dead behind him. All three who sat on the driver’s side were killed. Both bodyguards survived.
Mayor Neneth Reluya had fallen stretched out at her husband’s feet. Media reports said Nonoy Reluya had wrapped his arms around his wife to protect her. She survived.
The Palace immediately condemned the ambush on the Reluyas, and extended their prayers for the mayor’s “speedy recovery.”
Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that the “fever pitch” of political rivalry causes spikes in election-related violence, adding that “the unfortunate and standard norm cannot continue.” He urged candidates to cease all violent acts.
“Violence is anathema to democracy,” Panelo said, “and this administration will not allow nor tolerate any violence unleashed by any person or group that puts the voters and the general public at risk.”
“We see nothing, no dots or indicators that will connect those three incidents,” Cebu Police Provincial Director Manuel Abrugena told Rappler in February 2019.
Abrugena did not consider the string of three ambushes on San Fernando political candidates particularly “abnormal.”
“[There’s] nothing to say that these are brutal crimes, or this is a very heinous crime,” he said.
They are, instead, simply “shooting incidents.”
Abrugena said it was likely that the first two councilors, Dacalos and Arriesgado, had been murdered because of an internal squabble within the Sabalones drug ring. He called Franz Sabalones “a person of interest.”
He refused to comment on the accusations made by mayoral candidate Ruben Feliciano that the Reluyas were drug protectors.
Feliciano, the man to whom the kill list had been attributed, was later cleared as a suspect.
Ruben Feliciano is a Zamboanga native who worked in Davao and moved to San Fernando intending to build an international port in the seaside village of Sangat. The 41-hectare, P12.5-billion project hit a snag in early 2018, when Mayor Neneth Reluya issued a cease-and-desist order against Feliciano’s company. The mayor said there were “unresolved complaints from the fisherfolk in the area, non-compliance of necessary requirements and some legal issues over the project.”
Feliciano, who filed a graft complaint against the Reluyas at the Office of the Ombudsman, claimed the mayor was “very corrupt.” He said it was proven by her “demand” that he sign a supplier’s contract allowing her to “corner the project” he proposed.
“He tried to bribe us,” Mayor Reluya told Rappler. “He said we accepted P10 million, P25 million. The question is, if we were bribed, and that’s not our practice, would we have filed a cease-and-desist order against him? Nonoy refused him actually. That is the truth of the matter. When he tried to give it to Nonoy, Nonoy refused.”
The story unraveled in public in the year before the ambush. There were issues of broken corporate partnerships, a protest led by a fisherman who may or may not have existed, the “malicious filing” of graft cases, a failed mediation led by the governor, a letter from President Duterte, and warring public announcements of “ineffective” environmental compliance certificates, and “purely illegal” executive orders.
“I spent here P80 million already for four years already,” said Feliciano. “They keep harassing me. They blocked the project. Mayor Lakambini Reluya knows this. They even approved the project.”
“That port he’s talking about, he had no papers, not a single paper,” Mayor Reluya told Rappler.
Feliciano said it was San Fernando’s residents who convinced him to run for office to save them from a crooked mayor. He claimed the Reluyas’ alleged involvement in the illegal drug syndicate “cannot be denied.”
“That’s public knowledge,” he said. “She is really with drug lord Sabalones.”
Mayor Neneth Reluya did not mince words in an interview with Rappler.
“He’s out of his mind,” she said.
‘I warned them’
Feliciano set his interview with Rappler at an undisclosed location in the province of Cebu. It was necessary, he said, given the many death threats against him. His enemies were “drug lords, those involved in drugs.”
Feliciano looked, according to a Facebook post written by a resident, “like every villain in every Fernando Poe Jr movie.” There was the thin moustache just over his upper lip. There was the curly mop of brilliant hair, an improbable shade whose color, depending on the light, ranges from caramel to the bright brown of chocolate milk cartons. He was unwilling to reveal on record how old he was, and was suspicious of questions that included the ages of his children – “why, do you want to analyze my age?” His eldest is 38.
Feliciano has repeatedly told media he never produced a kill list. He denied having anything to do with the ambush of the mayoral couple. Someone had hacked into his Facebook account, he told Rappler. “You know how popular hi-tech is today.”
While he said he had never threatened the Reluyas and their councilors on social media, he admitted to having threatened them in much the same fashion – in public.
“I warned them,” Feliciano said, “during my speech.”
Feliciano, by his own admission, told the public in campaign speeches that drug dealers should be killed, and named the same people on the kill list.
“I told all of them to withdraw their candidacy or die,” he said.
‘Kill them all’
Feliciano had no trouble reiterating most of the claims in the Facebook thread that he denied posting. He told Rappler that all six on the alleged kill list were drug dealers and drug protectors. He accused the mayor of being funded by Sabalones drug money. He promised, again, to kill everyone involved in the illegal drug trade.
He was, however, livid over imputations that he may have had some responsibility for the murders. Any accusation, he said, were figments of the “wild imaginations” of the mayor’s supporters.
He was, he said, only supporting the President and the President’s war on drugs.
“He wants to have the same style as Duterte,” Ricci Reluya, the mayor’s son, told Rappler. “But he lacks the charisma and the authenticity or even the heart of the President. People can see through that.”
Certain choice phrases that pepper President Duterte’s speeches populated Feliciano’s interview. “Kill them all” was one, alternating with “I will kill you.” Drugs destroy the future. Drugs destroy the minds of the populace. He promised discipline. He promised, if elected, to end all drugs in San Fernando in ten days.
“If the Reluyas and all those running this coming election feel threatened by my pronouncements, that I will kill these candidates involved in illegal drugs, and they will file a case against me, are they admitting that they are indeed involved in illegal drugs?” Feliciano asked Rappler.
“Are they admitting? So, why [are they threatened] if their conscience is clear and have no involvement in drugs whatsoever?”
Mayor Reluya said she was admitting to no such thing.
“Violence is addictive during elections,” she told Rappler. “Whether you are guilty or not, there are people on the outskirts who will come out and say these things because of their personal interests.”
Thirty-one days after Nonoy Reluya was shot dead, the fifth person on a kill list that no one claimed to have written was killed in the fourth-class municipality of Ramon Magsaysay in Zamboanga del Sur, Mindanao, half the country away from Cebu.
His name was Alfonso “Kwati” Donaire IV, municipal councilor of San Fernando, Cebu.
The murders of municipal councilor candidates Dacalos, Arriesgado, and Donaire are still being investigated, said Cebu Provincial Police Director Manuel Abrugena.
“We have persons of interest,” Abrugena told Rappler in April, and added that evidence is still being sought.
Police have identified two men as prime suspects in the Reluya ambush. Both suspects are reportedly still at large.
The police told Rappler that they are “still validating” if there are connections between the deaths of San Fernando’s candidates.
Mayor Reluya officially returned to work on March 6. Her candidacy has the endorsement of President Duterte himself. She offered a P2.2-million cash reward for information that could hasten the investigation of her husband’s murder.
Feliciano, who told media that Mayor Reluya was courting sympathy votes, announced he would match the bounty, then raised his offer to P3.5 million.
Twelve public officials were elected in 2016 to govern San Fernando. Only six of them continue to report to the municipal hall.
Vice Mayor Fralz Sabalones, presiding chairman of the municipal council and brother of a confessed drug dealer, is on terminal leave. He has made himself scarce since July 2018, filing his absence from weekly sessions and “holding office elsewhere” in a location unknown to the local government.
Both councilors who once occupied the ex-officio council position as head of the village captains are dead. So are three incumbent councilors, including councilor Alexander Alicaway, who was killed in May of 2018 by unidentified armed men. His murder remains unsolved.
Media reported that the last living municipal councilor on the kill list, Edwin Villaver, has disappeared.
‘You haven’t died yet?’
On March 14, speaking from Davao City, President Duterte released to the public a list of politicians allegedly involved in the drug trade: 33 mayors, 8 vice mayors, 3 congressmen, one board member, and one former mayor.
The President’s spokersperson said the publication of the list was an attempt to protect the citizenry against “these destroyers of our society.” Those people, said Panelo, should not be given the authority to lead and destroy the country.
Panelo assured the public there would be no violation of due process, as “these candidates who were involved in drugs have, to my mind, waived the right to such right of being given the presumption of innocence.”
President Duterte called it a partial list. He read a few of the names out loud, occasionally offering personal commentary – “you haven’t died yet?”
The President’s new narco list included only one man from San Fernando town. President Duterte named Fralz Sabalones, vice mayor of the municipality of San Fernando, who, in 2016, claimed the President was probably referring to his brother Franz.
On April 18, two weeks before the publication of this story, Franz Sabalones was killed by unidentified gunmen on his way to a billiard hall in South Triangle, Quezon City. The self-confessed drug dealer was released by police in 2016 because, they said, “We don’t have enough to charge him.”
Franz Sabalones was carrying borrowed identification when he was gunned down. Police are investigating his murder, but say they have no leads.
The President had long threatened to release his narco list of politicians. He had promised in 2017 that those he named would be stripped of their privileges. He said he would remove their supervisory powers over the police. He said he would dismiss their security. He said he didn’t mind going down in history as a butcher.
“If your name is there,” said the President of the Republic of the Philippines, “son of a bitch, you have a problem, I will really kill you.” (To be concluded) – Rappler.com
Editor’s Note: All quotes in Filipino and Cebuano were translated to English. Photos of San Fernando’s officials are courtesy of the municipality’s official website.