Jonas Burgos: Trapped in a web of lives

(Editor's note: We are reprinting a Newsbreak investigation into the disappearance of Jonas Burgos, which first appeared in 2007. The Court of Appeals recently held the police and the military "accountable and responsible" for his disappearance. And last Monday, April 1, his mother Edita submitted to the Supreme Court fresh evidence -- including a photo of Jonas taken allegedly after he was abducted - as basis for the re-opening of the case at the CA. On Wednesday, April 3, President Aquino ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a "focused" probe on the case.)

MANILA, Philippines – Jonas Burgos is his father’s son. They look alike. They’re both passionate in their causes. They’re both rebels in their own right.

Attached to land, they found solace in a 12-hectare farm in San Miguel, Bulacan, which the late icon of press freedom was able to buy for his family from decades of hard-hitting journalism. Joe Burgos had spent his retirement years there, living frugally up to the day he died.

“We lived day to day, and before Joe had a heart attack we only had less than a thousand pesos in our pockets,” recalls Burgos’s 64-year-old widow Edita. The hospital bills soared to more than a million; Mrs. Burgos was able to pay them only through the generosity of friends.

It was on the farm where the family buried Joe Burgos one sunset in November 2003—amid vivid recollections of the difficult years that he lived fighting the Marcos dictatorship, when he made do with a couple of tables and chairs and a stock of courage to run a newspaper, and when he had chosen, time and again, to live with the perils of journalism than the perks that it offered. He was 62.

In 1987, a year after the EDSA People Power revolution, Joe Burgos was persuaded to run for senator under the leftist Partido ng Bayan (he lost along with the rest of the PnB candidates). “I was asked in school at the time if my dad was a communist,” recalls Jose Luis (“JL”), Jonas’s younger brother. “What does being a communist mean? My dad prayed the rosary every night and he went to church every day. But, yes, we probably had ‘communist’ topics at the dining table.”

Joe Burgos nurtured a family that shunned life’s comforts. The rundown office of Mrs. Burgos in Quezon City—and the parsimonious life that she and her children live to this day—can overwhelm anyone who’d think that journalism was simply all about glamour and power.

Of the five Burgos siblings, Mrs. Burgos says, it is Jonas (more known as Jay-Jay) who takes after his father. Like his father, Jonas has this aversion to material wealth. Like his father, he’s forever curious, adventurous, and impatient. Like his father, he wanted to be a journalist, but preferred taking photographs to writing stories.

Very much like his father, Jonas values land, and fought for those who he thought deserved to own it.

He became so committed to this cause that around 1998, a few years after earning his diploma in agriculture from Benguet State University, he joined the communist movement. We got this information from people close to Jonas and an ex-rebel in Bulacan who had met him.

That he’s a rebel doesn’t make his abduction right—using brute force off the battlefield and inside a mall, under the full glare of onlookers. That he’s a rebel—and still missing—illustrates the lengths to which desperate people would go to crush a stubborn rebellion knocking at the doors of Metro Manila.

Turning to psychics

“He has a pure heart,” said Mrs. Burgos of her missing 38-year-old son when we sat down one morning in July over biscuits and instant coffee. “Although I sometimes could not reconcile that with what he was doing…. I see violence, how can I understand that? I had to search for answers and talk to nuns.” This is the closest she could get to acknowledging that part of her son’s life that she barely knows. 

A devout Catholic who belongs to the secular order of the Carmelites (her brother is a parish priest in Bicol), Mrs. Burgos concedes that her journey has been a “spiritual search” where the only consolation she could find is the thought that, if it ever comes to a bitter end, Jonas “is brought back to the House of the Lord.”

She has searched for Jonas in practically all the power corridors of the Arroyo regime since suspected military intelligence agents abducted him at a restaurant in the Ever Gotesco mall in Quezon City on April 28.

She has badgered no end Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, a good friend of Joe Burgos and godfather of “JL,” pleading with him to save Jonas from torture. Ermita would tell her that he honestly didn’t know where Jonas was, but Mrs. Burgos would say, never mind—“just please tell them not to torture him and to give him medicine if he needs it.”

She has forced herself to face the media, even if all her life she had lived under the shadow of her famous husband. Desperate for clues, she spent hours one night talking to the waitress at the restaurant where Jonas was abducted, the one who saw him being dragged away and shouting to her, “Aktibista ako, aktibista ako (I’m an activist).”

When all seemed fruitless, Mrs. Burgos turned to psychics who at one time told her that Jonas was still alive, staying probably in a farm near a river, and who weeks later would say Jonas “has already left us.”

After news reports linked the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) to Jonas’s abduction, she met in a neutral venue with its chief at the time, Brig. Gen. Delfin Bangit, a former military aide of President Arroyo. (Editor's note: Bangit retired in 2010)

The teary-eyed Bangit denied the charges so passionately, complaining that his family has been so hurt by allegations that he had plotted Jonas’s disappearance. Does she believe him? “I don’t know,” Mrs. Burgos says.

Bulacan and the NPA

Various reasons make it difficult for us to buy the police-military claim that the NPA abducted Jonas.

For one, this claim is backed up by inconsistent and incoherent storytelling by authorities. Police investigators had already initial leads about a military unit’s apparent involvement in the abduction, only to be swept under the rug by a second wave of investigation pointing to the guerrillas as the culprits. At the ongoing Court of Appeals (CA) hearing on the case, the military’s stonewalling defies logic and basic court courtesy.

Secondly, while the NPA indeed harms its own, it now avoids the inconvenience of abducting them in a public place following hard lessons from the bloody purge that it conducted in the 1980s. In all its urban operations after that, the rebel group simply shot down comrades that they had sentenced to death—ex-NPA chief Romulo Kintanar and Arturo Tabara, for example, who were killed in a Quezon City restaurant and outside a mall, respectively.

If there’s any lie that the NPA is guilty of regarding Jonas, it is its blanket denial that they ever knew him.

The breakaway units within the armed movement have no reason to kidnap Jonas, either, bogged down as they are by their own troubles and aware as they are of the Burgos family’s contribution to the anti-dictatorship movement.

Jonas’s abduction is best understood within the context of Bulacan, where he allegedly operated as one of the guerrillas’ top leaders, and the prevalence of human rights abuses in the region that had gone unpunished.

At least 26 activists from the province have been abducted under the Arroyo administration. This comes as no surprise; of all the provinces in Central Luzon, Bulacan was a top source of rebel recruits, the biggest source of revolutionary taxation in the whole region (at least P40 million a month in 2005 from Army estimates), and the province from the north nearest to the capital.

It is in Hagonoy, Bulacan, where two former University of the Philippines students, Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, were reportedly kidnapped by soldiers in the wee hours of the morning of June 26, 2006. Their case was brought all the way up to the Court of Appeals (CA), which summoned senior generals assigned in Central Luzon to explain, found their alibis full of holes, but nonetheless said that the court was in no position to force the military to produce activists whom they deny being in their custody in the first place.

MOTHER AND SON. Edita and JL Burgos during a Court of Appeals hearing.

File photo from Newsbreak

Jonas’s companions

On that fateful day of April 28, 2007, Jonas prepared to meet two people at the Ever Gotesco mall in Quezon City—Melissa Reyes, a rebel returnee (or RR in the parlance of activists), and a certain “Reggie.” Sources close to Jonas say that Jonas knew “Reggie,” but that it would be his first time to see Reyes.

Before “surrendering” to the military, Reyes was a student organizer for the League of Filipino Students in Bulacan. But she was forced to report regularly to the Army’s 56th infantry battalion headquarters in Norzagaray, Bulacan, at the height of the Army’s campaign against the Left in Central Luzon. Still, she maintained her good standing among NPA allies for she had an aunt who was active in one of the leftist organizations in the province, according to a source who had spoken to her.

Reyes and Reggie went “missing,” too, after Jonas’s April 28 abduction. In fact, Reyes’s relative reported this to the human rights group Karapatan on April 30. On the other hand, Reggie’s relative had chosen to keep quiet, for fear that blowing the horn might further endanger him. As we went to press, we got word from informed sources that Reggie’s family has been convinced to announce his forced disappearance.

Melissa Reyes told our source sometime last May that she and Reggie first met before going to their rendezvous with Jonas at the Hapag Kainan fastfood restaurant in Ever Gotesco. They arrived at around 12:45 p.m. and reportedly witnessed Jonas’s abduction at around 1:20 p.m.

Four months later, on Aug. 29, 2007, the National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group presented the same Melissa Concepcion Reyes, along with Emerito Lipio and Marlon Manuel, as communist guerrillas who allegedly confessed to the police that the NPA was behind Jonas’s abduction.

Lipio was among seven leaders of a militant transport group that was arrested by cops and soldiers in a raid at a house in Angeles City on July 3, 2006—and this was widely reported in the media; Lipio was declared missing after. Among the arresting units then were the Army’s 56th and the 69th IB based in Pampanga, all under the command at the time of retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, then 7th Division commander. (Editor's note: Palparan was found guilty of abducting Empeno and Cadapan in 2018 and is in jail.)

But the CIDG— which obviously didn’t do due diligence before they presented Lipio—insisted that Lipio was arrested by the police only last August in Bulacan.

Reyes, Lipio, and Manuel said that the NPA ordered Jonas’s arrest on suspicion that he was pilfering funds of the movement. Reyes revealed that she was to meet Burgos and a certain Ka Jo at the mall to discuss the possibility of meeting with a “contact in the military.” When Burgos failed to appear, Reyes said Ka Jo told her to leave and await further instructions.

Two months before this disclosure, a paid advertisement came out newspapers in the form of an open letter signed by a “Joey Martinez” which praised Ka Ramon (supposedly the alias of Jonas) for his services to the communist movement but which raised the likelihood that—due to alleged wrangling over revolutionary taxes collected from the mining and cement industries in Bulacan and professional jealousy—NPA leaders were behind his disappearance.

What the CIDG and the previous ad seemed to be saying was that the NPA abducted Jonas for either of two reasons: due to his alleged involvement in a scam or his suspected ties to the military.

The latter point brings us to a case that the Army has refused to talk about and which is apparently related to Jonas: the abduction of 2nd Lt. Dick Abletes of the 56thI IB on charges that he was spying for the NPA. Abletes is the first officer in recent memory to be investigated for spying, a crime punishable in military courts by death.

Caught in the act

At least six retired and active Army officers have confirmed to us Abletes’s arrest and investigation. As we went to press middle of November 2007, he was scheduled for arraignment at a general court martial in Fort Bonifacio.

Former Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Tolentino, before he retired last August, candidly talked to Newsbreak about a case of an officer based in Central Luzon who was arrested in an “entrapment” operation, where “we caught him providing information about his battalion and [details] of the OB [Order of Battle] to the enemy.”

When we asked if this was related to Jonas’s abduction, Tolentino said, “I don’t know yet…because we’re still studying the background of Jonas. We did not know how Jonas looked, because what we only knew was a certain Ka Ramon, but we didn’t know how Ka Ramon looked also. It seems he led a complicated life.”

A general told Newsbreak that it was the Army’s Intelligence Security Group (ISG) that knew the details of Abletes’s arrest, the ISG being the counterintelligence unit of the Army. The ISG is headed by Col. Ed Año, a 1983 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy who, incidentally, is a classmate of Col.Ashner Dolina, police chief of Bulacan whose men “arrested” Lipio last August.

In a text message coursed through another officer, Año told Newsbreak that Abletes was caught on March 7 “giving classified documents to a CPP cadre.” He added: “[Abletes’s] relationship to [Jonas] is uncertain.” Año refused to answer other questions, saying they’re classified. (Editor's note: Año is now the chief of ISAFP)

Sources close to Jonas however say they have information that Abletes was arrested days after Jonas’s disappearance.

Newsbreak learned that Abletes finished his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1999 from the Leyte Institute of Technology in Tacloban City. Five years later, he decided to join the Army, finishing the Army’s Officers Candidate Course in 2005.

He was first assigned at the 525th engineering construction battalion based in Fort Bonifacio, before his transfer to the 7th infantry division based in Nueva Ecija. He served as platoon leader of the 56th IB in Bulacan, a fact confirmed by his former battalion commander Lt. Col. Noel Clement.

But Clement stressed to Newsbreak that Abletes was arrested after his term ended in January 2007. Clement was replaced by Lt. Col. Melquiades Feliciano, who was the commander of the battalion at the time of Jonas’s disappearance.

Asked about Abletes’s abduction, Clement said: “I did not expect it.”

We have it on good authority from a source close to Jonas that the latter had dealt with Abletes. And that Jonas was in the 56th IB Order of Battle as an intelligence officer of the NPA General Command.

USUAL SUSPECTS. Melissa Reyes (middle) with two self-confessed rebels.

File photo from Newsbreak

Smoking gun

Clement denies having a hand in Jonas’s abduction. “My conscience is clear.” He said he only got to see Jonas from media reports following his disappearance.

A smoking gun—the license plate of the vehicle that reportedly drove Jonas out of the mall—links the 56th to Jonas’s disappearance.

On June 24, 2006, when Clement was still commander of 56th, two of his men (Corporals Villena and Bugallon) arrested one Mauro Mudlong, a resident of Bulacan, for his alleged involvement in illegal logging. (The Army is deputized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to arrest illegal loggers). They impounded his vehicle, an Isuzu, in the battalion headquarters in Norzagaray town.

The plate number of that vehicle, TAB 194, soon found its way to a maroon Toyota Revo car that a security guard of Ever Gotesco said was used by Jonas’s abductors. The guard, Larry Marquez, told the police and the Court of Appeals that he took down the plate number of the vehicle because he saw four men drag a man—whom he described as short and kayumanggi (fitting Jonas’s description)—out of the mall and shoved into the Toyota Revo.

The Army claims that the plate was apparently lost anytime from Dec. 1, 2006 to March 2007, when Clement’s battalion went on training outside the camp. During this time, Lt. Col. Edison Caga, deputy commanding officer at the time of the 69th IB based in Pampanga, was the assigned caretaker of the camp.

Caga told police investigators however that he did not have jurisdiction over unused vehicles impounded in the camp, adding that the 56th left soldiers behind to guard that area. But the police failed to ask Clement or Feliciano as to who among their men was the custodian of the vehicle.

Instead, in its August 2 report, police investigators raised the possibility that Mudlong—probably out of a personal grudge against the Army—may have stolen the plate and given it to communist guerillas, a claim that left Court of Appeals justices incredulous.

The CA grilling of police investigator Supt. Jonel Estomo at a hearing last September 6 went this way, following his testimony that “Mr. Mudlong has the capability to get TAB 194”…to “destroy the reputation of the Army:”

Justice Lanzanas: “We are concerned with your conclusion that he (Mudlong) has something to do with the disappearance of Plate No. TAB 194.”

Estomo: “I have no other basis, only my personal view, your honor, and his disappearance, and the arrest made by the Army.”

Justice Lanzanas: “And because of that he stole plate number 194? That’s your conclusion?”

Estomo: “That’s my personal conclusion, your honor.”

Justice Fernando: “Are you convinced that Mauro Mudlong would take the plate number of this vehicle from the custody of the 56th IB just because he has a grudge with members of the 56th IB?…Is there a possibility that this plate number was given to the left leaning group to get Jonas Burgos? Because of his grudge to the 56th IB he will sacrifice a stranger or Jonas Burgos to get even with 56th IB?”

Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr, for his part, ordered the Armed Forces provost marshal to investigate the 56th IB on May 9. Col. Arthur Abadilla, the provost marshal, led a nine-man team that interviewed 16 officers of the battalion to look not into Jonas’s disappearance but into how the plate was lost. After dodging requests for a copy of Abadilla’s report, Esperon finally agreed to release it; the report didn’t contain anything that would advance the investigation into Jonas’s disappearance. (Editor's note: Esperon has since retired)

It took State Prosecutor Emmanuel Velasco of the justice department to drag a specific unit in the military—ISAFP—into the controversy. In his July 9, 2007 order to the National Bureau of Investigation, Velasco named three alleged ISAFP agents, including a woman, who allegedly took part in the abduction. The military has said that none of the names were on its roster, although an eyewitness account indeed points to one woman as part of the team. Incidentally, ISAFP has two key female agents.

Citing information from contacts of the Burgos family, Velasco also said that two other vehicles served as backups to the Toyota Revo that drove Jonas out of the mall: a maroon Lancer with plate number WAM 155 and a Toyota Altis with plate number XBX 881. The latter turned out to be a staff car of General Tolentino, Army chief at the time, prompting him to raise a howl over what he claimed as planted information designed to discredit him. Army insiders say that the Altis car was usually used not by Tolentino’s family, as he claimed, but by members of his staff.

Velasco has since been sacked from the probe, and his order to the NBI is now gathering dust.

Rebel infiltration

Insiders say that an Army dossier on Jonas tags him as an intelligence officer of the general command of the NPA, but one who also uses Bulacan as his base. Rebel returnees in Bulacan say they remember Jonas as doing “a lot of political work” for the movement.

If it’s true that Jonas indeed served in the intelligence unit of the NPA, it was logical for him to try to obtain information on the military.

Until his arrest in May this year, Abletes was allegedly providing information to the NPA through his contacts in Bulacan. It’s not known when he started this.

In July 2006, Gregorio Rosal, spokesperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines, announced that “a number of officers and men” in the military have “sent information to the NPA through common contacts in an effort to warn against and stop the fascist operations of death squads or at least help identify those responsible for the killings.” The whole statement details how the alleged death squads in the military operate through the intelligence officers of Army battalions—and reads either like a true account or communist hogwash.

Military paranoia over communist infiltration of its ranks began shortly after the failed February 2006 coup, which saw an unholy alliance between the Left and the coup plotters. Months after that, a cadet at the Philippine Military Academy was kicked out for suspected links to leftists.

The same can be said of the communist movement as well. Infiltration led its leadership to conduct a bloody internal purge in the 1980s—one of the causes of the communist party split years later. Thus, a source close to Jonas told Newsbreak that one should not rule out the likelihood that Abletes was not a genuine sympathizer but was tasked to infiltrate the NPA and trap its key cadres. Could it be that the “arrest” of Abletes was staged managed, he asks.

The questions are endless.

But Mrs. Burgos does not allow herself to be weighed down by any of this—not by ideology, politics, or hate. She remembers instances when she had to say no to certain protest rallies she deemed very political. She says she has from Day One forgiven whoever abducted Jonas.

“Unless you forgive, you can’t do things objectively. I am single-minded on one objective: to recover Jonas alive.” – Rappler.com

(Editor's note: Above is a reprint of a Newsbreak investigation into the disappearance of Jonas Burgos, which first appeared in 2007. The Court of Appeals recently held the police and the military "accountable and responsible" for his disappearance. And last Monday, April 1, his mother Edita submitted to the Supreme Court fresh evidence -- including a photo of Jonas taken allegedly after he was abducted - as basis for the re-opening of the case at the CA.)

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .

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