drug trafficking

Saving Mary Jane, the face of OFWs

Jodesz Gavilan

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Saving Mary Jane, the face of OFWs
How government handles the case of overseas worker Mary Jane Veloso mirrors its commitment beyond 2015 to the welfare of Filipinos seeking greener pastures abroad

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MANILA, Philippines – In 2015, Mary Jane Veloso became the face of 1.8 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the unrelenting problem of drug trafficking, and ultimately, the effects of poverty.

Like most OFWs, Veloso accepted a job offer abroad to provide for her poor family in Nueva Ecija. What she earned during a 10-month stint in Dubai where she was allegedly abused wasn’t enough to even send her son to school. (READ: Mary Jane Veloso a drug smuggler? Look at our home, parents say)

Instead of Malaysia as promised, she ended up in Indonesia. Upon her arrival in her new destination, Indonesian authorities found 2.6 kilograms of heroin hidden tucked in the lining of her suitcase allegedly provided by her recruiter. (READ: The story of Mary Jane Veloso, in her own words)

Indonesia has some of the strictest anti-drug laws as drug-related offenses are penalized with the death penalty. In October 2010 – just 6 months since her arrest – the single mother of two was sentenced to death.


As of May 2015, 92 OFWs convicted for murder and drug-related charges remain on death row and at least 3,800 remain incarcerated. Yet there are still about 1.34 million undocumented Filipino migrant workers spread out mostly in the Middle East and Asia.

Veloso’s lawyers have argued she was not able to defend herself well during the trial.

But beyond the technicalities, Veloso insists she is innocent and that she became an involuntary drug mule victimized by Maria Cristina Sergio – her neighbor. Sergio, the live-in partner of a close family friend, was supposed to be the key to a better life for her family but events took an unexpected twist.

Cristina Sergio: Double life, lies, secrets
Part 1 | Part 2

Saving Mary Jane’s life

The plight of Veloso drew a lot of attention in the Philippines and around the world – an online petition pleading for her life is among the most signed on the change.org site, #SaveMaryJane trended on social media, and mobilizations and vigils on the ground were organized.

The events surrounding the trial and conviction raised questions about the government’s role in helping Veloso from the very start.

Government officials maintained they had been on the case ever since – starting with a clemency appeal in 2011 from President Benigno Aquino III.

But in 2014, newly-elected President Joko Widodo announced he was rejecting all clemency requests due to Indonesia’s illegal drug situation. He rejected a batch of appeals in January 2015 – including Veloso’s.

“We will practice our constitution. The law does allow for execution, and I think other countries should respect Indonesian laws.”
– Indonesian President Joko Widodo on pleas to spare Mary Jane Veloso

The camp representing Veloso immediately filed a judicial or case review. However, on March 25, the Indonesian Supreme Court rejected the request.

On April 24, a “stronger” second appeal was filed as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) recommended the filing of charges against 3 people, including Sergio.

She was a victim of human trafficking, they argued, but it was not accepted by the court.

“Kahit na gahibla na lang ng oras ang natitira, kung gusto ng Panginoon na mabuhay ako, bubuhayin pa niya ako.”
– Mary Jane Veloso, as quoted by her mother

But on April 29, Veloso – who then already accepted her fate – was spared from death as 8 other drug trafficking convicts were executed.

Uncertain future

The 11th-hour reprieve was a product of various efforts from several stakeholders, including the government and civil society groups. (TIMELINE: The day Mary Jane was spared)

For government, Aquino requested another opportunity be given to Veloso to “shed light on the activities of the trafficking syndicate that victimized her.”

The reprieve, he said, would allow her to testify against her alleged traffickers, who, according to government investigators, were part of an international drug ring that operates in and out of the country.

According to a May 2015 resolution by the Department of Justice, Sergio and her live-in partner, Julius Lacanilao, acted as drug mules of a Western African drug syndicate as early as 2010.

The trial of the accused, who are facing charges of human trafficking, illegal recruitment and estafa, started in November 11. The arraignment for human trafficking, however, was deferred due to a motion for reconsideration filed by the defense.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government said that the death penalty is not at the top of the country’s list. According to Attorney General HM Prasetyo, the country will focus on economic development. (READ: Indonesia: Death penalty no longer a priority)

The way the Philippine government handled – and will continue handling – the case of Veloso mirrors its commitment to the welfare of Filipinos who seek greener pastures abroad.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has vowed to closely monitor cases on death row and is extending help to incarcerated Filipinos and their families.

Veloso, however, will welcome another year on death row. Her homecoming remains uncertain. – Rappler.com

Photo credits: Header and carousel images: Bimo Satrio/EPA. Cristina Sergio: Ben Nabong/Rappler.

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.