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MANILA, Philippines - Sometime in 2006, an Army battalion in the northern province of Bulacan was alerted about communist infiltration in its ranks. A young lieutenant was supposedly feeding guerrillas sensitive intelligence data from the military.
The Army then plotted to spy on its own. After a few meetings in Fort Bonifacio, headquarters of the Philippine Army, and with the help of the secretive Intelligence Service Group (ISG), key field and intelligence officers ordered a tight surveillance on 2nd Lt Dick Abletes, a fresh recruit from Leyte who was then 28 years old.
Abletes's commander at that time, Col Melquiades Feliciano, led the quiet probe into the young lieutenant.
At one point, Feliciano said, Abletes was "seen face to face talking to unidentified members, suspected members of the CPP/NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines/New People's Army), and he was actually overheard saying things against the organization [military] and in fact giving classified documents."
Army agents caught Abletes "transmitting information, vital information to the CPP/NPA." His back and forth with the NPA dragged for months.
On March 23, 2007, ISG agents were able to monitor Abletes's meeting with NPA rebels and a "Melissa Concepcion Reyes" in Bulacan.
In that meeting, Abletes was supposed to have supplied them the military's "top secret" Working Order of Battle, a list of guerrillas that intelligence and operational units are tasked to "neutralize."
That was it for the Army. Three days later, agents went for the kill and arrested Abletes.
During a military pretrial probe into Abletes, the Army presented as proof of his ties with the NPA a video recording of that March 23 meeting.
Abletes apparently continued his contacts with the NPA while he was held in the ISG jail, as part of the Army's strategy to lay out a trap for his underground contacts. In text messages, Abletes would tell his guerrilla-friends that he had been sent on schooling thus his absence.
Meet 'Ka Ramon'
One Bulacan-based rebel, unaware that Abletes was already detained, expressed willingness to meet with him in April 2007. He's "Ka Ramon," an earnest guerrilla who joined the underground movement around 1998 after earning his diploma in agriculture from the Benguet State University in La Trinidad, Benguet.
While his parents and siblings lived in Quezon City, Ka Ramon treated Bulacan his second home. After all, their family owned a 12-hectare farm in the town of San Miguel which his father was able to buy after decades of publishing a newspaper.
Ka Ramon was known as a key NPA intelligence officer in Bulacan.
In college he was an activist. So was Abletes.
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 in Fort Bonifacio, before his transfer to the 56th infantry battalion in Bulacan as a platoon leader.
The mutual contact of Ka Ramon and Abletes was NPA rebel Melissa Reyes, who agreed to arrange that meeting in Quezon City.
5 years ago
It was set on April 28, 2007, exactly 5 years ago today.
Melissa was supposed to meet with Ka Ramon at the Hapag Kainan restaurant on the ground floor of the Ever Gotesco Mall, Quezon City. The plan was for her to introduce Abletes to Ka Ramon.
That meeting never happened.
Melissa said she only managed to reach a McDonald's branch near the mall. Another rebel who was with her went inside the mall instead. After a while, she was advised to go home.
Ka Ramon made it to Hapag Kainan at noon. He was taking his lunch when 6 men and one woman entered the restaurant and suddenly grabbed him. Ka Ramon screamed, "aktibista lang po ako, aktibista lang po ako." A restaurant employee tried to help, but he was stopped by one of the men who said they were trying to arrest a drug dealer.
Ka Ramon was dragged all the way to a waiting Isuzu vehicle, which was later discovered to have been impounded by the same battalion that Abletes belonged to.
Ka Ramon has not been seen since.
In police and military dossiers, Ka Ramon is Jonas Joseph Burgos, son of press freedom icon Joe Burgos and one of the country's most famous deseparecido (disappeared). He's now 42. His mother Edita believes -- and hopes -- he is still alive.
That he was trapped in this web of infiltration and counterintelligence was first raised by his family and friends a few months after his abduction. We wrote about this in a Newsbreak investigative report in October 2007.
The Burgos family is not denying Jonas's links to the communist underground.
The military is not denying that Burgos is Ka Ramon.
But it is denying it had anything to do with his enforced disappearance.
Yet the story we related above is based on all the testimonies and documents provided by eyewitnesses, ex-rebels, current rebels, police officials, and military officers both to the Commission on Human Rights and the Court of Appeals (CA).
Through sheer persistence, the CHR was able to trace the whereabouts of two key eyewitnesses to the abduction: a waitress and a busboy in Hapag Kainan restaurant who, out of fear, quit their jobs after Burgos's kidnapping. The CHR has recommended that they be made state witnesses.
The CHR was also able to interview the prosecutor of Abletes and got him to acknowledge that the young lieutenant was indeed jailed and charged with violating 3 provisions in the Articles of War, including Article of War 82, giving information to the enemy.
Investigators found out that Melissa Reyes, the "contact" of Abletes and Ka Ramon, was a military agent at the time of Burgos's abduction. In fact, the NPA already knew Reyes was a "rebel surrenderee" at the time when she was serving as conduit between Abletes and the guerrilla group. But she reportedly maintained good ties with the Left because of an aunt who was active in a leftist group in Bulacan.
With the help of Google and Facebook, CHR probers managed to identify Army Maj Harry Baliaga Jr as the officer who led Burgos's abduction.
Acting on an emailed tip from an anonymous informant who said that the leader of the team that kidnapped Burgos was a captain who was "promotable," CHR reviewed all the names in the military roster who were captains and about to become majors at the time of the abduction.
The list included young officers assigned to the 56th infantry battalion, Abletes's unit. Investigators then decided to zero in on officers of the battalion. A Google search of key names led them to the Facebook page of a Philippine Military Academy class.
The class yearbook and other photos helped the busboy identify Baliaga, who's been summoned by the CA to appear before it. The busboy said he particularly remembered him because it was Baliaga who told him during the Hapag Kainan commotion on April 28, 2007, that they were arresting a drug dealer.
No other case of forced disappearance in recent history has come this close to identifying key players, producing documents, and establishing the motive for such crime.
Which begs the question, why has the case not yielded any arrests?
Because to this day Burgos is caught in between -- between a society's respect for fundamental rights and its institutions' belief that every rebel, in or out of the battlefield, is fair game. - Rappler.com
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 .