[OPINION] How a sniper’s bullet shut down a slum champion

Jola Ajibade, Arla Fontamillas
[OPINION] How a sniper’s bullet shut down a slum champion
'As the 2019 election approaches, people must not give in to cynicism and apathy but instead engage with power to ensure that peace and justice prevail – beginning with Crisell Beltran and the vast community of slum dwellers she passionately served'

In her book, The Durable Slum, Liza Weinstein points to how informal settlements are often able to survive natural disasters and city-state attempts to dismantle them. What is not often articulated in stories of slum resilience are the unsung champions who work fearlessly and tirelessly to improve the lives of residents and ensure their safety during and after disasters.

Crisell Beltran, the chairperson of Barangay Bagong Silangan, murdered by snipers on January 30 of this year, was one such unsung hero.

We met Beltran on August 22, 2018, during fieldwork in Metro Manila. She was a petite woman with bright eyes and a soft demeanor. She smiled through most of our conversations but a few times seemed stern when talking about disaster preparedness and her vision for transforming her community.

INTERVIEW. One of the writers interviews Crisell Beltran during the former's field research in Manila in August 2018. Photo by Arla Fontamillas

Beltran was born and raised in the slums of Bagong Silangan, a relocation area for informal settlers from downtown San Mateo in the province of Rizal. She had her education in the same barangay and later obtained a degree in Mass Communication from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

Beltran described her rise to local politics as a “personal calling.” She said, “I feel it’s a personal responsibility to be the leader.”

Beltran was also a political activist, a grassroots organizer, and a change agent who transformed Bagong Silangan village from one of the dirtiest and most notorious slums in Metro Manila to one of the cleanest and relatively safest places to live, work, and play. In 2018, Bagong Silangan, ranked 6th in safety and cleanliness out of 142 barangays in Quezon City. The first 5 were rich subdivisions such as Blue Ridge.

During Beltran’s 8 years as barangay chairperson, Barangay Bagong Silangan became what Catherine Brinkley described as an “opportunity of the commons” – a place where the right of access to economic, political, cultural, and social goods were provided and expanded to a variety of people, especially to poor and marginalized women.

Beltran employed several low-income earners and ensured they were paid a decent wage – about P3,900 to P5,300 a month, which is twice as much as what a typical barangay worker normally receives. She also implemented childcare programs, health services, street cleaning initiatives, multi-purpose halls, basketball courts, and disaster preparedness and response projects.

Bagong Silangan’s hazard monitoring and disaster response program could rival those in industrialized nations. It included state-of-the-art CCTV monitoring and early warning systems, rescue vehicles, emergency stockpiles (plus kits for babies and children), and a dedicated evacuation team.  

Describing how vulnerable her community is, Beltran said: “During [typhoon] Ondoy in 2009, around 200 people died in this barangay. I was not the barangay captain yet. But since I came into this position, no one has died because we are very persistent. We do not mind if we get wet. [The people of Bagong Silangan] are my children and it is my responsibility to get them out of the vulnerable condition.”

This statement speaks to Beltran’s sense of responsibility as a leader and also reflects her passion and motherly affection for her community.

In an era when most politicians use their office for personal aggrandizement, Beltran stood out for transparency and accountability. She believed politicians should serve the people and political gains should be redirected into community prosperity.

“You need to serve properly with sincerity and love, not because of religion or politics but because you love the people. If there is no love, everything is meaningless. There’s also God who guides you,” Beltran said responding to questions about what influences her as a person and a leader.

Beltran believed in building bridges, not walls. She did not see the need to have an entourage of security officers around her. This was later exploited by the 4 gunmen who shot several bullets that killed Beltran and her driver on January 30, 2019.

She was 47 years old. She left behind 3 children and 3 grandchildren. The reason for Beltran’s murder is yet to be uncovered, although media speculations suggest that it may be politically motivated. 

The mayor of Quezon City offered P5 million for information leading to the identification of Beltran’s killers. On February 3, the 4 gunmen who shot Beltran were caught but the public has yet to know the motive of the murder or its mastermind.

Too many unsung champions in the Philippines die before they can reach their full potential. Beltran was running for Congress as a representative of Quezon City’s 2nd District, which has a huge voting population.  If given the chance, she could have done more to transform the lives of these poor communities.

Impunity must not be tolerated. We demand proper investigation into Beltran’s murder. Her death and those of other unsung heroes are a direct assault on human rights and political freedom of every Filipino.

As the 2019 election approaches, people must not give in to cynicism and apathy but instead engage with power to ensure that peace and justice prevail – beginning with Beltran and the vast community of slum dwellers she passionately served. – Rappler.com

Jola Ajibade is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University, Oregon. Her research focuses on the politics of climate change adaptation, resilience planning, and slum transformation.

Arla Fontamillas is a researcher and independent consultant. Her interests include community transformation and using social media as a tool for building solidarity economies.

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