human rights in the Philippines

[OPINION] Break the pattern of enforced disappearances

Tony La Viña, Bernardine de Belen

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[OPINION] Break the pattern of enforced disappearances
'Surface Dexter and Bazoo. Surface all the desaparecidos!'

Cases of enforced disappearances in the Philippines are not at all new. In fact, we have been dealing with the same experience, the same tale for decades now.

The term “desaparecidos” is Spanish for “disappeared.” It was eventually used in Latin America during the Cold War to refer to their people who were forcibly disappeared. To call a case an enforced disappearance, a prerequisite is for the perpetrator to be from the state force. This ploy is often seen as a form of political repression.

The same term – desaparecidos – was eventually adopted by the Philippines during Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship to refer to victims of the same phenomenon. During Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship, 926 people became victims of enforced disappearance; many, if not all, were tortured. Most of these victims were student activists, union organizers, peasant organizers, and rural folk. To paint a clearer picture, most of these victims were vocal about opposing the government’s atrocities, corruption, and cronyism. Most of them were struggling for justice, struggling to topple a fascist and oppressive dictatorship.

Since then, the disappearances haven’t stopped – Cory Aquino’s and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s regimes having the highest tally of enforced disappearance victims after Marcos Sr. The cases are still politically charged, with the majority of victims being activists, the marginalized, and the opposition. Its frequency and lack of newness does not make it less jarring every time, though.

The desaparecidos now

In fact, just recently, another case happened. The Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) demanded that the government surface two former student leaders in UP Baguio – Dexter Capuyan and Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus – whom they believe are in the hands of state forces. Their families and colleagues have also insisted that they be surfaced, stating that they are activists and not terrorists. The two were last seen in Taytay and went missing last April 28.

Bazoo de Jesus, 27, is from Bulacan. He is currently an information and networking officer of the Philippine Task Force on Defending the Rights of Indigenous People. Meanwhile, Dexter Capuyan, 57 and a Bontoc-Ibaloi-Kankanaey, was part of the list of alleged leaders of the CPP-NPA according to the Department of National Defense and Department of the Interior and Local Government. This list initially had 600 people in it but it was cut down to eight. Capuyan was one of the many removed from the list. People also discovered that Capuyan was in a “wanted” poster made by the Philippine National Police, stating Capuyan had a P1.8-million bounty on his head, making his family more concerned about his safety.

Their case is seen as enforced disappearance since their family and colleagues believe that the state was involved in their abduction. The involvement of the state is not new when it comes to activists’ abductions, after all. According to Beverly Longid, an IP rights advocate, the two were taken by men who identified themselves as part of the police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group using three vehicles. Individuals who were suspected to be state agents were also seen in close proximity to the two victims days before they went missing. After two weeks though, the PNP “categorically denied” any involvement in the disappearance of the two.

Just one year in, Capuyan and De Jesus are counted as the seventh and eighth desaparecidos under Marcos Jr.’s regime.

Ironically (or not so), the day they disappeared, April 28, 2023 was also the 16th anniversary of Jonas Burgos’ disappearance. Jonas was a peasant activist who also completed his undergraduate studies in Baguio, specifically in Benguet State University. He was abducted in Ever Gotesco Mall in 2007 and put in a maroon Toyota Revo with the plate number TAB 194 – a plate number tracked to be in the military’s possession. His disappearance is one of the most publicized cases in the Philippines. In 2013, the Court of Appeals ruled the military and the government responsible for his disappearance. But there remained no accountability from the AFP.

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Desaparecidos and the law

Since then, a lot has changed – administrations, laws, the political landscape. One good change is the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act that was signed into law in 2012. According to  Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND), this is the first and most comprehensive anti-enforced disappearance law in Asia. The problem with it is that it is not implemented at all. Since then, even more activists have disappeared and those who have been abducted continue to be missing.

The Commission on Human Rights have also called on the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance following the abduction of Capuyan and De Jesus. The commission even stated  that the phenomenon of enforced disappearance affirms the continued vulnerability of activists to human rights violations.

The CHR appears to agree that even with supposed “safety measures,” activists continue to be unprotected and violated.

The known pattern

It is not difficult to find a pattern. And this pattern too, with the thousands of desaparecidos, is hard to deny. It is simple, really – many desaparecidos are activists, state forces are often found to be the perpetrators of their cases, the families are denied justice either by state forces themselves or the court. Authorities even add salt to injury often by red-tagging the victims, trying to justify their disappearance. This is seen in Capuyan’s case most recently.

It is a simple and “effective” way of political repression. It is one of the tactics of fascists. Justice and truth are elusive in these cases. The surfaced are the exception, not the rule. And even then, the surfaced suffer from having to navigate their trauma their entire lives.

The pattern is done over and over again to silence those who call for change and justice, to silence those who truly serve the people. It is old, perpetrators might call it a “classic,” but victims and their families would call it tired. Not all patterns, even when they are a “classic,” are meant to continue. 

We call on the government, especially those who lead the state forces, to finally break the pattern. Steer away from the perversion of your role. Those who were tasked to protect should actually protect, especially the most vulnerable.

We call on the government to attend to Capuyan and De Jesus’ case. Surface Dexter and Bazoo. Break the pattern of enforced disappearances! Surface all the desaparecidos! –

Tony La Viña teaches constitutional law at the University of the Philippines and several Mindanao law schools. He is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

Bernardine de Belen graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University with a Creative Writing degree. She works at the Manila Observatory as a research assistant.

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