Philippines Catches an Alleged Murderer

After at least three years during which he was reportedly hiding in plain sight in Manila, Philippine authorities on Aug. 12 arrested Jovito Palparan, a retired army major general known as the “butcher of Bulacan.”

Palparan’s arrest, according to the US-based Human Rights Watch, “marks a rare challenge to the country’s rampant impunity, which the government of President Benigno Aquino III has failed to adequately address.”

The arrest is like dipping a cup in a river. It depends on how much water you want. Although Presidential Communications Operations Office head Herminio Coloma Jr. told reporters that Palparan's arrest "shows President Aquino's strong determination to bring to justice the high-profile criminals who remain at large,” it is the first arrest of a major figure in more than four years in office despite 2010 campaign promises that Aquino would act to clean up the system.

Impunity for the powerful in the Philippines, like many Southeast Asian nations, extends a long way. As to why the government chose to pick up Palparan now, observers say it fit the government’s current public relations drive.

“People talk about these things,” said Carlos H. Conde, Human Rights Watch’s representative in the Philippines. "On the other hand, you can’t object. It’s a good thing, which is why you can’t fault us for being overly optimistic.”

Palparan, 63, is one of a high-profile group of “big five” offenders who have thumbed their noses at the law for years. According to media reports, he lived openly in a Manila district in an ordinary residence building with a bakery on the ground floor. “People knew who he was or didn’t care, he just mixed with the crowd,” according to one observer.

Others include former Palawan governor Joel Reyes; his brother, Mario Reyes, the former mayor of Coron in Palawan; and former Dinagat Island congressman Ruben Ecleo Jr. The Reyes siblings are wanted for the murder of Palawan broadcaster Gerry Ortega. Ecleo, who also leads a religious cult, was convicted of murdering his wife in 2002.

Palparan, however, was allegedly in a class by himself. He was indicted in December of 2011 on two charges of kidnapping and detaining two student activists whose bodies have never been found. He is accused of being one of the leaders of an anti-left campaign under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that is believed to have taken the lives of as many as 800 people between the time she took office in 2001 and when she left in 2010. Amnesty International said 51 leftist leaders were assassinated in the first half of 2006 alone.

Palparan, regarded as a leading counter insurgency strategist, was blamed for creating a climate of virtual military occupation in parts of Central Luzon. Activists, victims and some politicians say his approach over a period of less than a year led to the targeted slaying of more than 100 activists in three provinces with a long history of infiltration by the left - Nueva Ecija, Tarlac and Bulacan.

In a 2006 interview with Asia Sentinel executive editor A. Lin Neumann, Palparan virtually admitted to the killings. In a prize-winning report, Neumann wrote that Palparan acknowledged that some people had been killed, but said he only had "theories" about the killings. His instructions to his men, he said, were clear though. "I told my commanders, I did not want to see them [communists] any more."

“Palparan’s arrest gives Aquino an opportunity to make real progress on his long unfulfilled promise to end rights abuses in the Philippines,” said Conde. “That means ensuring that Palparan goes to trial without interference from powerful elements in the military who might seek to protect him.”

The climate of impunity in the Philippines, however, is such that it is questionable how far the rule of law can extend. Impunity starts at the top, with attempted coup leaders like Gregorio Honasan and Antonio F. Trillanes IV serving in the Philippine Senate. Special Presidential aide Panfilo “Ping” Lacson was forced to flee the country in 2010 after being implicated in the murder of two men in November 2000.

After hiding in Hong Kong for more than a year until an appellate court withdrew the murder charges against him as being “not credible and not trustworthy,” Lacson returned. He was named a presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery of the destruction wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in 2013.

“Aquino needs to follow up Palparan’s arrest by bringing to justice other high-profile rights abusers, such as former Mayor Rey Uy, the alleged mastermind of the Tagum City 'death squad,'" Conde wrote. “That means jumpstarting the currently moribund judicial 'superbody' Aquino created in 2012 to expedite the investigation and prosecution of extrajudicial killings. Failure to do so will be a betrayal of the victims of human rights violations who have looked to Aquino to end the status quo of impunity rather than perpetuate it.”

In addition the many high-profile cases, others involve murders down to the village level “perpetrated against people we don’t know about, a massive amount. Much of it is never investigated,” Conde said in a telephone interview.

The Philippines is also one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. The latest to die was radio journalist Nilo Baculo Sr., who was gunned down on June 10 in Mindoro Oriental Province. So far, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 74 reporters have been murdered since 1992. No one has been arrested in 66 of the murders.

“There are press murders, poor people being gunned down,” Conde said. “Authorities grasp at straws.”

One bizarre solution suggested to lawmakers is to stop motorcycle passengers from riding pillion because so many murders are perpetrated by a gunman riding behind a motorcyclist, ensuring a quick and almost foolproof getaway. Another solution, equally fanciful, regards a possible law requiring motorcyclists to wear giant numbers of their license plates on their shirts so that witnesses can identify the killers.

“The problem is that the Philippine criminal justice system remains broken, which is why the arrest of Palparan is such a breath of fresh air,” Conde said.

There is no better example of the broken system than the perpetrators of what has become known as the Maguindanao massacre on Nov. 23, 2009, in the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, on Mindanao.

Some 58 people, 34 of them journalists or media workers, were shot down and buried in a mass grave, allegedly by the family of incumbent Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr. The people killed included the wife of political challenger Esmael Mangudadatu, his two sisters, journalists, lawyers, aides, and motorists who were witnesses or were mistakenly identified as part of the convoy, according to media reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called the Maguindanao massacre the single deadliest event for journalists in history.

Nearly six years later, the case drones on in a Philippine courtroom with no end in sight as lawyers continue to wrangle over technicalities. In the meantime, witnesses have been intimidated or killed. It is expected that the trial could take at least 20 years.

“In the meantime, families of victims face pressure, lives are being threatened,” Conde said. “On top of the case being slow, there is unrelenting pressure on the witnesses.”