Toxic Legacy

by Juan L. Mercado

“It really happened.” Cebu Daily News thus confirmed a US embassy cable, uncorked by Wikileaks, that many looked the other way as Mayor Tomas Osmena unleashed death squads, ostensibly to tamp down crime.  “Would we ever again wipe out a human life…because the ends justify the means?”, the CDN editorial wondered.

Summary  executions by faceless vigilantes bolted to 41 by April 2005, US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone Jr. wrote.  Now,  Cebu’s south district congressman, Osmena washes his hands of the rubouts — sort of.  “Who do you think I should prioritize, going after criminals or vigilantes? What is worse than vigilante killings is the killing of innocent people.”

May we jog His Honor’s memory a bit?  Blood-letting started, in July 2004, with a petty hood named Roel Patana. Squeezed between cops, Patana picked his handcuffs, tried to grab a pistol and bolt.  Then Police Supt. Paul Labra spun that yarn.  Patana didn’t get far. Of course.

As prosecutor, judge and, jury and prosecutor, Osmena absolved the cops. “Patana was “pure criminal”. Osmena was more concerned with protecting citizens and shielding trigger-happy cops.

“If Osmeña goes down this path, blood will stain his already checkered legacy,” Sun Star warned then. “Those who arrogate to themselves power to take life play God.” A City Council of yes-men predictably played along with murder.

With publicity hoopala,  Osmena created, in December 2004, a “Hunter’s Team ”  that’d go after thugs.  For “every criminal’permanently disabled and neutralized”, Osmena  offered a reward of 20,000 pesos Ricardone noted.  A bounty of P10,000  would be paid to off-duty cops, if they eliminated a robber.

“We’ll respect human rights” the mayor pledged. (Wink.) “We’ll go to the law’s limit, then hit them.” (Wink. Wink.)  Does good governance grows out the barrel of a gun?, Viewpoint asked  in “Murder With A Wink” (PDI/Dec 30, 2004).

Between December 2004 and March 2008, bonneted gunmen, astride motorcycles, stalked victims  in Cebu streets.  In the first month, vigilantes stacked up 18 bodies

“After an operation, we’d meet at Mits KTV bar along Bacalso highway, near St Francis Funeral Home”,  a vigilante told  newsmen in confidence. “That’s where we would get the money for our ”work”  Looking for a “subject”, the hitmen met a young girl who replied:  “Sir is not here.”  “Shot her,” ordered the cop, moonlighting as backup man “I refused because she had nothing to do with our work.”

None was killed in hot pursuit. Not a single case has been solved. The headcount piled up to 117 after 12 months.  Cebu’s  vigilantes laid low when UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston probed disappearances.   Thanks to Ricardone’s report, among others,  the US State Department’s annual review on human rights, lumps Cebu alongside killing fields in Tagum, Digos and Davao.

The press stopped it’s headcount in late 2008. By then, the number of those rubbed out crested at 183.  “There’ve been no reports of summary execution under my watch”, says the current Cebu City  police chief. Senior Supt. Melvin Buenafe.

“Those who trifle with life promote a culture of death,” Pope John Paul II  stressed. Still, Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia, then a political ally of  Osmena,  supported  the mayor’s  “Hunter Team”, the US note recalled. A “chilling  message” must be sent to suspected criminals and ensure peace and order”,  Ms Garcia  said.

The Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry also expressed  “strong support for promotion of peace and security as a vital component in the city’s economic development initiatives”. That’s a convoluted phrase for “extra judicial killings”.

Did some businessmen chip in for the 183 executions, while parading their fealty to the Penal Code and the Fifth Commandment?  “Osmeña prides himself as an honorable man,” noted  the column: “Pissing On Our Graves”   (PDI/June 22,2009) “At P20,000 per head, 117 salvaged victims means the mayor, in honoring his word, paid P2.34 million.

“But  it’s  taboo to use public funds for crime payrolls”, the commentary added “Philanthropy is not  one of Osmena’s  strong suits. So, who paid?”  Friends?  Drinking buddies? Businessmen?    “Did they claim these as ‘tax deductions on BIR Form 1071?. In  Cebu, salvaging is an industry “.

Unpunished serial murder, however, saps the security of every citizen. It also embeds impunity. Thus, “the Catholic Church in Cebu, led by Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, and the Cebu Chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) criticized…Osmeña and condemned the extrajudicial killings”, Ambassador Ricardone noted… “ Cardinal Vidal  forcefully denounced the summary executions in his homilies and through the archdiocese’s newsletter, urging Cebuanos to reject the ‘culture of death’.”

IBP urged Cebu City Police Office to arrest death squad members, the US cable added. “Senators Manuel Villar and Richard Gordon warned the Cebu police to stop summary executions of suspected criminals.”

“I feel alluded to,” Osmeña snapped. “But I’m not exactly sad criminals were killed. It’s a question of dosage.” So, who decides whose blood will be spilt? Who says stop? Or who decrees more should die?  Has human life been stripped to calibrated doses?  

Cebu never had a vigilante tradition. Murder with a wink policy spawned a toxic legacy. Not everyone, of our passing  generation  had a hand in this swap.  Still, our grandchildren  will inherit shambles they never sought or created. This is unfair to those who are  “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh”.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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