The Philippines' Disappearing Dissidents

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Isa Lorenzo for TIME

A "Missing: Jonas Burgos" poster pictured in Manila

On April 28, 2007, Jonas Burgos, a 37-year-old Philippine political activist, was eating lunch in Ever Gotesco shopping mall in Manila. At around 1:20 p.m., a group of four men approached his table. They spoke quietly to Burgos for about 20 minutes. Then the men began pushing him toward the mall's exit. "I'm just an activist," a waitress heard Burgos shout. A mall security guard approached the group. As the guard would later testify, the men warned him that they were police officers. They hustled Burgos outside and into a maroon Toyota. As the car vanished into traffic, the guard wrote down the license plate.

Burgos' family began to worry immediately when he didn't show up for a family event that evening. His mother, Edita, tried dialing his mobile phone, but when he answered, he seemed groggy, as though he'd been drugged. When she called again later, his phone had been turned off. Two days later, Edita Burgos called a hasty press conference to ask for help finding her son. Tips began to trickle in. One tipster, who claimed to be a former army intelligence officer, said that Jonas Burgos had been snatched by the Philippine military. "I had no sleep," Edita Burgos recalls. "I was imagining all sorts of horrors."

These are dangerous times for Philippine activists. A police task force assigned to investigate politically motivated killings says that 141 activists have been murdered since 2001, when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power. All but a handful of those cases remain unsolved. Karapatan, a Philippine human-rights group, estimates a much bloodier tally: 902 murdered labor leaders, journalists, local politicians, priests, and peasant organizers. Dozens more activists have vanished. In June 2006, less than a year before Jonas Burgos was snatched, two young female organizers from the University of the Philippines were abducted at gunpoint in Bulacan.

The Philippine government has pledged to improve its human-rights record. Yet most of these abduction cases linger in limbo, stymied by the military's recalcitrance or police ineptitude. A March report by the U.S. State Department noted that "judicial inaction on the vast majority of disappearances contributed to a climate of impunity and undermined public confidence in the justice system." During a highly publicized six-month inquiry by the Philippines Court of Appeals, witnesses and military personnel offered tantalizing glimpses into the shadowy circumstances surrounding the brazen daylight abduction of Jonas Burgos. Yet when the proceeding concluded last week, Edita Burgos was no closer to knowing who took her son, or why. But that should not be surprising. As the case of Jonas Burgos demonstrates, families of the disappeared often expect to find neither solace nor justice in Philippine courtrooms.

Cycle of Violence

Experience had taught Edita Burgos to fear the worst. During the military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, her husband, Jose, had published a popular opposition newspaper. The paper's offices were frequently raided, and Jose Burgos was held under house arrest for two years. Jonas and his siblings were nursed on their parent's leftist politics, often taking photographs or covering rallies for their father. The family was also steeped in Catholicism. After her husband died in 2003, Edita Burgos became a lay Carmelite nun. Jonas himself briefly considered joining the priesthood, but instead took a degree in agriculture, specializing in organic farming. When the family relocated from Manila to a farm in Bulacan province, Jonas adopted rural life wholesale. "He dressed like a farmer," says Edita. "He was just like them in his manner, so he could relate to them. He had a rapport with the people."

In Bulacan, Burgos began working with a peasant activist group, training farmers in organic techniques and giving political seminars. The government has accused the group of supporting the New People's Army (NPA), a Communist insurgency that has festered for more than three decades in the country's impoverished hinterland. But the peasant group's leader, Joseph Canlas, says that neither Burgos nor his group was connected with the insurgents. Burgos certainly had deeply felt leftist sympathies. Yet even his own family cannot say for certain whether he was a mere fellow traveler or an active NPA supporter. On occasion, his mother says, he would disappear for weeks into the mountains. He would tell her he was meeting farmers in remote villages; she suspected he was meeting insurgents in their jungle redoubts.

Philippine police and military have long blamed the killings and kidnappings on internal purges within the Communist insurgency. The NPA does have a history of murderous infighting: in 2003, a former insurgent leader was gunned down in a Manila restaurant while eating lunch. But international and Philippine human-rights watchdogs allege that the military itself is responsible for many of the deaths and disappearances. According to Ruth Cervantes, a spokeswoman for Karapatan, the violence peaked in 2006, at the height of a new government offensive against the NPA. In a scathing 2007 report, Philip Alston, a special rapporteur for the U.N., wrote that the country's military "is in a state of denial concerning the numerous extrajudicial executions in which its soldiers are implicated." For the first time last year, the U.S. made some of its military aid to the Philippines contingent on the country improving its human-rights record. The international disapprobation was a source of embarrassment to an Arroyo administration already staggered by allegations of vote-rigging and corruption. And the government has taken steps to prosecute the killings more aggressively, including participating in a national summit last July on extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. At that summit, the country's Supreme Court declared a new remedy for victims of government violence. Adapted from Latin American legal systems, the writ of amparo—"protection," in Spanish—would, in theory, disallow blanket government denials in cases were soldiers are suspected of kidnapping activists. Thus far, the new law has proven a qualified success, according to Neri Colmenares, a human-rights lawyer who has represented more than a dozen families of abducted activists. In one case involving two farmers who alleged they were detained at various army bases for 18 months and subjected to torture—including whippings with barbed wire and being bathed in their own urine—the Philippines Court of Appeals agreed that the military was culpable, and that military investigators had failed to sufficiently probe their complaint. But many other cases where the military is suspected of involvement in disappearances have resulted in few answers.

Dead-End Investigation

Burgos' abduction grabbed headlines in the Philippines in part because of his family's prominence during the Marcos era. Arroyo herself called Edita Burgos to assure her that police would pursue the case aggressively. But from the start the investigation seemed to sputter. A week after the abduction, police told Burgos' mother that they'd found a corpse resembling Jonas. The man had been bound with a cord, strangled, shot twice in the skull, and dumped by a lonely country roadside. Edita Burgos insisted it was not her son. As part of their investigation, police also traced the license plate of the Toyota used by the kidnappers. They discovered that the plate had originally belonged to a vehicle in Bulacan. In July 2006, the owner of that vehicle was cited for illegal logging, and the vehicle itself was impounded by the army's 56th Infantry Battalion, also stationed in Bulacan. A second car allegedly used by the kidnappers was traced to a top military officer. Since then, the impounded car—and its license plate—have been sitting on an army base. The plate seemed to point to the military's involvement in Burgos's abduction. "This is vital information that connects the military to the case," says Purificacion C. Valera Quisumbing, chair of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights at the time of the abduction. "We're not saying they were the ones who did the abduction. We're just saying that this is a vital connection."

The military conducted its own internal investigation into the license plate. While that report recommended censuring three of the battalion's officers for failing to keep track of the plate, it did not offer an explanation of how the plate became attached to the car used to snatch Burgos—other than to suggest that someone seeking to discredit the military may have snuck into the base and stolen it. In July, a senior government prosecutor announced that he wanted to interview six military officers in connection with Burgos' abduction. He was immediately removed from the case. Senior military officers have offered their own explanation for the abduction. In a letter to the human-rights commission, General Hermogenes Esperon, head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at the time of the abduction, suggested that Jonas Burgos was, in fact, a high-ranking insurgent who went by the nom de guerre Ka Ramon. In August 2007, four months after Burgos disappeared, police produced three new witnesses: former NPA insurgents who claimed they had seen Burgos' kidnapping. The ex-insurgents claimed that Burgos was an NPA member, and was targeted by his own comrades in a dispute over money.

General Esperon, who retired last month, declined repeated requests for an interview. A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, says that the military was not involved. "We as an organization categorically deny we were involved in the abduction of Mr. Jonas Burgos," Bacarro says. "There is just a possibility that some AFP members might be implicated. If that happens, we would make available members implicated in the abduction in court. It is not a policy of the AFP to be involved in these kinds of activities." Bacarro also says that he does not believe the military was investigating Burgos at the time of his abduction. But a confidential military memo dating from May 2007 places Burgos in the army's "order of battle"—a roster of NPA insurgents targeted for arrest or elimination. Next to Burgos' name is the word "neutralized." The memo bears the name of the 56th Infantry Battalion's chief intelligence officer, but is not signed. Bacarro will not confirm the document's authenticity. "It is the subject of an investigation so we're leaving it to the court to assert the authenticity," he says.

Thus far, however, Philippine courts have shed little light on the murky circumstances surrounding Burgos' abduction. As part of an amparo complaint filed by Edita Burgos, a number of military officers have testified; all have denied military involvement in the kidnapping. Burgos continues to insist that the army orchestrated her son's disappearance. If he is still alive, she says she would like him released; if dead, she would like only to know where his body is buried.

In late March, Burgos' family held a celebration for what would have been his 38th birthday at the Carmelite convent where Edita Burgos works. As she sat in the convent's sunlit courtyard, in front on an untouched chocolate cake, a procession of careworn middle-aged women came up to her. They were, she explained, mothers of other activists who have vanished. When the women had gone, Burgos continued: "This is not about Jonas alone. They are killing the future leaders of our country. If you kill these people, who will be left?"