“AFTER CHARLENE, who’s next?” That was the slogan in the funeral protest march for kidnap-slay victim Charlene Mayne Sy in January 1993. It was supposed to be a rhetorical question posed by the anti-crime organization Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order (MRPO). But then the answer came soon enough. The procession of names of kidnap victims has yet to stop.
“We were supposed to be an ad hoc group,” says Rose Yenko, president of the Citizens Action Against Crime (CAAC). “Never had we thought that 10 long years after we organized in February 1993, we would still be around, still fulfilling a need, and much as we want to close shop, it looks like we may have to be around forever.”
Groups like the CAAC and the MRPO would rather that they had no future, that they would no longer be any reason for them to exist. Yet as time passes, it seems the reasons only increase. In 2015, therefore, it is likely that the CAAC and the MRPO would still be around, although one can always hope that at the very least, by then they would no longer have to work as hard as they do today.
Both groups had been set up in the first two months of 1993, in response to the rampage of kidnappings that began in September 1992, when the lives of teeners Kenneth Go and Myron Uy Ramos were snuffed out by their abductors. The tragedy was then the most shocking trauma visited on the Chinese-Filipino community—the abduction happened right in Binondo, the victims were young, and not only were they killed, they had been tortured, and that was even after ransom was paid to the kidnappers. The reason for the torture and murder: an active Philippine National Police (PNP) official had tried to cut into the ransom payment; the kidnappers said they had to give the official a warning to back off by sacrificing the two teenagers. The Chinoy community seethed, raged, and mourned, but at the time, it had been too intimidated to take any action.
Three months after, however, the stark image of the bloodied corpse of 15-year-old Charlene Mayne Sy lying side by side with her abductors on EDSA horrified the Chinoys so much they were finally galvanized into action. Sy had been killed by a volley of bullets from the police, who had strafed the car she and her kidnappers were riding. Then they had brought out her lifeless body, still clad in school clothes, and lay it beside her dead abductors on a major thoroughfare that was streaked with blood and motor oil.
On January 15, 1993, Chinoys staged a funeral/protest march on behalf of Charlene and all the other kidnapping victims since the Go-Ramos abduction. Bustling Binondo became silent for a day as all businesses there and Chinese-Filipino schools shut down. The move was a milestone for the erstwhile silent, docile Chinoys who had always bent with the wind. They wanted everyone to know enough was enough and that they were now ready to fight.
The protest action also served as a wakeup call to the Ramos administration, which hastily called for a national summit on peace and order at the Philippine International Convention Center. On February 16, 1993, Chinoy organizations were joined by non-Chinoy groups for a huge rally at the PICC grounds— the biggest protest assembly since the restoration of democracy in 1986.
YET TODAY, kidnapping statistics continue to make one’s blood grow cold. Except for 1999, 2000, and the fortunately dramatic improvement in 2004, kidnapping cases averaged 125 a year, or slightly more than 10 cases a month. In the past decade, 2,300 people have fallen prey to kidnappers, an average of two victims every three days. About P1.6 billion in ransom has been paid to kidnapers in the last 10 years as well, slightly more than a fourth of which was paid out in 1996 and 1997.
Some people also have the mistaken notion that with the Abu Sayyaf, Pentagon, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front terrorizing Mindanao, that that region would have the most number of kidnap victims. Not so. From 1996 to 2003, Mindanao posted 325 victims compared to 430 in the National Capital Region. At the height of the kidnapping spree in Mindanao in 1996 and 1997, the country’s capital recorded more than 70 incidents of kidnapping compared to Mindanao’s 50.
Obviously, far too many wise suggestions have gone unheeded, and far too many things have gone undone. “It needs a major overhaul to make it work,” says Teresita Baltazar, one of the founders and most active members of CAAC, says of the criminal justice system.
After that major summit at the PICC, the government had seemed eager to see that happen as well. It began reaching out to civic organizations for feedback, and by 1994, a technical committee composed of government and police officials and representatives from anti-crime groups such as Baltazar and myself was established. The committee, which was supposed to implement the action agenda of the peace and order summit, was at first a source of optimism for those of us in the anti-crime organizations. But we began to notice that the endless meetings we attended were mostly focused on the day-to-day problems of the PNP and not on reforming the system itself. In the meantime, more people were being kidnapped and banks robbed; lives, too, were being lost in the midst of the mayhem caused by these crimes.
Baltazar and I thought we had to speak up about what was going on, and for that we were rudely castigated by the director of the Philippine Police Academy during a National Police Commission (Napolcom) meeting. We retorted that no amount of PR could improve the image of the PNP—only effectiveness and hard work could. Shortly thereafter, we submitted our joint letter of resignation from the committee.
“Reforms will not work when people who are supposed to work on it regard them merely as all in a day’s work,” we wrote. “There simply was no sense of urgency to carry out reforms.”
Reforms, after all, are long term and difficult to implement. They thus need strong institutional support, which we never got or felt despite the government’s numerous promises.
Sometime in the late 1990s, however, Baltazar, under the auspices of the CAAC and the Ateneo de Manila University, took it upon herself to organize the Multisectoral Study Group for Reforms in the Criminal Justice System. The group was composed of then Justice Secretary Franklin Drilon, Army Gen. Rodolfo Biazon, businessmen Meneleo Carlos and Vicente Jayme, and CAAC and MRPO members Rose Yenko, Baltazar, and myself. We wanted to study which reforms were the most urgent and how these could be achieved. Resource persons for each topic were invited for inputs. As Carlos observed at the time, “Unless reforms are instituted, everything else that we do will just merely be band-aid solutions.”
Today working for reforms in the criminal justice system remains an uphill battle, especially since the fight is against something so well entrenched that people seem to have accepted as part of their way of life. But the multisectoral study proved to be a good start for us to look at the system in a more orderly fashion so that we could really see what was wrong— thereby making it easier for us to think of possible solutions. (Of course, seeing them implemented was another matter.)
SINCE THEN, anti-crime groups have dissected kidnap-for-ransom cases and broke down the criminal justice system into what we have taken to calling its “pillars.” Although our observations are not meant to denigrate the entire system or be taken as sweeping generalizations, they are glimpses of what we have been up against all these years and what we may still be facing a decade from now. We take hope in the fact that in each pillar, we have found many committed and dedicated public servants who work hard even under the most adverse conditions. State prosecutors and police officers who have been working with us often work through the night and into the early morning hours to do their jobs the best they possibly can. But there are too few of their kind and their efforts have not been enough to overcome the system’s weaknesses and shortcomings.
Pillar 1: law enforcement. The Philippine National Police lacks manpower and resources to go after criminal gangs, many of which were and still are well-organized, well-funded and well-protected. Early on, there was even ample proof that police officials, some of them high-ranking, were involved in the kidnappings. Some things apparently do not change; arrests made during the past two years have proven that again, some military and police officials, albeit lower ranking, have been involved in kidnappings.
Now criminal gangs have become more technically sophisticated and better equipped. In comparison, the PNP remains in dire need of structural reforms, beginning from the way it hires, promotes, and assigns its members. Its ranks need to be cleansed of scalawags, its budget streamlined and reconstructed in such a way that the money is able to trickle down to the lowest precinct, and its bureaucracy trimmed so that more policemen would be out in the streets and protecting the innocent rather than having many of them sitting inside the headquarters.
Without these taking place, even the most well-thought-out initiatives against crime may fail. Take the case of the Community Oriented Policing program, which had worked well in other countries, that the CAAC and MRPO helped push locally. With financial assistance from the Zonta Club of Ayala-Makati, professional trainor Rose Yenko painstakingly worked with police officers to draw up an entire module and training manual on how to implement it. But that was as far as it got. Because the police force then and now is still largely dependent on personalities, the program was sidelined instead of institutionalized after National Capital Region chief of command General Jewel Canson was reassigned.
Pillar 2: the prosecution. Even when the national police do succeed in arresting the right perpetrators, the overworked, underpaid, and unmotivated fiscals still have a hard time prosecuting the case. Of course there are many instances when haphazard police work is at fault. Just as often, however, the sheer negligence and lack of diligence of the prosecutors themselves are to blame. Usually, too, the police and the prosecutors do not work in tandem, and end up pointing fingers at each other once the fiascos begin piling up.
Fingers were certainly pointing just about everywhere when police sergeants Jorge Comadre, Leo Betubio, and Policarpio Avenir were granted bail despite the fact that they had admitted to at least 15 kidnappings and bank robberies and had been positively identified by two kidnap victims. The trio was also known to belong to the kidnap-for-ransom gang headed by Police Lt. Nestor Espejo. In another case that qualifies for Ripley’s, the prosecutor himself prepared the victim’s affidavit of desistance.
The Department of Justice and the prosecution service have a crucial role in the entire judicial process. A strong, dedicated and committed justice secretary has a significant role to play in strengthening the criminal justice system and in making the fight against criminal gangs more than just a moro-moro staged to appease an increasingly worried public. But until that position is not seen as a payback for political favors, reforming the system the next 10 years will remain elusive.
Pillar 3: the corrections. Sometimes, though, the victims’ luck changes and a case is filed successfully. Unfortunately, members of kidnap-for-ransom groups, having amassed millions, can still buy their way out.
This was why one of the country’s most-wanted kidnappers Roberto Obeles Yap, for instance, was able to elude jail time despite the many cases filed against him, including the kidnapping case for which he was convicted. He had a P1-million reward on his head when he was finally killed in Angeles, Pampanga in November 2003.
Kidnappers who do get placed under detention somehow often manage to escape while their trial is going on. And once they are out on the streets again, they just go back to kidnapping, albeit in a place other than their old haunts. Kidnap suspect Job Damaso and the gang members who abducted Charlene Mayne Sy were jail escapees from Iloilo. Antonio Pelenio, an escapee from Quezon City jail, kidnapped Regan King in Cebu; Tony Tan and Benjamin Dy also broke out of the Quezon City jail in February 2003 and abducted three new victims three months after their escape.
Pillar 4: the courts. One has to have steel nerves and stomach to be able to go through the criminal court system. Victims and their families often have to endure constant harassment and threats while their cases are being tried in court; the witness-protection program usually affords them little comfort because of its many flaws. But it is the long, tedious, and expensive judicial process that usually discourages a lot of victims from pursuing a lawsuit to the very end and leaves them with distaste for the entire criminal justice system.
When the two sons of businessman Jepson Dichaves were kidnapped in 1993, one of them was just two years old, the other four. By the time their abductors were convicted, the younger boy was already 11 years old while the older child was 13.
| Ransom paid
(in million pesos)
Incidents by Area, 1996-2003
Figures first published in Tulay Fortnightly, January 13, 2004.
In the nine-year trial, the Dichaves family spent much, much more than the P2.4-million in ransom it had paid, despite the fact that the case was the most documented in local kidnap-for-ransom history: the family had hired a helicopter, police operatives made voice and video tapes of the entire negotiations, and even photographed the actual ransom payoff.
Such long waits for justice are common. This November marks the first death anniversary of kidnap-slay victim Betty Chua Sy; the court case has just completed pre-trial. Two-and-a half-year-old Gian Jethro Chua’s case has not even started first hearing, and December 2 will be the first anniversary of the boy’s abduction.
Many anti-crime organizations have observed too many instances when judges had come to court unprepared or displayed their lack of training, if not their sheer ignorance of the law. Bribery and payoffs, even in cases whose merits are very obvious, are not isolated either. Unless the court administrator is given enough resources to monitor the cases and hire more judges, and the clerks and court staff, the legal aid offices, and the prosecutors are given enough logistics to help declog the courts and fast track cases, then there would be more miscarriages of justice if only because of slow progress of the cases.
Pillar 5: the community. The indifference and apathy of the community is a big drawback in the fight against crime. The criminal justice system is still a highly personalistic system where the institutions work only for those who have connections. The poor who cannot even expect to find justice cannot have the motivation or the simplest notion on how to push for the reforms to make the system work for them. The few motivated NGOs like the CAAC and MRPO are easily demoralized to see the odds stack against them because the different pillars and institutions simply lack the political will to make the system work. The five pillars have to work in synergy. So long as they do not, the only ones who would be feeling safe in this country would be the criminals.
Teresita Ang See is an academic and a cultural worker by vocation. She writes, conducts research, seminars and lectures, runs the Bahay Chinoy: Museum of the Chinese in Philippine Life, and promotes understanding and awareness of the Chinoy community and cultural heritage. By avocation, she is a fighter for justice and a peace worker.