ll Souls’ Day in the Philippines is the time when families gather to remember their dead. But for the relatives and friends of desaparecidos (disappeared), it is also when they meet up and recall their loved ones who have gone missing.
For years now, families and friends of the Filipino victims of enforced disappearance, along with rights advocates, have been gathering together every Nov. 2 to update each other on their loved ones’ cases, as well as to light a candle for each of the missing. During their most recent meeting, they lit candles for 10 more individuals: Ariel Badiang, Renel delos Santos, Denald Laloy Mialen, Lyn Grace Martullinas, Dexter Capuyan, Gene Roz Jamil de Jesus, Deah Lopez, Mariano Jolongbayan, Lee Sudario, and Norman Ortiz.
The annual activity is organized jointly by the rights group Karapatan and Desaparecidos, also known as the Families of the Disappeared for Justice. That they end up lighting more candles each year has been a reminder that the abduction and enforced disappearance of activists – a practice that first became notorious during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos– continues to plague the Philippines.
Nearly 38 years after the late strongman’s ouster and more than a decade following the passage of the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act (Republic Act 10353), activists still suddenly go missing in the country. Indeed, just three days after Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the dictator’s son, was sworn in as the Philippines’ 17th president in 2022, labor activists Elgene Mungcal and Ma. Elena Pampoza were abducted allegedly by state actors; they remain missing to this day.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) has described enforced disappearance as “a particularly heinous and complex violation of multiple human rights and an international crime” that is “not restricted to a specific region of the world.”
As defined by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which the United Nations General Assembly adopted in December 2010, the act is a state-approved deprivation of liberty, including arrest or abduction, followed by concealing the person’s fate or whereabouts.
RA 10353, the first legislation in Asia to criminalize enforced disappearance, adopted this definition. The U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said the law demonstrated the Philippines’ “political will” to stop the practice.
Sadly, that “political will” ended with the legislation’s passage. During the Justice Committee hearing at the House of Representatives last November, the state Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said there had been 145 victims of involuntary disappearance since the law was passed in 2012.
In a statement issued last August, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances noted that out of the 193 members of the United Nations, only 98 signed the convention against enforced disappearance.
“This makes it extremely difficult for the victim families to seek justice due to insufficient laws present to address the crime in many countries,” the group said.
In its 2023 report, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (WGEID) said it had forwarded 60,703 cases to 112 states, with more than 47,774 active cases in consideration in 97 states. In Asia, Sri Lanka had the most number of cases (12,855) of enforced disappearance and general allegations transmitted between 1980 and 2023, followed by Pakistan (1,635), the Philippines (779), Nepal (694), and India (529).
In the Philippines, statistics from local rights groups indicate a more harrowing situation. As of June 2023, the group Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) documented 2,078 victims since the Marcos dictatorship. Karapatan documented 1,908 during the same period, including eight under the Marcos Jr. administration. Four more individuals have gone missing since then, bringing the number to 12 under Marcos Jr. as of November 2023.
For the families and friends of desaparacidos, the pain of having missing loved ones is compounded by the difficulty of the search and uncertainty of ever finding them. The feeling is often worse for those who learn how the enforced disappearances happened.
“News that my father went missing was already difficult to hear,” says 22-year-old Gabrielle, daughter of Indigenous peoples’ rights advocate Dexter Capuyan. “Learning how it transpired was even worse.”
“There were also moments when my grandmother would grow weary as we would visit camps, hoping to see her son,” she adds. “I cannot count the number of ‘Ay apo (Oh God)’ her retired self would utter. That was also difficult to witness.”
Dexter, 56, disappeared on April 28, 2023, along with Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples Information Officer Gene “Bazoo” De Jesus, 27, in the town of Taytay, in Rizal province. Rights groups alleged that men who introduced themselves as operatives of a Philippine National Police unit forced the pair out of the tricycle they were on and then transferred to two separate vehicles.
To 74-year-old Medy De Jesus, who lost a colleague and friend under similar circumstances during Martial Law, enforced disappearances are “the most severe form of punishment” and “an endless form of torture.”
“If they were killed, you would have a body to bury, and if they were imprisoned, you would have a place to visit,” says the former Benedictine nun. But she says an enforced disappearance has family and friends in limbo, always wondering where their loved one is and what has happened or is happening to them.
Their hope, of course, is that their loved ones would eventually turn up somewhere. Such is the wish of Norman Ortiz’s younger sister, Nica.
Peasant organizer Norman, 25, went missing with colleague Lee Sudario, 34, last Sept. 29 in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija, a landlocked province in the Central Luzon region. Witnesses say at least 10 armed men in military fatigues forced them inside a van.
“Like Jhed and Jonila, we hope they also release our brother,” Nica says. “We’re worried he might be suffering. (We’re) concerned about his safety and wondering if he’s still alive.”
She is referring to environmental advocates Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, who were abducted in Orion, Bataan, another province in Central Luzon, last Sept. 2, 2023. Nearly two weeks later, the National Security Council and the military announced that the two had sought assistance from authorities and were brought to a safehouse.
On Sept. 19, the military and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) held a press conference featuring Castro, 21, and Tamano, 22. But the two activists disputed the authorities’ claim that they had willingly turned themselves in; instead, they said that they had been abducted and made to sign confessions under duress.
While officials were caught by surprise by Castro and Tamano’s bold move, their surfacing is no longer that unique an occurrence. In a 2023 factsheet on enforced disappearances, the OHCHR noted that “short-term disappearance” has become a trend.
“New patterns are emerging, including that of short-term enforced disappearances, whereby persons are placed in secret detention outside the protection of the law,” said the OHCHR. “They may resurface shortly after that, either dead or alive. If they are alive, “it is likely that they have been tortured, without ever having been brought before a judge or any other civil authority.”
Castro and Tamano, who have since been released, have said that they were tied up and interrogated continuously by several men whom they believe belonged to the military.
CNN Philippines has quoted their lawyer as saying that they were “tortured, they were blindfolded for more than 10 days by men they did not recognize.”
Short-term disappearances that had less media coverage include the August 2022 abduction of Cordillera activist Stephen Tauli in Tabuk City, Kalinga, in northern Philippines. Tauli, who’s in his 60s, was released more than 24 hours later. His abductors reportedly forced him to sign a confession about his alleged links with communist rebels.
In Central Philippines, development workers Arman Dayoha, 28, and Dyan Gumanao, 27, went missing on Jan. 13, 2023. But footage of their abduction went viral on social media, creating a public uproar to surface the two. Three days after their abduction, Dayoha and Gumanao were left at a resort 42 kms away from Cebu City, located in the Central Visayas region.
In its statements on reported abductions and disappearances in 2023, CHR had underscored the need for decisive action from authorities to resolve desaparecido cases and end impunity. It also reiterated its call for the Philippines to ratify the U.N. convention against enforced disappearances.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) chairperson Ephraim Cortes, however, isn’t holding his breath. Calling RA 10353’s implementation “weak,” he says that state forces even usually refuse to certify that a missing person is not in their custody.
Section 9 of RA 10353’s Implementing Rule and Regulations require military officials to issue a certification within 24 hours to four days of an inquiry on the whereabouts of disappeared persons. In the case of Capuyan and De Jesus, their families visited 14 military and police facilities during the first 40 days of their disappearance; only three of these offices issued a certification.
“To improve implementation of the law, there should be immediate accountability if they refuse to issue a certification,” Cortes says. “There should be a presumption of liability on their part.”
He also points out that even with court orders, military and police camp searches are hard to execute.
Says Cortes: “There is a refusal on the ground. They would make you wait or will choose what facilities are open for inspection… There is also the existence of safehouses and secret detention facilities.”
But the biggest hurdle, he says, “is the standard line of national security.
“The problem is, you cannot do anything when they deny it,” says Cortes. “Under the blanket of national security, they can deny many things despite the law’s requirement for preventive measures.”
Most times, says Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, state forces deny custody and knowledge of the person and incident when they are asked to respond in habeas corpus petitions.
“They (state forces) take great pains to explain their non-accountability despite evidence of suspicion or actual incidents of red tagging, threats, and surveillance of state agents versus the victims,” Palabay says.
She also says that in almost all petitions for amparo and habeas corpus — protective remedies for persons whose right to life, liberty, and security are violated or threatened — monitored by Karapatan, the police and military would justify their actions as “not unlawful.”
“In most cases using the said remedies,” says Palabay, “what is direly absent is taking the state forces to task for either their abduction and/or continued illegal detention and therefore enforced disappearance of the victims, and/or the lack of due diligence on their part to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators among state actors.”
Yet, Karapatan and Desaparacidos say that they and the victims’ families try to remain optimistic. At their most recent All Souls’ Day gathering, they expressed the hope “that one day, we will not have to light candles and offer flowers in the absence of our loved ones, because this day will cease to become a day to remember the disappeared but become a day of justice.” ◉