Jonas Burgos, ‘desaparecido’
It would be unrealistic, perhaps even cruel, at this point to keep up the hope that Jonas Burgos is still alive. Ten years since the 37-year-old farmer-activist was abducted by unidentified men in a mall in Quezon City, no trace of him has been found—no clues or leads pointing to him at least being kept somewhere all this time, for whatever reason.
But this much is clear from the facts of the case: The military was involved in his disappearance. On April 28, 2007, as Burgos was having lunch at Hapag Kainan restaurant in Ever Gotesco Mall, four men and a woman grabbed him and dragged him to a Revo with plate number TAB 194. The witnesses included two members of the restaurant staff and a security guard. The vehicle was eventually traced to the 56th Infantry Battalion Camp in Norzagaray, Bulacan. Burgos’ mother, Edita Burgos, filed a case of arbitrary detention against an Army officer, then Lt. and now Maj. Harry Baliaga, as the one who allegedly barked orders during her son’s abduction; Baliaga had also been previously assigned to the Norzagaray camp.
One detail from the narrative of the witnesses didn’t stand out 10 years ago, but seems particularly chilling now: As Burgos was being dragged away, a female management trainee of the restaurant asked: “Where are you taking my customer?” To which, according to Edita Burgos, the abductors responded: “Don’t get mixed up in this. We’re cops. He’s a pusher, an addict, an addict, an addict!”
The gruesome fate of thousands of so-called addicts and others suspected of involvement in the drug trade is well-known these days. In the case of abducted activists, the stories on record are even more extensive, stretching back to the dark days of martial law under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and continuing even under the democratic post-Edsa years.
One may surmise how Burgos fared in military detention from a similar case—that of University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, who were abducted by military elements in 2006 allegedly under the command of then Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan. Nine years after the students’ disappearance, a witness and fellow detainee told the court hearing the kidnapping and illegal detention case filed against Palparan that he saw Empeño and Cadapan tortured, hung upside down and sexually assaulted by their captors. The witness, Raymond Manalo, said he and his brother were taken by the military on suspicion that they were members of the Communist Party; he was kept in a camp in Bulacan where Empeño and Cadapan were also being detained, and he positively identified Palparan as the military officer who talked to him in two instances.
While Empeño and Cadapan have yet to be found, at least their chief captor Palparan—dubbed “The Butcher” at the height of his antiactivist notoriety—is in detention while his trial is ongoing. Baliaga, the lone person so far haled to court in the case of Burgos’ disappearance, has just been acquitted. The three key witnesses who saw Burgos’ abduction and who could place Baliaga at the crime scene could no longer be found, according to members of the prosecution, forcing them to rely on other testimonies that the court eventually deemed “hearsay.”
The trial lasted four years—for naught, it would seem at this point. Edita Burgos’ arduous efforts to find her son and bring his abductors to light and thence to justice in a court of law, have been even longer—10 years, and counting. Burgos, a son of the celebrated journalist and press freedom fighter Jose Burgos Jr. who himself was jailed during martial law, would have been 47 in March. That none of his captors have yet to pay for their crime is an indictment of the culture of impunity that continues to turn Filipino mothers into grieving crusaders for their desaparecido children.
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