When I was talking to the widow of Cris Guarin during the day of his funeral in General Santos City, the depressing thought flashed through my mind that the case of the first Filipino media person to be killed this year might end up as one more unsolved murder.
Lyn Guarin was with husband Cris and daughter Alea when Cris was driving home at around 10.30 in the evening on January 5. Suddenly a motorcycle ridden by two men pulled up alongside Cris’ Kia Pride sedan and the rider in the rear fired two shots. One bullet hit Cris on the neck, and one grazed Lin on the shoulder. Cris told his wife and daughter to get down on the floor, and as he was saying this, he was shot several more times. “At that point,” Lyn said, “he stopped the car and stepped out to get me and Alea out of the line of fire. Then he ran towards the gunman shouting twice, before he fell, ‘Ano ang kasalanan ko? Ano ang kasalanan ko?’
He was shot a total of seven times.
Cris was one of GenSan’s most successful journalists, having taken his newspaper Tatak Bigtime News to a circulation of over 4,000 a day. He was also one of the prime movers of a profitable enterprise engaged in alternative medicine. “He was a quiet man, with no known personal enemies,” said GenSan City Director Police Chief Cedrick Train.
So, echoing Cris’ dying words, I posed the question to City Director Train, “Why was Cris killed?” The very disturbing answer is that while there are a number of theories as to the perpetrators, including drug dealers resentful of his previous denunciations of the drug trade and resentful business rivals, there is no obvious reason for his murder and no obvious mastermind.
Cris’ murder reminds us of the culture of impunity that has become a trademark of local society in so many parts of the country. From personal grudges to political quarrels to business disputes, contracting assassins in motorcycle is becoming the favorite method of resolving conflicts. This poses a challenge to authorities since this is not a problem that can be dealt with by tightening up discipline in a centralized, hierarchical organization like the Philippine Army or the Philippine National Police. In the case of the latter, strong signals by the civilian leadership that it will not tolerate violations of human rights, as in the charges brought against “the butcher’’ Jovito Palparan and that of the killers of Navy Lieutenant Philip Pestaño, can rapidly produce positive results.
The Guarin case, like the killing of Doc Gerry Ortega last year in Puerto Princesa and so many other murders, occurs in a decentralized context where local rivalries are preeminent. So we should look for a solution that goes beyond the command-and-control approach for military-instigated extrajudicial killings and abuses.
The solution lies, in my view, in a coordinated effort by local civil society, the local government unit, and the national government to win back the community from the clutches of lawless elements, be they politicians, businessmen, people in uniform, organized crime, or ordinary criminals.
The community often knows who carried out the murder, but it cowers in fear. The local government has the means but often the lack of political will to make arrests. So what to do?
First of all, dealing with a particular assassination must be approached like a mass campaign, where civil society leaders, local government officials, and national government representatives are actively involved. This model reflects to some extent what happened in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, in the wake of Doc Gerry’s murder.
On the civil society end, the Church and NGOs must urge citizens to come together, first to get rid of their fear, then provide vital information, then create sustained pressure on the local and national authorities to pursue a murder case, from making the necessary arrests to prosecuting the murderers to ensuring their being sent to prison.
When it comes to the local government, people often throw up their hands and simply give up owing to their perception that police and judges are on the take. But even in the most corrupt municipality, there are reform elements, people who are tired or impunity and are willing to take the risk to restore the rule of law. The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) must find ways of going around corrupt officials and working with and promoting these reformers. And civil society organizations must provide them with a strong base of support.
The national government leadership plays a critical role in ensuring that the process succeeds. In a country with institutions of justice that are still weak, personal pressure from above, especially if it comes from a president who is constantly demanding results, makes a very big difference. In this regard, pressure from Congress is also very important, and in the Doc Gerry case, monitoring from the House was critical in getting the Department of Justice to reverse its initial ruling on the case and move to prosecute a former governor of Palawan. I still remember that it was during the congressional hearings on the budget of the Department of Justice that members of the House extracted from Secretary Leila de Lima a promise to review the Doc Gerry case.
Coordinated pressure from civil society, from reform elements in local government, from the national government in a process that unfolds as a mass campaign would be very powerful counterpoint to the fear and citizen cynicism that powerful lawless elements thrive on to maintain the culture of impunity.
This mass campaign against impunity would be far more effective at protecting people from assault than individual self-defense via firearms, which many journalists, not only in GenSan but elsewhere, are now considering. If a person really feels his or her life is in danger, I have no problems with them carrying registered firearms provided they are trained in the use of firearms. But I believe that community defense against impunity along the lines sketched out above is a far better guarantee of individual safety and welfare than the bearing of arms.
When I left GenSan, I felt really sad for the family of Cris Guarin. Yet I was also hopeful because of what came out of three conversations that I had.
First, City Director Train, who has a reputation of being a professional policeman, told me that the triggerman could be identified and arrested within two weeks’ time, though pinning down the mastermind might take longer.
Second, speaking by phone to Mayor Darlene Antonino, our former colleague in Congress, I was assured that she would exert all efforts to bring justice to the Guarin family. Mayor Antonino has a reputation for no-nonsense and effective administration, so her promise is something not to be taken lightly.
Third, and very important, President Aquino, who had already taken a strong, personal interest in the case, told me by phone that he had recently conferred with the Chief of the Philippine National Police Nicanor Bartolome on prioritizing the resolution of the Guarin assassination.
Civil society, and especially the media, in GenSan is already mobilized by Cris’ murder, and with civil society working with serious local government officials, and the president and his people pushing from above, the prospects for winning back the community from the agents of impunity are not negligible. Successful, a coordinated mass campaign against impunity in GenSan, like that in Puerto Princesa, could be a model for the rest of the country.
Then we will be able to truly say that Cris Guarin did not die in vain.
*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives representing Akbayan.