Murder in paradise. That headline has applied to Boracay on a number of occasions in the last few years, as the avalanche of visitors to the island and its pell-mell race to development have led to incidents of shocking crime. The most gruesome had been the deaths of architect John Cowperthwaite, art dealer Manfred Schoeni, German developer Anton Forstenhausler and their maid Irma Sarmiento in 2004; they bore multiple stab wounds when found in their beds at the villa owned by Forstenhausler on the island.
Just last December, a Briton was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his Taiwanese wife in Boracay in 2007.
But the most recent case of blood tingeing the pristine sand and waters of the island is not a simple case of murder or robbery or carousing gone wild. Dexter Condez, 26, was gunned down on the evening of Feb. 22 by a suspect now identified as Daniel Celestino, a security guard detailed to a hotel in Boracay. Condez was no tourist or gang member; he had no specific characteristic that might have made him a target of criminal behavior. Except perhaps this: He was the spokesperson of the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization, indigenous people fighting for their rights to the land and water that used to be theirs as the island’s original inhabitants and that now have shrunk to miserly levels as outside developers corner every valuable square meter of Boracay to cater to the tourist boom.
“Dexter had no personal enemies, and we could not think of any reason why he would be killed other than his standing up for the right of the tribe to their land,” said Sr. Hermi Sutares of the Holy Rosary Parish Ati Mission, which has been helping the Ati articulate their demand to be recognized as rightful owners of their share of the island. The Ati believe that the killing had to do with a land dispute arising from their occupation of a 2.1-hectare property in Barangay Manoc-Manoc that was granted to them in 2011 through a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, but which is also being claimed by at least three claimants.
Yesterday in a press conference, the Crown Regency Boracay Resorts presented Celestino to the media, along with two lawyers to dispute the charge against him. But the two lawyers also admitted that they were not the official counsel of the security guard. One of them is the hotel’s counsel, while the other identified himself as the lawyer of one of the claimants contesting the grant of the ancestral domain title to the Ati. Why the claimant was siding with Celestino, he refused to explain.
In his Facebook account, Asian Traveler magazine editor Rome Jorge pointed out something truly stark about Boracay:
“You have Greek restaurants, Swiss inns, English breakfasts, French crepes. Faux Balinese handicrafts, modernist architecture, establishments catering to Korean, Japanese, Chinese, European, Australian and North American tourists. There’s contrived artifice and bad taste all around.
“Nobody offers the authentic cuisine of Boracay. Nobody performs authentic cultural shows by real locals. Nobody builds using the authentic architecture of the province using native materials.
“In Boracay today, it seems nobody bothers to highlight the authentic culture of the indigenous Ati people, or of nearby Kalibo-Aklan, or of the Philippines in general.
“Why is that?
“Maybe because just about everyone you see owning, earning or working in Boracay didn’t really come from here.
“The Ati indigenous people are the natives of Boracay. They have lived on the island well before the concept of land ownership and legal documents arose. And it is precisely this reason why they are now dispossessed and endangered. The lives of the Ati, or even the locals of nearby Aklan who have settled on the island for employment opportunities, have changed little. This despite more and more resorts crowding the island that create challenges on where to source potable water and dispose garbage and sewage.”
If Condez was indeed killed because he and his people were standing in the way of further exploitation of Boracay’s remaining land, then this murder most foul cries out to the heavens—and all that exquisite sea—for restitution. As the world-famous island bloats even more in the name of progress, the Ati deserve to have their voices heard, and their place at the table rightfully protected.