A week before a joint police-military operation captured Benito Tiamzon, chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army, together with his wife Wilma and five others in Carcar, Cebu, unknown gunmen killed Romeo Capalla, an anti-Marcos rebel turned fair trade campaigner, in Oton, Iloilo.
It may be that nothing connects the two events except a fluke of the calendar: They happened on two successive Saturdays in March. Or it may be that the two incidents—the first a notable feat of intelligence-gathering and operational execution and the second yet another tragic extrajudicial killing—are related in a deeper way.
According to persons who knew Capalla well, he was killed by a military hit squad. He was a political detainee during the martial law years, and was an active member of Selda, the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainee Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto. The Selda vice president for the Visayas, Fortunato Pelaez, suggested that government security forces were involved: “Romy was killed in public a few meters from the municipal hall and police station. The assailants were on about four motorcycles. Almost simultaneously, another group burned a muscovado sugar mill being serviced by PFTC [the Panay Free Trade Center, which Capalla chaired]. Who has the means, motive and gall to do this?”
Reylan Vergara, secretary general of the Panay chapter of Karapatan, the human rights group, also tagged the military: “First they harassed him by filing trumped-up charges. They were unsuccessful. So now they killed him.”
The spokesman of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division called the statements charging military participation in Capalla’s killing “preposterous.” He added: “We condemn his killing and we are not in any way involved. He and his family deserve justice and we will help the police in their investigation.”
But it is on record that, despite Capalla’s extensive and visible involvement with the Panay Fair Trade Center since at least 1994, the Armed Forces still suspected he was a member of the NPA. In August 2005, he was arrested on an arson charge; he was allegedly with other NPA rebels who burned P15 million worth of construction equipment just days before the May 2004 elections. After 32 days he was ordered released by a court, for lack of evidence.
His colleagues at the Panay Fair Trade Center said the accusation that he was a rebel commander could not have been true. “He had been working here since 1994 and we were with him most of the time. He was already at the office by [8 a.m.],” Ma. Theresa Mediavilla said last week. In 2005, after his arrest, the Center’s board of directors issued a statement condemning it. “We find [the arrest] baseless, a grave injustice against him and a great inconvenience to his function as manager of PFTC.”
The Center helps farmers producing natural and organic products (such as muscovado sugar) by buying the produce at higher rates and then selling these to fair trade organizations abroad. Capalla started working with the Center in 1994 and served as general manager from 2001. “[His death is] painful for us but we will not stop our work here because many of us were able to send our children to school because of this. Hundreds of members of farmers’ and women’s organizations have also benefited from the Center,” Mediavilla said.
It is clear that the work of the Panay Fair Trade Center is not only substantial but time-consuming; how anyone can think of it as mere cover for someone like Capalla is beyond us. And yet the record stares us in the face: an elaborate if ultimately failed attempt to legally link Capalla to the NPA, then his assassination. Even more chilling is the following fact preserved in the record: Another person charged with Capalla in the arson case in 2005, Aklan Councilor Fernando Baldomero, at the time the Bayan Muna provincial chair, was also assassinated by unknown gunmen, in 2010.
If former rebels like Capalla cannot work above ground to help the poor better their lives, feats like the capture of the Tiamzons may fill the front pages, but it will not stop the communist insurgency.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.