Jemboy’s killing and us | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

Jemboy’s killing and us

Jemboy Baltazar was literally, repeat, literally dead in the water. That is not a figure of speech that refers to a problem without a solution or a dire situation beyond rescue. Jemboy was shot dead by police who were in hot pursuit of a suspect. He died of a gunshot wound aggravated by drowning.

Jemboy was only 17. On Aug. 2, 2023, he and a friend were cleaning a boat in the river near his home in Navotas City when Navotas operatives of the Philippine National Police came upon him and mistook him for a felon they were chasing. According to the police, they fired warning shots after which Jemboy jumped into the water. He was shot while he was in the water. The family, however, said Jemboy took a bullet and fell into the water.

I was trying to imagine the scene, whether Jemboy jumped and was shot while in the water or he was shot after he fell into the water. But the fact is, Jemboy died and it took several hours for his body to be fished out. He was dead in the water.


Three days ago, Navotas Regional Trial Court Branch 286 found Police Staff Sgt. Gerry Maliban guilty of homicide, not of murder as the Baltazar family had hoped. Presiding Judge Pedro Dabu Jr. sentenced him to four to six years in prison and ordered him to pay P50,000 in moral and civil damages. Four other cops were found guilty of illegal discharge of firearms and were sentenced to a maximum of four months and one day in prison. But the court ordered them released because they had already served their sentences while they were detained.


The Baltazar family was sorely disappointed and heartbroken because, to them, the decision did not match the gravity of their loss and the way the police carried out the killing. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice sought a review of the case and plans to take the case to the Court of Appeals.

Jemboy was buried on Aug. 16 last year, the sixth death anniversary of another innocent victim, teenager Kian delos Santos who was gunned down in a dark alley in Caloocan even while begging for his life. A children’s book has been published in Kian’s memory, a book that children at a young age might take lessons from on how real life can deal hard blows and what is beyond all that pain and injustice.

In his homily at the funeral mass for Jemboy, Caloocan’s and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president Bishop Pablo Virgilio David stressed that the police are enforcers of the law, not the law. More than 10 Catholic priests joined David during the mass. It was a gathering that cried out for justice not just for one but for the countless many.

The case of Jemboy is a study in how the culture of impunity that former president Rodrigo Duterte so wantonly enabled during his blood-soaked presidency has grown roots in law enforcement. His and his chief enforcer and now senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s catchword “tokhang” has taken on a life of its own. Derived from the Visayan words which meant to “knock and ask” a drug suspect to come out of hiding and surrender became a euphemism for “to shoot and kill,” no questions asked, in short, EJK (extrajudicial killing).

It is like the word “salvage” (to save or rescue) that meant summary execution during the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship. With constant use to mean something else, words can take on new meanings or semantic loads. That was the subject of my experiments and master’s thesis, by the way, so difficult because it required a lot of computations.

Jemboy, like Kian, like the thousands of others, was no doubt a victim of tokhang. Investigators from the International Criminal Court are digging their heels hereabouts with no less than Duterte, Dela Rosa, and their operatives as the target of their investigations. There will be witnesses waiting to speak out.


Journalist Patricia Evangelista’s fast-selling and highly rated book “Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country” (Random House, 2023) could serve as Exhibit A. It is a book to celebrate, to be proud of because of one Filipino journalist’s courage to write it and get it out to the world. But it is also a cause for us to grieve for the many lives that were lost because of a president’s “descent into authoritarianism,” to use the subtitle of Vergel O. Santos’ award-winning book “Duterte Watch.”

We are not wanting in first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses, surviving victims and, yes, journalists and photojournalists who stalked the night and risked their lives to let us know. We are enriched, not diminished, when we are served the truth, no matter how painful.


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