An old, tragic story
Mary Jane Veloso’s story is nothing new. In 2011 and 2013, five Filipino drug mules (not all of them overseas Filipino workers) were executed in China, their cases earning similar last-minute appeals from the Philippine government and loud protests from activist groups. Veloso was arrested in 2010 in Indonesia when 2.6 kilograms of heroin were found hidden in the lining of her suitcase; her story hit local headlines when she was sentenced to death, with news of her impending execution once more galvanizing the government into last-ditch action.
Like thousands of OFWs, the 30-year-old high school dropout and single mother of two tried her luck abroad but was duped by someone she considered kin: the partner of her godfather’s son. Banking on ties that bind to pull her family out of its hard-scrabble life, she had trustingly accepted the gift of a new suitcase offered by Maria Kristina “Tintin” Sergio. As her father told reporters, if his daughter had been smuggling drugs would the family still be garbage scavengers?
This story of yet another desperate Filipino paying the ultimate price for trying to claw her way out of poverty raises heart-wrenching questions:
- Why did it take the government so long to come to the defense of Veloso, who was arrested in May 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment barely six months later? There was no news about her at all until Indonesian President Widodo restored the death penalty for drug offenses. Isn’t it the sworn duty of foreign affairs officials to look after Filipinos abroad, especially given the government’s labor export policy? Was she properly represented, her legal rights protected? Was she provided a competent interpreter?
- How many times must Sergio’s name be mentioned as the woman who allegedly tricked Veloso into carrying the suitcase into Jakarta before she gets invited for questioning, maybe as “a person of interest”? Sergio might have shrugged off the accusations, but law enforcement officials must not ignore any lead, no matter how slim. She may be liable for human trafficking at least; she may also have links to drug syndicates as Veloso’s parents had earlier mentioned receiving death threats if they so much as contacted the media and police about their daughter’s plight.
- While Indonesia can hardly be faulted for insisting that other countries respect its laws, what would it take for our government to make sure that our OFWs are amply reminded about the laws of their receiving countries, instead of scrambling at the last minute, when all judicial avenues had been exhausted and the gallows all but set up?
- Has the government done everything it can to make sure that departing OFWs are familiar with the modus operandi of international drug syndicates, who take advantage of people’s desperation and, in Veloso’s case, naivete?
If discussing such criminal tactics in predeparture orientation seminars is useless because many OFWs leave the country as illegals, why not plaster the airport’s departure lounges with giant posters warning of the same in various Philippine languages? Why not ensure that each passport processed and handed to potential OFWs comes with a flyer with guidelines on how to recognize drug and human trafficking? Surely these precautions make for judicious investments in the wellbeing of our OFWS, who leave home and family to funnel back billions of dollars into the Philippine economy.
The government’s lack of foresight and concern has again riled activist groups who have taken to the streets to protest Veloso’s fate. Some of them compare her case to that of Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of killing a fellow OFW and her young ward in Singapore and executed there in the 1990s. But the two cases are similar only in the last-minute scrambling by the government and subsequent high-wattage publicity. If any comparison should be made, perhaps it should be on the extent of the government’s help and support to the two women’s families. Contemplacion’s children, for example, were provided housing, livelihood and scholarship grants—opportunities sadly frittered away by her sons. Surely Veloso’s young children and aging parents need help, too?
The move of the National Union of People’s Lawyers to send two of its members to Indonesia to assist in Veloso’s case is commendable. But is there a chance for another impoverished Filipino to be saved from dying in a strange land, by a foreign government’s hand? A miracle is most difficult to come by.