[EDITORIAL] Like father, like son: The bloody trail of disappearances continues

Content Warning: This article contains mention of torture methods during Martial Law.

More than half a century has passed since Martial law was declared, yet the shadow of horror it casted onto our nation continues to loom over us at present. 

As we have seen in the past year, the late dictator’s specter of killings and enforced disappearances has reared its sinister head once again — this time through his son, another Marcos.

Under the guise of restoring peace and order, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. weaponized Martial Law to skirt his term limits as president in 1972. What followed next was a dark chapter in Philippine history, where human rights were crushed, critics stifled, and enforced disappearances became chillingly common, all for the sake of staying in power.

According to Amnesty International, about 34,000 activists and journalists were tortured under the Marcos regime commonly through rape, molestation, physical beating, and isolation. 

Meanwhile, at least 3,240 had perished as victims of extrajudicial killings. Some of them were even mutilated and dumped in various public places as part of Marcos Sr.’s “salvaging” scheme.There were also nearly 400 desaparecidos, people abducted from their homes and communities without trace of their whereabouts. With no one held accountable and with the fear of vanishing from reality, it became an eerily effective tool to instill terror among Filipinos. 

Fifty-one years after, enforced disappearances continue to be a state mechanism to cultivate a chilling effect among activists and human rights defenders.

These are no longer just memories. We are seeing history being repeated in front of our eyes.

On Sept. 2, environmental activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro went missing after volunteering in Orion, Bataan for fishing communities affected by reclamation projects around Manila Bay. Rights groups later suspected that they were abducted by state forces.

Tamano is a coordinator of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum’s community and church program for Manila Bay, while Castro was a volunteer for AKAP KA Manila Bay, a multisectoral network that advocates for the protection of livelihood, housing and environment around the said waters.

About two weeks later, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) admitted that the two missing activists were in their custody after allegedly “surrendering” to the Philippine Army’s 70th Infantry Battalion. 

However, Castro refuted this allegation in NTF-ELCAC’s own press conference in Plaridel, Bulacan, revealing that they were instead abducted and threatened by the military. They were then transferred to the custody of the Commission on Human Rights before returning to their families.

This inconsistent narrative and seemingly devious move by the NTF-ELCAC speaks volume on the state’s blatant attempt of silencing activists through intimidation. 

Further, the very presence of such a reactionary agency is proof that Tamano and Castro’s abduction is not an isolated case, but a part of a larger web of state-sponsored attacks against rights defenders.

According to Kabataan Party-list Representative Raoul Manuel, some 15 activists and community organizers have gone missing since Marcos Jr. assumed power — already more than half of Duterte’s six-year record of around 20 cases. 

The uncomfortable parallels between then and now are impossible to ignore. As before, those who dare to fight for human rights are picked out like a pebble in a dictator’s shoe.

Last April, indigenous peoples’ rights defenders Dexter Capuyan and Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus, who are both graduates of the University of the Philippines (UP) Baguio, were also suspected to be abducted by state forces in the province of Rizal.

In May, UP Manila alumna and youth organizer Patricia Cierva was allegedly captured by government forces in Cagayan alongside her fellow activist Cedrick Casaño. Similar to the case of “Orion 2,” the NTF-ELCAC later confirmed that Cierva and Casaño were under “military custody.”

These incidents prove that the fall of Marcos in 1986 did not end enforced disappearances and attacks on activists in the Philippines. Subsequent administrations have rather fallen short in addressing this issue by either denying or tolerating its existence. 

In 2012, then-President Benigno Aquino III signed the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act after 16 years of intense lobbying by human rights groups and families of victims. The law makes the crime punishable with life imprisonment and seeks to provide kins of assistance through reparations.

Even though the law is in effect for more than a decade now, Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances said that no one has been held accountable yet for more than 100 enforced disappearances.

In fact, they claim that the poor implementation of the legislation only contributed to the string of enforced disapppearances.

Worse still, the NTF-ELCAC has been emboldened to red-tag, arrest and threaten those it deems as “enemies of the state” with the help of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The horrors of martial law are by no means behind us. It is staring right at us in the face. The thousands of illegal arrests and killings to silence mass dissent left a long-lasting imprint on our history and it still resonates at present.

Hence, our mission is clear – we cannot permit our nation to regress into the chasm of another authoritarian rule. 

Instead of attacking rights defenders who only amplify the demands of marginalized groups, the government must listen and reassess whose interest they truly serve. 

The Marcos-Duterte administration needs to understand that so long as injustices persist, no amount of disappearances could ever quell a nation fighting for its rights.