- J Watford
Edgardo and Ismael
Negros Oriental's land is fertile and captivating, fed by an active volcano and sheltered by forest. But it's also tinged with the blood of thousands of farmers. Farmers whose hands cultivated the soil and whose bodies and spirits had been crushed by greedy landowners and their private armies.
In Negros, almost half of the agricultural land is used by the sugar industry. This single-crop cultivation has led to environmental issues. Worse, it has led to extreme poverty among Negros farmers and mill workers who do backbreaking work and are paid very little for their work, and who then have no income during the dead season when the sugar canes have been harvested and processed. In Negros Oriental, almost 39 per cent of families fall under the poverty line.
In the meantime, the government has driven the consolidation of farmlands, resulting in the ownership of the lands being held by a small number of landowners, and most farmers being dispossessed of their small plots and forced to grow only sugar, pushed to live in destitution by a government that simply doesn't care about them.
Is it any wonder then that many of the struggling farmers of Negros turn to activism? How can they not when every single day is a fight for survival for themselves and their families?
In July 2018, Debold Sinas became the chief of police for the Central Visayas region.
Under Sinas's rule, extrajudicial killings in Cebu rose to over 300. In November 2018, Duterte signed memorandum order 32, which resulted in increased military and police deployment to Bicol, Samar and Negros. The following month, six people were killed in a single night in Negros Oriental by the police who later red-tagged the victims and accused them of resisting arrest. Nanlaban. Life had turned into even more of a nightmare for the farmers of Negros Oriental.
On March 30, 2019, in the dead of the night, around 40 policemen barged into Edgardo Avelino's house. Edgardo was a farmer and the head of his local farmers' rights group in Canlaon. According to Carmela, his wife, the armed cops immediately started beating Edgardo up, while dragging her and her children out of the house. They heard gunshots, but the cops refused to let them into the house.
Just a few houses away, the very same thing was happening to Ismael, Edgardo's younger brother. Ismael was a habal-habal (motor trike) driver. His wife and children were held at gunpoint by the police outside their house, while Ismael was kept inside.
The same scene played out in 12 other houses across Negros Oriental that night.
An ambulance arrived in the morning for Edgardo and Ismael, several hours after their homes were raided. The cops guarding their families said that the two men had fainted. What they didn't tell the families was that the brothers were already dead long before the ambulance was called--Edgardo had three gunshot wounds, while Ismael had eight.
When the sun rose, 14 farmers, a number of them village captains, had been killed; 15 farmers' and human rights activists had been arrested.
What followed was something that we all now know to be typical of this tyrannical regime. The victims were accused of resisting arrest, never mind that witnesses could only hear them begging for their lives or for their families not to be hurt. There were search warrants issued by a judge in Cebu, but which were never shown to the victims and their families. The little precious belongings the victims had were taken by the police, and in their place firearms were planted.
Debold Sinas and his officers never faced any consequences for their terroristic acts. Sinas was interviewed by the Senate in an inquiry, but no action was taken against him. Last year during the first quarantine, he gained national notoriety for celebrating his birthday with the cops under his command when social gatherings were banned. He was later rewarded by Duterte by being appointed chief of the Philippine National Police. He will always be known as the mañanita cop, not the man responsible for the massacres in Negros.
As I'm writing this, Sinas has just retired to enjoy the rest of his years in comfort, while in Negros Oriental, the families of Edgardo and Ismael continue to suffer in poverty and from the absence of justice.
These are the Negros 14. Please know their names and make space for them in the ever-growing list of people for whom we shall seek justice.
Edgardo Avelino, 59
Ismael Avelino, 53
Melchor Pañares, 67
Mario Pañares, 46
Rogelio Ricomuno, 52,
Ricky Ricomuno, 28,
Gonzalo Rosales, 47
Genes Palmares, 54
Anoj Enojo Rapada