Jude Thaddeus L. Bautista
On the morning of August 25, 2016 Pinky Gueta a midwife at the Health Center in the town of Claveria, Burias Island (Philippines), had to attend a meeting in nearby Masbate. It was a work conference where she had to leave the island and asked her son Raphael Gueta to accompany her. Since there were no trips from the large lantsa (outrigger boat) to their destination they hired their own boat. In the middle of the open sea, out of nowhere another boat showed up with masked men (bonnets over their faces). They gave chase and when they were near open fired with assault rifles. Pinky, Raphael and the boatman were all hit with several bullets. Pinky managed to call a relative with a fast lantsa to come to their aid.
Pinky and Raphael were both treated in hospital at Legaspi City. August 26, Raphael who is known as Raf raf to most people died from gun shot wounds, one to his head. He was a father of two with his young wife. Pinky is still recovering from her bullet wounds and is no longer in critical condition. The boatman survived. Some have theorized the boatman was the intended target as both Pinky and Raf raf had no known enemies.
Who shot them and why is still a complete mystery. No one knows. All we know is that it happened. All we know is that it is a modus operandi that has been replicated across the Philippines. Unidentified men with either masks, shades, caps would walk up to their victims and shoot them, in internet cafés, slums, inner city neighborhoods. Most recently the ones that have reached the headlines of newspaper and tabloids are the killings in the inner city, usually drug related.
But the numbers have climbed so high, the victims so indiscriminate they do not have to be involved in drugs at all. Bodies have been found in EDSA the major highway wrapped in tape with the sign SNATCHER AKO or HOLDUPPER AKO WAG TULARAN. (I am a snatcher/ I am a holdupper don’t end up like me) In another incident a 5-year-old girl was killed while her grandfather was being targeted just days before Raf raf.
What scares me even more is that Filipinos seem to have desensitized themselves to the news and spate of killings. We knew it was coming. President Rodrigo Duterte won on a mandate of state sponsored murder in his own city of Davao as Mayor. He even bragged it would not cost the state coffers a cent. His campaign funds had a surplus estimated to be P1 Billion. This will be his ‘budget’ for the eradication of drug pushers and criminals. During his campaign he proudly proclaimed at least 100,000 dead. A direct quote translated from his tough guy talk in Filipino: Their carcasses will become feed for the fish in Manila Bay.
As a journalist during the election I felt compelled to write against it. But I also felt absolutely powerless. The electorate, tired of the seeming insurmountable increase of crime propelled him to victory.
Even before he was sworn to office in June, the killings have begun. What is commonly called extrajudicial killings, vigilante killings have been officially changed by the Philippine National Police to Deaths Under Investigation: DUI. Even cops in full uniform have been found dead with the sign DRUG PUSHER AKO WAG TULARAN. By August 23 the official number of killings in the DUI category has risen to just over 1,900 (PNP statistic). The real number may even be higher as most victims don’t even want to report them.
The number of surrenders of both drug pushers and users have reached more than several thousand in provinces across the country: 2,000 in Zambales, 300 Quezon, 762 Rizal Province, etc. The number of petty theft and other crimes have also gone down as a result of the ‘President’s War on Drugs’. An unprecedented 91% approval rating for Duterte was scored by Pulse Asia the highest of any president since the survey was instituted a decade or so ago.
THIS is what Filipinos wanted. They wanted the bad guys killed. They want to scare people into obedience. It doesn’t matter if once in a while (or often) they get it wrong. We don’t really know anymore. We’ve been desensitized from the daily headlines of people being summarily executed, killed without reason or notice.
There was a powerful photo in the Inquirer front page of a woman clutching her husband a pedicab driver shot that has acquired international attention. It was covered by CNN. A recent feature by the BBC was about a hitman who is actually a woman. She relates that she’s haunted by guilt of already having killed 6 drug pushers at P50,000 pesos each. The amount is distributed among her and her ‘team’ so she gets 10k.
We Filipinos have gotten so used to it. There’s this seeming inescapable desensitization to the countless number of stories, pictures. We’ve come to accept this new reality, new normal. This desensitization includes myself until now, until Raf raf.
I woke up at 5am, something I never do and I looked through my old image files from last year. I was in Burias Island with my family and I was certain that I was able to photograph him. It took a while but I found it. He’s overweight closer to obese, something we teased him about in his young age of 26. I also thought the pic was evidence he wasn’t a user at all. Shabu (crack) is known to make users lose weight and look emaciated. The photo is also for people who didn’t know him.
He always had a warm smile. His potbelly was more evidence of his grandmother’s and mother’s excellent cooking of Bicolano fare. His grandmother Thelma Gomez was called Nana Tely by most. Nana Tely was the wife of my mother’s cousin. She was a long time midwife who loved and served her community, often helping women give birth in even more remote places than Claveria, around the island. When she passed away in November 2015, hundreds of people turned up. The huge and long procession was a testimony to the countless people she helped and served for decades.
When Raf raf found out I was shooting the dawn, he volunteered to bring me up the hilltop overlooking the coast on his motorcycle. The way was scary because it was dark before daybreak we were going relatively fast. He was so proud of the newly cemented roads we were going through, especially the one that went up to the hilltop. I found out later on he actually worked for the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) responsible for constructing those roads. He took me up there to photograph the dawn, now he’s never going to see another one again.
We don’t know who killed him or why. I’d be the first to admit we have no idea if it’s even remotely related to Duterte’s War on Drugs. What we do know is that this kind of killing has been happening over and over again. Whether they’re drug pushers, users, innocent bystanders they’re all getting killed. All I’m saying is we shouldn’t be desensitized from this loss or any other. Raf raf should not be just another killing.
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