"However long it takes, persevere, persevere, persevere."
Nanette Castillo whispered that promise to her son, Aldrin, during night prayers on the day a Malolos court convicted former Army general Jovito Palparan for decade-old crimes.
Castillo and other mother volunteers of Rise Up for Life and Rights hugged and wept as they welcomed the mothers of Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno in a thanksgiving mass hours after Malolos regional trial court Judge Alexander Tamayo on Monday sentenced Palparan and two other military officers to life imprisonment for abduction and illegal detention.
Castillo’s son, Aldrin, a waiter, was felled by a tandem of motorcycle riders in October 2017.
"They told me vigilantes killed my son,” Castillo told ABS-CBN News. “I have never believed that.”
“It’s the same thing they told Nanay Erlinda, Sherlyn’s mother, and Nanay Coni, Karen’s mother. That’s what drew me to them. Vigilantes daw. It turned out the military had them,” she said.
The original Armed Forces claim was demolished by eye witnesses, among them those who were arrested together with the two still missing women, and former inmates of the Bulacan military camp under the regional command of Palparan.
The judge dismissed Palparan’s alibis, as well as those presented by two other convicted officers, Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado and S/Sgt Edgardo Osorio, citing consistent, graphic testimonies presented by the prosecution. The three were sentenced to life imprisonment and ordered to pay the families of the victims about US$1,850 in civil indemnity and US$3,670 for moral damages.
"Vigilantes are just another word for military or police officers who try to mask their services role in extra-judicial killings,” Castillo said.
"Brave families, brave witnesses, brave lawyers, brave activists. We need everyone in the fight for justice,” she stressed. “We fight in court, we fight on the streets, we fight in Congress; we fight anywhere so we can be heard.”
She pointed out that Palparan's bloody swathe across the country was encouraged by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who called the general a hero during her state of the nation address in 2006.
"That's also one lesson to remember. Impunity starts at the top. Arroyo praised a butcher (the nickname activists gave Palparan, which he considered a compliment). Duterte eggs on police to kill and promises pardon," said Castillo. "It is never enough just to target the rank and file or even officers. We must take the fight to the leaders."
In a statement, Armed Forces spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said "the position of the [military] is submission to the majesty of the courts and respect for the rule of law."
"The military will not tolerate acts that will detriment the well being of everyone as we always advocate the protection of human rights," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Louie Villanueva.
Palparan was the commander of the Army's 7th Infantry Division at the time of the kidnapping of the two students in the town of Hagonoy, Bulacan province, in June 2006.
FIGHT THE NEW NORMAL
Castillo said she became depressed last month during a conversation with a reporter.
“I asked why drug war killings were no longer getting much coverage,” she recalled. “He said, ‘hindi na bago eh, parang ordinaryong balita na’.”
“That is the last thing we need, for people to see EJKs as normal,” she stressed. “That is why I will speak anywhere I can. Kahit apat na tao lang, magsasalita ako.”
To shrug off the killings, to retire to a corner and surrender is not an option for the fiery Castillo.
"If the mothers of Sherlyn and Karen did not fight for justice, the abductors and torturers would have gotten away with their crimes,” she pointed out. “The government is mighty. But if we work together, we can defeat human rights violators.”
Castillo said Erlinda and Coni, and Edith Burgos, mother of missing activist Jonas Burgos, also taught her to marshal her energies and talents. "I have learned from them and from human rights workers so I am not spent by the flood of emotions.”
A fiery speaker, Castillo is known for cursing President Rodrigo Duterte and the police.
"Not anymore,” she said, laughing. “I learned that just telling my story and the story of other mothers and wives is more effective.”
Castillo and other kin of drug war victims have learned other skills since joining Rise Up. They are now first responders who rush to comfort families every time an EJK alert is raised.
"We now know how to take notes and interview people. Then we send the initial reports to Rise Up so they can plan aid for those who seek justice,” she said.
"The first days are the most crucial,” according to Castillo. "To know you have supporters, to know your pain is felt by others gives you strength to fight."
CHANNELING ANGER, FEAR
Like Erlinda, Conception and Edith, who are active in the work of rights groups Hustisya and “Desaparecidos, Families of the Disappeared,” Castillo said working to help other families of drug war victims has grounded her.
She looks up to Burgos, also the wife of the late journalist Joe Burgos who was jailed for resisting martial law under Ferdinand Marcos.
"She told us to find strength in each other, and never surrender when setbacks happen," Castillo said.
Normita Lopez, another Rise Up volunteer, clutched a piece of paper to her chest after hearing the news of Palparan’s conviction.
“Before my eyes close in this life, may your killers be brought to justice, my child,” says the last line of a poem she carries in her purse. She wrote it for her son Djastin, an epileptic youth shot dead by police in May 2017.
Normita now has a notebook full of poetry that she shares with other grieving families.
"Until when will we be cloaked by fear? Until when will we wait till we can once more breathe in freedom, until we shake off the terror that fills even our sleep?” says another of her poems, all written in Filipino.
“My heart jumped at hearing the conviction. Maybe, like Sherlyn and Karen, my son will not get justice here while Duterte remains in power, but one day, I know that one day, he will face his due,” Lopez said.
"I battle against tears every time I speak. But better that I cry sharing my story than cry in the dark,” she told ABS-CBNnews.
Lopez and half a dozen other kin of drug war victims have filed suit in the International Criminal Court, charging the president with crimes against humanities.
Police have killed 5,000 people in operations over the last two and a half years. Thousands more have been killed by assailants riding tandem on motorcycles, lumped under the category of “homicides under investigation.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
"I am in awe of their strength,” Emily Soriano, who is part of the ICC plaintiffs, told ABS-CB Nnews.
Soriano was a former volunteer in the police's house-to-house "tokhang," a mix of Visayan words meaning to knock and appeal. She soon felt horror as the addicts she had convinced to surrender, believing tokhang was meant to facilitate treatment, fell one by one.
Then on December 28, 2016, her 15-year-old son, Angelito, was killed with six other youth in what police said was a chase for a drug suspect.
"Every tragedy is personal but experience taught us to empathize with others,” she said. “From my tragedy, to our tragedy as a people; that is now the story of my life, the same story of Nanays Edith and Coni and Erlinda.”
Castillo, Lopez and Soriano initially threw their lot with Rise Up out of desperation. They stay to help others facing a similar plight. They stay to learn from others with longer years in the fight for justice.
“We need people to speak out,” Lopez said. “We need each other so our courage does not flag. We need to reach out. Those who have felt the pain and fear are the best examples so that others find the strength to come out and fight.”
Lopez said without struggle there can be no hope.
“But even if I die without getting my wish, I can face my son and say, ‘I did not abandon you’,” said Lopez, whose poetry is coming out soon as part of a creative writing anthology on Duterte’s bloody campaign.