BACOLOD CITY – Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the San Carlos Diocese has ordered the social action arm of the Catholic Church to aid survivors of a massacre and the families of nine slain sugar workers in Sagay City, Negros Occidental.
“Our social action office in collaboration with our parish leaders in Vito, Sagay will reach out to victims and conduct fact-finding mission together with other human rights groups,” Alminaza told ABS-CBN News.
The bishop, whose diocese includes Sagay, also called on government agencies to conduct an impartial investigation into the Saturday night shooting and burning of nine activist sugar workers. The victims had occupied Hacienda Nene in Barangay Bulanon as part of an agrarian reform assertion campaign, called Bungkalan, by the militant National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW).
Sagay police chief, Chief Insp. Roberto Mansueto, said the attack, which occurred around 9:30 p.m., could be due to a conflict between farm workers and the plantation owner.
Danilo Cañete, a survivor of the massacre, told reporters that their group of 14 were eating dinner and resting inside tents when gunmen fired from a distance of several meters. He survived by taking cover beside sacks of rice brought in by the laborers.
Cañete escaped on the heels of three other fellow survivors when he smelled gasoline. He was able to run before flames started to spread and sought shelter in homes near the highway.
Three women and two teenagers were among the slain. Mansueto confirmed that the bodies of the three women bore severe burn marks.
Cañete said he estimated the assailants to number around 40 but Mansueto said a more realistic number was five to six. To Cañete, the gunfire seemed to take 15 minutes but Mansueto placed the barrage at five minutes.
Mayor condemns crime
Alminaza’s statement followed the outrage expressed by Sagay Mayor Alfredo Maranon III, son of Negros Occidental Governor Alfredo Maranon Jr.
The mayor expressed “shock” and condemned the killings “in the strongest possible terms.”
He ordered the police to “do everything possible to bring justice to the nine families that lost loved ones” and promised to extend all possible assistance to the victims’ kin.
The mayor also offered a P250,000 reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of the killers.
The killing of the nine brings to 45 the number of farmers and farm workers killed in Negros island under President Rodrigo Duterte’s two-year term, according to the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) and the NFWS.
In December last year, NFSW-Sagay City chairperson, Flora A. Jemola, died from 13 stab wounds inflicted allegedly by paramilitary forces under the Army’s 12th infantry battalion.
Paramilitary members also killed NFSW member, Ronald Malanat, in February this year. “The killers shot a whole magazine of M16 in his head,” union officials said.
'Shades of martial law'
Negros island, the country’s sugar capital, has long been known as “a social volcano” for glaring social and economic disparities. It was a known hotbed of insurgency during the two-decade rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“Are we back to Martial Law times during the Marcos regime?” Alminaza said. “The right to life is inalienable and inviolable. Killing the perceived enemy, especially if they are defenseless, will never solve but will further aggravate the problem.”
Alminaza also referenced the massacre of seven leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines-NewPeople’s Army while asleep in Antique last August 15, 2018, and the July ambush of six policemen and a civilian in Guihulngan to call for an end to the “reign of terror.”
“We sow terror and violate everyone's right to live in peace,” the bishop warned.
Brigadier General Eliezer Losañes, 303rd commanding officer of the Philippine Army, claims “bungkalan” or workers occupation for the cultivation of plantations are meant to provide logistics for the regional branch of Asia’s longest-running leftist insurgency.
The NFSW, however, said union members cultivate vegetables, banana, corn, and root crops to ward off the inevitable hunger brought by the Tiempo Muerto (dead season in the sugar industry). Most of the bungkalan targets are covered by agrarian reform but remain undistributed and idle.
Cañete said the group had barely started to sow mung seeds and other crops Saturday afternoon.
Their red and blue plastic canvas tent provided no defense against the gunmen, he added.
The Negros Occidental provincial police office said they recovered 12 pieces of fired 5.56 caliber cartridges, used for long firearms; and seven fired cartridges from .45 caliber pistols, which could have come from the suspects.
The police claimed they also recovered one home-made caliber .38 revolver from one of the fatalities, and a lone fired cartridge. The union accused cops, however, of planting the gun.
Police also said they did not find blood stains, indicating the killers escaped unscathed.
None of the survivors were wounded and police released them mid-day upon arrival of a church-worker fact-finding team.
Rolando Rillo, NFSW chairman, told ABS-CBN News that all the victims were long-time workers of the plantation, first with the landowners and, and later, of a lessor named Allan Singbenco.
Rillo said the local agrarian reform office had already placed the land under coverage.
But the landowner, identified as Carmen Tolentino, had reportedly managed to title parcels of the plantation under the names of seven people, “including her laundry woman, driver, and secretary,” Rillo said.
The land dispute has been going on for almost a decade, he added.
Cañete, the survivor, claimed the workers had a verbal agreement with Singbengco to till the land right after harvest.
Rillo said the arrangement was reached as a means of payment for sugar workers differentials fees, which are mandated by law.
Police confirmed the claim of agrarian reform coverage but said the tillers have yet to be awarded the lands, decades after former President Corazon Aquino signed a social justice program. Mansueto said the landowners have agreed to cooperate with their probe.
NFSW has long criticized the slow pace of land distribution. Rillo said he estimates that around 100,000 hectares of land in northern Negros Occidental and 113,000 hectares in the southern districts remain undistributed.
The union claims only 1,860 big landlords, owning 50 hectares or more land, own around 34% of the 424,130 hectares of sugarlands, followed by 6,820 medium and small landlords, with 10 to 50 hectares, owning 30%. The bulk of tillers, around 53,320 workers, only 35% of sugarlands.
Many workers have been killed asserting their rights to land they have tilled for decades. Between 2000 to 2004, under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government, 15 agrarian reform beneficiaries were killed and 57 wounded due to land conflicts in Negros Occidental.
The union places CARP implemtentation at only 40%. Around 70% of sugar lands that have been distributed by the government were also leased by beneficiaries due mainly to lack of support services and non-land support facilities, NFSW added.
The union said total CARP implementation was only at 40%. Plantation owners faced with simmering land disputes also often lease their lands to avoid legal entanglements.
Sugar workers in haciendas (plantations), on the average, receive a P500 to P750 weekly wages all year round. “Minimum wage is pegged at only P245 per day for the farm workers but in many haciendas, P80-P120 a day is still prevalent,” the NFSW said.
In the massacre plantation, Rillo added, workers were paid on a piecemeal basis, according to how fast they could harvest and load sugarcane. “They get paid between P300 to P500 a week,” the union leader told ABS-CBN News.