Shortly after President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, the Gilbuena family urged Jenny Rojo, partner of security Guard, Rogelio, to sign up as an "Operation Tokhang" surrenderer.
Rojo was an occasional user of shabu, the synthetic narcotics drug that is popular among the poor.
Rojo, 46, followed the family’s advice. But that did not spare her from falling victim to the bloodbath that has accompanied Duterte’s drug war.
Her daughter, Kimberly Judadora, 22, wept as she recalled the murders of her mother and Rogelio, her sickly 56-year old stepfather, at a mass for the drug war dead on the eve of the country’s All Saints' and All Souls' holidays.
She said 11 burly men wearing black face masks barged into the Gilbuena’s family home in Barangay NBBS 3, at the Navotas fish port, just after dinner on May 16.
Hours later, the bodies of Jenny and Rogelio were found in separate locations a short distance from the community. Both carried bullet wounds.
The police included their case among the thousands of “deaths under investigation.” But Kimberly and four other siblings suspect the men with bonnets were cops.
They introduced themselves as police, she said. They “invited” Rogelio to go with them and pistol-whipped his sons to force the couple’s cooperation.
“They forced our father to lie face down on the floor,” said Kimberly in Tagalog.
“He was sickly. He protested. ‘I’m just a guard,’ he said. They whipped my siblings with their guns, until he said, ‘yes, I’ll go with you; just stop hurting my children’.”
What followed was a chase – their children and relatives on tricycles, trying to trail several motorcycles to ensure the safety of the couple.
Kimberly, who was part of the chase, said the suspects placed Jenny and Rogelio on two motorcycles, each in between the driver and escort.
Before they reached the village tollgate, witnesses said a blindfold was wrapped around Jenny. Rogelio’s head was covered with a sack.
Then their captors split up, having spotted the family chase.
“They tried to shake us off,” Kimberly said. “There were so many motorcycles. Some turned here, another there; others went straight. We got confused.”
“Then one of them told us to follow to the police station. We went around the police stations near our place – Navotas, Malabon, Caloocan,” said Kimberly.
“I went everywhere trying to find them.”
A text message came around midnight. It said a woman had been found near a bridge on Babansi St. in the same barangay. The word was, she had been shot in the cheek and the body.
“By the time I got there, they had taken her to Eusebio (a funeral home),” Kimberly said.
“Mama was still warm when I found her. I kept trying to shake her awake because she was still warm and her eyes were open.”
“Please live, Mama. Don’t leave me,” Kimberly begged.
“But it was useless. She was dead.”
Shortly after, Rogelio was found with a head wound inside the Navotas Public Cemetery in Brgy San Jose, a short distance from their community.
Kimberly raged that all the family wanted was help for the mother. That was why they cooperated with Operation Tokhang, the first phase of Duterte's drug war, which involved hauling in more than a million drug users to confess and pledge a halt to drug use.
“Masakit, ang sakit, hindi 'yun ang pinagarap natin, na patayin sila. Hindi ‘yung kukunin sila ng mga taong di nating kilala. Tapos makikita sila sa isang lugar… wala ba silang buhay.”
(It hurts so much. That wasn’t what we asked for, that they kill them, that strangers take them away and dump them dead somewhere.)
“Hindi sila perpekto. Hindi sila mababait. Hindi sila perpekto, ang mga magulang ko. Pero sana, di nila ginawa yon.”
(My parents were not perfect. They weren’t good. But they shouldn’t have killed them.)
The family believes the men may have been police. They were allowed in and out by guards at the tollgate. They were not accosted despite driving by with a man with a sack over his head.
Kimberly says they cannot file a case.
“Wala kaming laban. Hindi naming sila kilala, eh. Sino sasampahan ko? Onse ka tao. Naka helmet, may mask pa. Naka sunglasses pa ang iba, kahit gabing-gabi na.”
(We’re helpless. We cannot identify them. Who will we charge. There were 11 of them, in helmets and masks. Some even worse sunglasses though it was late at night.)
While the family may be helpless on the legal front, Kimberly says they will fight for justice.
“If not for our parents, for all other victims of this drug war,” she said after Mass. “If we cannot get the murderers themselves, we can at least fight to make the government accountable.”