When four policemen were killed execution style in Ayungon, Negros Oriental on July 18, 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte offered a P3-million reward to find their killers.
The victims, Police Cpl. Relebert Beronio, and Police Patrolmen Raffy Callao, Roel Cabellon, and Marquino De Leon were allegedly tortured after they were cornered by armed groups.
Barely two days after the President’s visit, armed men shot dead lawyer Anthony Trinidad in Guihulngan City. His wife was also wounded in the attack.
In the days that followed, a string of executions raged on in Negros Oriental from its capital Dumaguete City, where resident Malmstein Fabugais was killed, to as far south as Zamboangita town where rebel returnee Weny Alegre was shot dead.
July 25 saw the largest number of killings in the province in a single day. Armed men shot school principal Arthur Bayawa and Department of Education Division Chief Ardale Bayawa.
The Bayawa siblings were asleep in their home in Guihulngan City when they were killed.
Elsewhere in the city, barangay chairman Romeo Arbole and resident Raklin Astorias were also shot dead.
In Ayungon town, resident Reden Eleuterio was attacked and killed by armed men. In Santa Catalina town, Marlon Ocampo and his 1-year-old son was shot dead inside their home. His wife and another child were wounded but survived.
MORE COPS, SOLDIERS TO NEGROS ORIENTAL
The Philippine National Police sent 300 more officers to the province as investigations into the slays continued. Aside from policemen, the Armed Forces of the Philippines also deployed more soldiers.
Despite heightened security the murders only continued, this time with more prominent victims.
Former Ayungon Mayor Edcel Enardecido and a relative, Leo Enardecido, were ambushed by armed men.
The attacks also spilled over to Canlaon City in neighboring Negros Occidental, where Canlaon City councilor Bobby Jalandoni and village chief Ernesto Posadas were assassinated. Another city resident, Ananciancino Rosalita, was gunned down, suspects and motive unknown.
Investigations found no link among the murders but according to Philippine Army 303rd Brigade chief Brig. Gen. Benedict Arevalo, the communist New People’s Army is responsible for most of the cases.
"Ang klaro dito 'yung CPP-NPA sponsored killings. Kung wala talagang CPP-NPA ay hindi naman magkakaganito 'to. Sa kanila talaga nagsisimula ang gulo," he said.
(What's clear is the CPP-NPA sponsored killings. If there is no CPP-NPA, this will not happen. This started with them.)
In its defense, the New People’s Army said the killings are government-sponsored.
“Yung sinasabi nilang vigilante group drawing lang 'yun ng PNP (Philippine National Police) at AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines). 'Yung sinasabi ni General Arevalo na NPA ang gumagawa ng pagpatay sa Negros Oriental, hindi ito mga target ng NPA," said Ka Ann Jacinto, Deputy Spokesperson of the Leonardo Panaligan Command of the CPP-NPA.
(Their claim of a vigilante group, that's just a drawing by the PNP and AFP. General Arevalo's claim that it's the NPA that's behind the killings in Negros Oriental, those are not our targets.)
In its statement, the NPA also claimed that some of the victims were even sympathetic to progressive groups, while the rest are not on its liquidation list.
But PNP chief Police General Oscar Albayalde insisted that communist rebels were behind the killings.
"There is a scheme of the CPP-NPA to sacrifice their own and blame government forces for alleged human rights violations", he said.
While the investigation into the killings continued, police admitted these could not be pinned to one group. PNP Central Visayas chief Brigadier General Debold Sinas said the killings could have also resulted from land disputes, as well as personal and political grudge.
“I told investigators not to conclude immediately. We have to investigate the subjects and their affiliations. It is hard to generalize,” he said.
Already, the unabated killings have stoked talks of martial law in the province.
APPEAL TO AUTHORITIES
In the church pulpits Sunday, priests offered special prayers for peace in the province. In Canlaon City, flags flew at half-mast to mourn the death of its former city officials.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines had sought the authorities to bring back normalcy in the province. Local groups fear the killings will soon affect business, as perpetrators remain at large.
At a “Bike for Peace” event on Monday, residents called for immediate government action on the largely unsolved summary executions, fearing no end in sight to the bloodshed.
- reports from Marty Go, Martian Muyco, Yasmin Pascual and Jude Torres, ABS-CBN News