On August 12, 2014, after two years of hiding, NBI operatives finally captured retired Major General Jovito Palparan in Sta. Mesa, Manila. He now has to face charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention for the disappearance of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan in 2006.
Palparan has carved a reputation as “The Butcher.” It wasn’t just the cases of Empeño and Cadapan. During his military assignments in Mindoro, Samar and Central Luzon, Palparan has been linked to numerous cases of enforced disappearances and killings.
I came to face to face with Gen. Palparan seven years ago when I interviewed him for my undergraduate thesis. When I heard the news of his arrest, it was almost instinctive: I dusted off my thesis and began to reread what I wrote then. With it, I also took out all my interview tapes with him and listened to them again. It was almost like a memorial of questions that, eerily enough, remain unanswered until now.
The main premise of my thesis was simple: why was he singled out as the ‘berdugo’ (butcher)?
In 2006, the Arroyo administration was at the height of its counter insurgency campaign. Many believed Palparan was at the helm. His contribution to the campaign was so pronounced, Arroyo gave him a special mention in her 2006 State of the Nation Address.
But the success of his campaign is still up for debate after all these years. Why was there also a rise in torture cases and extrajudicial killings? They were just too many and too pronounced to ignore. For me to understand all of this, I needed to get in the mind of the man himself.
One of the psychological theories I used for my thesis was Carl Jung’s theory of the personal myth. It explains that all of us have a myth about ourselves. This myth stems from an experience that eventually defines our entire blueprint. This is also the same myth we use for our decisions and actions throughout our lives.
Palparan told me during my interview with him in March 2007 that his first deployment in Sulu defined his life. This was his baptism of blood and fire. Between 1974 and 1979, Palparan lost more than 200 of his men in bloody encounters against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). He said he stopped counting after his 200th soldier died. He almost died too. One memory he could not forget was a close brush with an M79 shrapnel:
“Tinamaan sa hita yung katabi ko, gumulong siya, gumulong din ako, siya natamaan. Kung nagkapalit kami ng posisyon, ako yung gumulong, ako yung may tama. Nagsisisigaw siya: ‘Nanay ko, nanay ko.’ Kinabukasan, patay.” (The soldier beside me got hit. He rolled and I rolled as well. But he was the one that got hit. If we had only switched position, If I had only rolled earlier, I would have been hit. He was screaming while calling out for his mother. He died the next day.)
From his deployment in Sulu to his other battles, his personal myth was born — that of being a trailblazer. He wanted to take the road less traveled. From a reluctant soldier in his younger years, he took to the battlefield with bravado, willing to risk his life for his campaign: to hunt the enemies of the state.
This myth would have an imprint on the aggressiveness of his campaign. In the 1980s, he began to adopt the counter insurgency strategy known as Special Operations Team (SOT), particularly against the New People’s Army or NPA.
Under this strategy, their forces would “neutralize an area” by dismantling the political backbone of the place or left wing sympathies, as he calls it. Palparan had choice words about the communists. He categorically denied any involvement in human rights abuse and branded them all as propaganda to smear his résumé: “None of the allegations against my soldiers has been proven. The communists are doing this only because the biggest damage for them is the loss of the people’s support.” (March 2007.)
To explain the killings blamed on him, Palparan had these words to say:
“Hundreds ang pinatay nila (NPA) bago ako dumating. Hindi na nga nai-re-report… Wala nang intelligence report na nanggagaling doon. ‘Yung mga intelligence (officers) namin, pinagpapatay nila. Nawala na. Umalis na roon. Sila (NPA) ang nag-dominate sa area… Lumala na talaga ‘yung NPA doon. Lumaki na talaga sila. Dominated yung area. ‘Yung ayaw tumulong sa kanila, pinapatay. Yung pulis, walang magawa doon… Halos lahat ng munisipyo doon in-attack nila. So tinakot talaga nila ang buong Mindoro. ‘Yung ayaw siyempre hindi lahat magsusuporta sa kanila. ‘Tsaka yung pinagdududahan na kamag-anak na sundalo, pinapatay nila. Ganoon sila kasiga bago ako dumating. Sa newspaper wala ka makita.”
(The NPA has killed hundreds before I arrived. These were not reported. There are no intelligence report from that area anymore. They have killed all our intelligence officers and negated the presence of the military there. They are dominating the area and it has worsened. They kill people who would not help them. The police could not do anything. They have attacked almost all municipalities and terrorized the entire region of Mindoro. They even kill people they suspect to be relatives of military soldiers. That’s how brazen they are there. You don’t see that in the newspaper.)
Palparan also explained that he earned the “Butcher” monicker not because of human rights abuses but rather because because of the will power of his campaign:
“Kasi consistent ako (in the counter-insurgency campaign). Karamihan kasi ng mga commander ayaw magkamali, ayaw masira ang credibility sa public. In-open ko ang sarili ko sa media. Kasi pag nakatago ka, sila lang (NPA) ang palabas nang palabas. Hindi ka makaka-respond. Maraming ganyan (aggressive in counter-insurgency), pero hindi sila consistent. Umuurong yung iba.”
(It’s because I was consistent. Most of the commanders do not risk mistakes and their public credibility. I have opened myself to media. If you hide, they will keep barraging with propaganda. You won’t be able to respond. There are many aggressive officers but they are not consistent and they back out.)
Seven years after my interview with Palparan, I would hear practically the same things from his wife, Dr. Evangelina. I interviewed her a week after the arrest of her husband for my exclusive report on State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She insists all the accusations against her husband are nothing more than propaganda:
“He is wrongly accused; wala siyang hand doon. Lahat na lang ng namamatay gusto nilang isisi kay General (Palparan)… kasi naging effective siya sa kanyang campaign on anti-insurgency.” (He is wrongly accused; he has nothing to do with it. They want to blame all deaths to the General… because he was effective in his anti-insurgency campaign.)
She honestly believes her husband is innocent. She said her husband was willing to face the charges head on upon the release of his arrest warrant in December 2011.
But things took a different turn when President Noynoy Aquino ignored her husband’s surrender feelers. They were losing confidence that the authorities would keep her husband safe in the event of a surrender. She made it clear it was this loss of confidence, and not guilt, that pushed his husband into hiding. “You have to think of ways to cope, and leave a room for whatever happens. What are we preparing for? We’re preparing for the worst— death.”
It was hard for the family to prepare for something as categorical as death. But she says she has to be strong while waiting for the wheels of justice to turn, hoping for her husband’s vindication.
Seven years after my thesis, I also encountered the stories of these fallen activists. Their deaths still await justice. There are many more like them:
- Edilberto Napoles, Jr., Bayan Muna Mindoro Oriental Coordinator
- Eden Marcellana, Karapatan-Southern Tagalog Secretary General
- Eddie Gumanoy, Katipunan ng Samahang Magbubukid-Timog Katagalugan Chairperson
- Milagros Belga, Karapatan-Laguna volunteer
- Felidito Dacut, Bayan Muna-Eastern Visayas Coordinator
- Rizal and Dino Matri, Mangyan leaders
Even with Palparan’s arrest, nobody still knows where Empeño and Cadapan are — or whether they’re still even alive. In my 2007 interview with Palparan, he denied any hand in the abduction, saying he only learned about it on TV. However, when he checked with his soldiers, his men said there was a raid in a house in Hagonoy, Bulacan. Palparan said both of the women were NPA members but none of them were named Cadapan or Empeno:
“Sabi ng tao ko, may ni-raid lang na bahay, at yung dalawang babae at isang lalake, kinuha. May pangalan, sina Ka Tanya at Ka Sierra. Pero nagtanong ako sa mga tao doon, natutuwa sila sa (abduction). Kasi sila yung nangongolekta at nananakit sa NPA, kasama sila sa pumapatay at nag-se-seminar.”
(According to my men, they raided a home and they took two women and a man. The names of the women were Ka Tanya and Ka Sierra. But I asked the people in the area, they are happy. Those two from the NPA were the ones who collect and hurt people. They are part of the group that kills and gives seminars.)
On the day of his arrest, Palparan pretty much said the same thing:
“Ang report ay Ka Tanya, laging lumalabas. Walang Cadapan at Empeno. Ka Tanya at isa pa, sila yung nandun daw na involved sa violent incidents at pangingikil. Matagal na silang nandun, 3-5 years. Kung UP student sila, di sila 3-5 years. Propaganda lang yan. Walang involved na military at that time so di ko tiyak kung sino yun. Marami din kasi silang kalaban. Madaming nasagasaan… i am sure hindi involved ang mga tao ko doon.”
(The report that would always surface was Ka Tanya. There were no Cadapan or Empeno. Ka Tanya and one more, they are the ones involved in violent incidents and bribery. They have been staying there for a long time, around 3 to 5 years. If they are UP students, they are not there for 3 to 5 years. It’s just propaganda. There was no involvement of the military at that time and I’m not sure who it really was. They have many enemies. They affect a lot of people. I am sure my people are not involved.)
Lorena Santos of the human rights group Desaparecidos told me the arrest of “the Butcher” is bittersweet news to the families of Palparan’s alleged victims:
“Kahit sabihin kong di ka guilty (referring to Palparan), pinatagal mo pa rin ang justice. Taon pa rin ang binilang ng mga nanay… ‘Di ibig sabihin na nakuha na, tapos na ang impunity. Di pa siya na-ko-convict.” (Even if Palparan is not guilty, he still delayed justice. The mothers of Empeno and Cadapan waited for years. Even if they captured Palparan, it doesn’t mean impunity has ended. He has no conviction in court yet.)
Contrary to the statements of Palparan and his wife, the group believes evidence in court will prove his accountability:
“Tingnan natin yung mga ebidensya na nagtuturo kung sino ang kumuha doon sa dalawang estudyante. bakit may mga witnesses na tumatayo at nagsasabi na may hand si Palparan sa pagdukot at pag-torture at pagkawala ng dalawa? andaming witnesses nun. first hand. ibig sabihin nakita nila face to face.” (Let us look at the evidence that will point to who abducted the UP students. Why are there witnesses who attest to the participation of Palparan in the abductions and torture of the two? There are many witnesses — first hand. It means, they saw the incident, face to face).
In 2012, I interviewed Raymond Manalo, a victim of abduction and torture in February 2006. He sued Palparan in 2008. According to Manalo, armed men captured and loaded him in a van then rammed him with an M16 rifle. He eventually learned he was taken to Fort Magsaysay. There, he was branded several times with a hot tin can and water-cured in his nose among other forms of torture.
He recalls meeting Palparan in July 2006. Manalo said the General offered him conditions if he and his brother wanted to stay alive:
- if he doesn’t show up at his own habeas corpus case filed by his parent
- if he doesn’t join rallies
- if he refuses to speak to human rights group Karapatan
Manalo managed to escape a year after in August 2007. But not before he was taken to Limay, Bataan where at one point, he said he heard a screaming woman. He traced the voices and found two women who he recognized as Empeño and Cadapan. He saw Cadapan hogtied to a chair upside down. Beside her, men were raping Empeño with wooden sticks, burning her skin with lit cigarettes at the same time.
Manalo wanted nothing more than to see Palparan in jail.
In 2006, President Arroyo formed the Melo Commission to investigate the killings of activists and media practitioners. Even with Palparan’s denial of his involvement, the investigative body found him accountable based on the principle of command responsibility.
Command responsibility is a liability of the officer if he knew about the crime of his subordinate, or had the capability or reason to know about it, but did not do anything to avert or address the crime in question. The Melo Commission cited Articles 28 and 28(a) of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.
In 2007, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston also found the military accountable for extrajudicial killings. In an unprecedented move, the US Senate and the Netherlands-based Permanent People’s Tribunal conducted their own investigations during the same year. They also came out with the same findings as Alston.
Contradictions in Blood
We may have previously attempted answers. Fortunes have changed and roles have been reversed. But up to now, these answers only scratch the surface. Now, it is not only the families of the fallen and the missing who are looking for answers and closure. Even the family of the man they call “The Butcher” wants vindication over the same system that compelled them to fear for life.
It took me a while to write this because I wanted to know if answers have finally surfaced with the passing of time. It turns out they have not.
Even with Palparan’s arrest, there are still no answers when Karen Empeño or Sherlyn Cadapan would be back in the arms of their waiting and hopeful mothers. It will not bring Eden Marcellana, Eddie Gumanoy, Leima Fortu or Milagros Belga back to life. It will not erase Raymond Manalo’s memory, or the scars on his body.
The killings and disappearances attributed to Palparan will forever be there: a grim and difficult reminder of the human cost of war. It is larger than him or the institution he once represented. On the day of his arrest, Palparan said he wants to face his cases head on. He is confident he will win the case: “I have no regrets for what I have done. What I did is for the good of the people.”
It remains to be seen whether the courts will agree with him. But even if the victims find justice, nothing will ever bring the fallen back to life. Their deaths were unacceptable. These are contradictions in blood.
The victims are real; their stories, visceral. It no longer matters which version we adopt. Nothing changes the reality of their cold bodies. No amount of gavel pounding in court will ever bring back the color in their faces. Their stories will forever be a memory. How is it possible that eight years after I finished my thesis, my questions then are still questions now? It is ironic considering my job as a journalist is to explain, enlighten and inform.
Writing this article reminded me of the difficult process I went through to write my thesis, and the road I took to give justice to it. I wondered why the memory and the feeling were still vivid to me, like a traumatic experience. Looking back I understood why.
I wrote the story as a student. But after seven long years as a professional journalist, I am still writing this story and it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere from where I left it. It is a story whose thought and memory leaves me with a heavy feeling — like there is nothing else I could do.
It may not be my job to find out the answers. But maybe Justice can finally begin to pick up the pieces and, perhaps, build back what had been destroyed.
[Entry 44, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Dano Tingcungco has been a news reporter for GMA News since April 2007 and a recipient of the GMA President’s Medal while in college. Dano is a Journalism graduate from the College of Mass Communication in UP Diliman. Several portions of this article came from his undergraduate thesis ‘The ‘Butcher’: A political profile of Retired Major General Jovito Palparan Jr. It received recognition as Best Thesis.