Masterminds of journalist murders go scot free

PAGADIAN CITY — Newspaper editor and publisher Hernan de la Cruz may own several guns, but that has not made him feel safer living and working here. Four journalists have been killed in Pagadian since 2000, making the city the most dangerous in the country for journalists.

Because he, too, has received death threats, de la Cruz has been avoiding printing stories that are critical of politicians, especially those linking them to illegal activities. “It’s not worth dying for,” he says. “I don’t want to sacrifice my family.” According to de la Cruz, other journalists in this city are also steering clear of “investigative” stories.

Had any of the gunmen and the masterminds responsible for the deaths of the four journalists been convicted, members of the Pagadian media would feel more secure. But so far the only one behind bars is former policeman Guillermo “Gimo” Wapille, the primary suspect in the May 2002 murder of radio journalist Edgar Damalerio — and only because sustained media pressure forced Wapille to finally surrender in late 2004.

Members of the fractious media community in Pagadian remain apprehensive about the authorities’ inability to conduct investigations of the killings because the suspected gunmen are either policemen or known police assets or had once served as goons of local officials.

It is even harder to bring to justice those who ordered the journalists’ murders. Damalerio’s case alone has spawned at least three theories, all involving politicians, and all of whom point at each other as the likely culprit. Some powerful people may be getting away with murder here, and even the local National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) chief admits he can do nothing about it.

“We might know who are involved, but unless the gunman will confess, we can’t file charges against anybody,” says Friolo Icao Jr., NBI Pagadian district office chief. “Wapille will never talk because somebody is helping him. I can even say that this group is out to kill him.”

In fact, the Supreme Court approved last month the transfer of Wapille’s trial from Pagadian to Cebu City to protect Damalerio’s family and the remaining witness. Two of three key witnesses to the Damalerio killing have themselves already been murdered: Schoolteacher Edgar Amoro was killed just last month and Jury Ladica in August 2002. The last surviving witness, Edgar Ongue, escaped a murder attempt on February 9. Anonymous death threats have also been made against members of the Amoro and Damalerio families.

Before Damalerio was murdered, three other journalists had already been killed in Pagadian. In May 2000, Pagadian City Star publisher William “Billy” Yu was gunned down near his gas station. Six months later, broadcaster Olympio Jalapit Jr. was also shot dead. In February 2001, two gunmen shot and killed radio commentator Muhammad Yusop. Not one of these cases has been solved.

The common thread that links the killings is their exposés against the alleged corruption of government officials, including policemen and the military, says de la Cruz. “They were killed because they named names,” he points out. Police, however, say that Yu was murdered because of some bungled business deals, while Yusop got the bullet because, the police say, he had irked some military officials with his interviews with the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group.

Interestingly enough, an NBI agent says one of the suspects in the Yu slay was also Wapille, Damalerio’s alleged killer. In addition, a witness says the assassin was seen “casually talking with several unidentified uniformed army men who were aboard a passenger jeep enroute to the Army’s First Infantry Division in Labangan town” before Yu was murdered. The lone gunman shot Yu once with a pistol and then fled on a motorcycle.

Jalapit’s murderer, meanwhile, was riding tandem on a motorcycle when he shot the 34-year-old broadcaster in the back of the head. Jalapit had been receiving numerous death threats over the years, but the final warning came as a text message on his cellular phone on the morning of the murder: “I will kill you today.”

Jalapit was the host of Radio Mindanao Network-DXPR’s top-rated morning program “Lampornas.” He had a reputation of being a hard-hitting commentator and loved doing exposés on political corruption, illegal gambling operations, the drug trade and the activities of insurgents in Mindanao.

At the time of his death, Jalapit was under suspension at his station, which meant he could not host “Lampornas.” Reportedly, the week-long suspension was the result of a complaint from then Environment Secretary Antonio Cerilles and his wife Aurora, at the time the representative of the second district of Zamboanga del Sur. Jalapit was on his way to a meeting with Aurora Cerilles when he was killed. Antonio Cerilles is now the Zamboanga del Sur second district representative while his wife is the governor of the province.

Rep. Cerilles says Zamboanga del Sur is not that unique in having a worsening peace-and-order situation because criminality is on the rise in other parts of the country as well. “It just so happens that journalists were killed in the province and some politicians, especially me, have been tagged as suspects,” he says.

Cerilles, who is known to his constituents as “Boss,” says neither he nor his wife had complained about Jalapit’s show. A local electric cooperative and a barangay captain were the ones who complained, he says, adding that Jalapit had asked him to intervene to prevent his suspension. During that time, Cerilles was hosting a show in RMN’s radio station in Manila.

“I told him that maybe my wife could talk to him,” recalls Cerilles. “So they set a meeting in the house. My wife was waiting for him when he was killed. How come that people would say that we’re behind (Jalapit’s) killing when in fact we invited him to our house? He did not attack me or my wife. He did not criticize us. He criticized the police for their illegal activities. He also criticized (then Pagadian City mayor Joaquin) Pajares.”

Cerilles says Damalerio later came to him to “talk about the killing of Jalapit. I encouraged him to go to the police.” The lawmaker describes Damalerio as a “close friend” who had even asked for a job for his wife Gemma. “He used to come to me para maglambing even when I was already secretary of environment,” says Cerilles. “He was very objective about his criticisms of me or of the local government.” Lambing means gifts or money given to journalists by politicians in exchange for favorable reports.

Cerilles says he doesn’t understand why he is being linked to Damalerio’s murder, too. “We (the Cerilles clan) have been in the province for a long time and we haven’t ordered the killing of people,” he says.

A self-confessed assassin also says Cerilles is not involved in the killing of journalists. “He’s just like a dog that growls but does not bite,” says the gun for hire.

So far, all that links Cerilles with Damalerio’s murder are “sightings” of the official or members of his family meeting up with police days before and after the journalist’s death. Former provincial secretary Anacleto Deliverio, for instance, says Cerilles and his wife had a meeting with then Pagadian City police chief Asuri Hawani and then provincial police chief Pedrito Reyes days before Damalerio was killed. Damalerio’s widow Gemma also says she saw Cerilles’s father Vicente with Hawani after her husband’s killing.

Hawani and Reyes were later dismissed from the service. Recently, the justice department ordered an investigation of Hawani for his possible liability in the killing of Damalerio. He would be included in the charge sheet in relation to Damalerio’s murder if probable cause were proven.

At the very least, observers of the case say, Hawani failed to investigate his then subordinate Wapille’s involvement in the murder. The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists Inc. has accused Hawani of trying to hamper the investigation of the case.

Hawani, however, is now a security consultant of current Pagadian Mayor Samuel Co. The mayor is also known to have once hired Mohammad Abubakar Maulana, a.k.a. Maddix, one of the alleged gunmen in the killing of Amoro, one of the witnesses in the Damalerio case.

Co does not deny he had hired Maulana as a bodyguard during the 2004 elections. But he says their formal connection ended once the elections were over. “I am the city mayor,” he says. “Do you think I will allow that somebody would create criminality in my city?”

Three witnesses have identified Maulana as among Amoro’s three assailants, and charges have been filed against him before the Pagadian city state prosecutor’s office for the killing of Amoro. Co, however, doubts Maulana’s involvement in the case, arguing that his former employee was out on bail at the time for a variety of crimes and would not risk getting caught again. “I (cannot) imagine why Maddix would hit Edgar,” he says. “Maddix just came out of jail.” As of this writing, Maulana remains at large.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez had warned Co last December that he would hold the first-time mayor responsible if anything happened to Amoro. But Co says, “I am not a babysitter. I’m the city mayor of Pagadian, I will not guarantee anybody’s life … How could I guarantee someone’s life if I don’t even know where he goes. I can only guarantee if the person is under my custody or if he’s always with me.”

Co says Amoro was a close friend; so, too, he says, was Damalerio. The mayor says when Damalerio filed a case against then Pagadian Mayor Warlito Pulmones and several members of the city council, he was excluded even if he was a councilor at the time.

The case, filed before the Office of the Ombudsman in 2001, involved the allegedly anomalous purchase by the city government of six passenger jeepneys. This is why the mayor has also been linked to Damalerio’s death. At the time of his killing, however, Damalerio was also attacking Hawani, whom he reported to the Department of Interior and Local Government for his supposed involvement in an aborted murder and for protecting illegal gambling in the city.

Journalist de la Cruz maintains that the masterminds of Damalerio’s murder and the killing of Amoro are connected. “It’s the same group and the same individuals,” he says, even as he notes that “there area some sectors who have their own personal agenda and are trying to muddle these things and linking other individuals,” including at least “one politician.”

De la Cruz says he and other journalists are trying to keep their head down as the intimidation of media practitioners in Pagadian continue. But he says, shaking his head, “There’s no middle ground here anymore for journalists. Either you become corrupt or you get killed.”