2023: Looking back at darkness

THE KILLING of Jerhode “Jemboy” Baltazar on August 2, 2023 should not be so easily forgotten. He was seventeen when he died. His death should not be regarded as a just another case study of crime in our cities. It is an episode, yes, a tragedy in the news that could fade away without so much as leaving an imprint on the public mind. Filipinos must take note of the shadow it has cast on our lives, even if we did not know him. Its collective remembrance might help us understand the evil that has increasingly shrouded our society, the abuse of state power, and its persistent attack against citizens these agencies are supposed to protect. 

In the coastal city of Navotas, Jemboy made a living from fishing. He and a friend were cleaning the boat which would take them to the sea when police fired at them. The youth was shot twice, hit on the head and his hand. “He held his hands up in surrender,” said Raquel Fortun, M.D., a forensic officer who later examined his body. 

Dr. Fortun also noted that the head injury did not kill the youth instantly. He could have survived had the police taken the time to retrieve his body from the river. But police left the crime scene; the corpse retrieved only three hours after the shooting. 

Details of the incident were recorded in the news, based on what the police had to say. Simply put, the police described Jemboy’s death as a case of mistaken identity. Following the news, reports said the six officers were relieved from their posts.

The press did not shirk from pointing out how police ignore their manual of operations. Reporters did not hold back from citing religious and human rights groups who have been unstinting in the criticism of police, and the outrage in social media about the abuse of state power. 

Media picked up parallel points recalling the murder of another youth, Kian Delos Santos in 2018. Both were still in their teens, guiltless, unable to defend themselves in the hands of police. Jemboy’s funeral was on the sixth anniversary of Kian’s death.

While the case of “mistaken identity” in Jemboy’s case did not involve illegal drugs, the haste with which he was killed reflected a pattern in police treatment of poor suspects. His killing dramatized the lack of reform in both attitude and conduct of the police.  

Despite the dramatic shift in the president’s rhetoric from the previous administration, Marcos has failed to do anything to change the conduct of police operations, specifically in drug operations. These have continued to ignore human rights and police officers openly flout their own code of conduct. 

The first six months of the presidency buys an elected president precious time to get his act together, a required transition, a grace period that grants him the benefit of doubt. He was given that and more in his first six months. 2023 brought the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to one full year of office. 

Filipinos would fail in their obligation as citizens to be blind to presidential failures, to ignore his lack of action and engagement, indeed, his customary absence 

The news must help measure the competence of the president, his capacity and his diligence at work. When recording the president’s righteous speech, journalists should follow up to check on future actions as proof of effective mandate. 

The international watchdog organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), noted positive developments in their 2023 assessment, specifically the more liberal presidential rhetoric and clear expression of government policy to turn away from the punitive orientation of his predecessor. It also hailed Marcos’ engagement with international actors specifically, the official invitation to the 

UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. 

But its report cited incidents and developments that disturb. The “red-tagging” by state agents persisted against activists, human rights defenders, and indigenous communities, among others. It also referred to the context of political violence. CMFR noted the heightened attacks against barangay officials, along with those competing for seats for the 2023 Barangay and Sangguniang Kabatan elections. 

There is little to show that 2023 brought real change from the tendencies toward abuse and violence by state agents during Duterte’s leadership. There has been no proof of the implementation of a more enlightened policy to curb illegal drugs or for law-enforcement agencies to observe due process in the treatment of other crime suspects. The record shows that drug-related killings have continued, raising questions about the sincerity of Marcos’ words or the seriousness of his intent. 

As the only independent organization tracking drug-related killings, the Third World Center at the University of the Philippines released it’s 2023 Dahas report that shows “almost half” of the cases involving state agents as perpetrators. The total of 331 killed under Marcos’ watch include 17 users who were carrying on their person small amounts of drugs, obviously for personal use. Six fatalities were aged 19 and below; three were minors.  

Even in darkness, let us think of Jemboy and Kian, and other victims who were not named in the news, all young enough, denied their portion of earthly time and the privilege of ageing – all because the police saw them merely as crime suspects.

The press must bear this in mind as we move forward. Media’s short memory helps darkness to take over our lives. MT


Executive Director, CMFR