Unsolved killings in Flora, Apayao: A continuous cycle of culture of violence in the Philippines

Photo shows Indigenous People’s Mandatory Representative the late Richard de San Jose delivers his opening remarks during the cultural night of the 2016 Kabinnulig Festival, his braindchild commemorating the founding anniversary of Flora on June 22. The late Cathy Ortega is one of the hosts sitting at the middle behind Richard.

NO date is more appropriate than today to remember a man who all of his lifetime dreamt, worked hard and cared for the betterment of Flora and its people.

Six years ago, the late former Mayor/Vice Mayor/SB Member Richard Usita De San Jose (1967-2020) organized the first ever Christmas Party of the different tribes that comprised a large population of Indigenous People within the Municipality of Flora, Apayao in Northern Philippines in December 2015.

Representing the Ibanag tribe, Richard was then the newly-selected IP Mandatory Representative to the Sangguniang Bayan.

Being a long time public official, “Itchay” as he is popularly known, exerted time and effort as well as sacrificed personal money to help the IP members on almost anything that caters to their need.

His devotion to public service and his generosity are his natural traits, becoming a daily habit. These, he inherited from his late father, one of Apayao’s leading political figures during his long public service.

A year later on his 50th birthday October 10, 2016, he celebrated with the biggest ever gathering of all the different tribes and its leaders that included Itneg, Igorot, Ibanag, Kankanaey, Tingguian, Aeta, Itawes and Malaweg.

During that day incumbent Mayor Rodolfo B. Juan urged the local legislature to adopt a Resolution to make Oct. 10 as Indigenous People’s Day in Flora perhaps in recognition to Itchay’s untiring efforts. (I have yet to verify if that ever happened).

Today, it will be the second time that Itchay is not around to celebrate his birthday.

Along with wife Jessica, the current Vice Mayor who is now seeking the mayoralty post and Itneg tribal leader Antonio Claveria, I had the opportunity to work with them closely for the interests of the IPs, sharing ideas and plans to uplift their plight and assert their basic social, political and human rights.

But sadly those avowed plans and ideas came to a halt.

Itchay was murdered in the early evening of July 28, 2020 when the town is locked down due to the government’s response to the corona virus.

Two unidentified men with automatic pistols fired at him while resting and having fun with friends and personal aides at a makeshift food stall after he supervised a road project nearby and two blocks away from the mayor’s house.

The perpetuators shot him from behind. He died instantly as they left him on foot with four fatal wounds to the head and body. He was carrying his licensed pistol but never had the chance to retaliate.

How could this be happened to a man who is supposedly the most heavily guarded public official in this supposedly peaceful side of the country, next only of course, to the police-backed Mayor.

I suspect that only those who have the means and power can do that cowardly act to a man who is passionate about high powered guns and owns several of them at home. These are all licensed firearms and he is using them to protect his family. I never knew if these were ever used. These guns he was keeping are a public knowledge.
The NBI once raided his house and took the guns but returned it later after a process of verifications.

Accordingly, the killers of Itchay were of unfamiliar faces and are not from Flora. How could they enter town at a time when all roads leading there are closely guarded? This remains a mystery. Only those who have the means and have the open access to checkpoints may have to do with this. But there is no suspect. No one is dared to come forward and give even a small hint for sure a fear of their own life.

The case is still unsolved and the killers scot free.

It maybe that police investigators lacked interest in finding the truth behind this barbaric act.

Rumors had been circulating around town that the killing of Richard may have to do with the war on drugs of President Duterte. This is a blatant lie. It is adding insult to injury.

It is even sadder that the mayor kept silence that he didn’t even bother to visit him during his wake and funeral as he even wanted to end the vigil early citing social distancing as a reason.

This stabs the heart. It reminds of a similar way the Mayor did to a cousin when he did not also appear at the wake and funeral of Cathy Beltran Ortega who was also similarly murdered on May 17, 2019.

Cathy was then the Human Resource Management Officer of the town. She just came from office when two motorcycle riding men shot her pointblank in front of her house. Her case is also still unsolved.

Imagine a superior who intentionally does not want to pay respect to his former key public officials’ death? Visiting them and offering condolences to the bereaved families could have been a big morale boost to help ease their misery.

Anyways, mine is just a feeling of sadness as both Itchay and Cathy are not only distant cousins but very close to me.

Back in the days, Cathy and I were members of a choral group that competed in the district meet but it was only many years later during my stint with the vice mayor’s office as a legislative staff that we learned we are cousins after her grandmother (a cousin of my grandfather by my mother’s side) died. From then on, she was always a good source of news and told me issues confronting the municipal hall and its employees, petty or relevant.

Cathy was a strong-willed woman. In fact, she had the courage to file three different administrative cases against Mayor Juan with the Ombudsman.

Itchay is a first degree cousin by my father’s side and his father’s side but by affinity. He was a small brother to me.

What has been bothering me for the past two years is that their cases are likely to become part of the hundreds of cases remained unsolved They will certainly be just included in the list of victims in this unabated culture of violence in a country already stricken with graft and corruption.

Human Rights Watch reported that the human rights situation in the Philippines deteriorated in 2020.

In June, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a highly critical report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, accounting over eight thousand killed either by police or unknown suspects.
That is a big discrepancy with the PNP’s figure of almost six thousand killed.

“Threats and attacks, including killings, against left-wing political activists, environmental activists, community leaders, Indigenous peoples’ leaders, journalists, lawyers, and others rose in the past year,” the report said.

“The government harassed journalists and media companies, including through politically motivated prosecutions and other legal action; a court convicted journalist Maria Ressa of cyber libel in June, while the government shut down the country’s largest television network the following month.”

(Ressa has just been named as the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Awardee.)

This report is so alarming and killings still on the rise.

Meanwhile, let us go back to a man’s past to give tribute befitting a true, kindhearted, generous, caring, energetic, disciplinarian and sometimes fallible individual — a strong leader, good providing father, true friend, caring to relatives and others. He was close to the basic masses. Like his father, he was a people person, easy to go along with and very easy to approach.

Who is Richard or Itchay?

Richard was still very young at 54 at the time of his murder. His untimely demise is a big loss to the Indigenous People. His big and ingenious plans for Floranians will never be realized.

But Richard will always have a special place in the minds and hearts of many town folks. He is a legend by his own right. I keep many memories and anecdotes with him during our youth and as matured individuals.

When he was about seven years old and I was 10, we were allowed to go with our elders to deliver logs via a 6 x 6 truck to a log pond in Binalan in nearby town of Ballesteros. This was our first time to see each other in person.

The trip was difficult in those times since the road from Flora to junction Ayaga was tricky muddy.

But this tough trip at dawn break was in itself an enjoyable experience for growing up kids that we were even allowed to sit on top of the logs while tightening our grip on the steel binders on our way to the destination point.

Richard, like any other “spoiled brat (excuse the word) but smarter-than-others kid” was often scolded by his uncle, Manong Berning, while my father who was on the driver seat also occasionally checked me if I am alright.

This is just one of the indelible marks in our lives that we have shared as relatives and separate human beings with different human frailties. But the closeness has been kept intact through the years and that I haven’t move on yet with his passing.

After our first meeting, it took about 10 years later when we crossed path again following my transfer to Saint Joseph’s high school at Flora from another school in SY 1980-81.

We were not really that close enough as I was with his older brother Ben all the time because the latter was my classmate.

Mang Ben (RIP) and I continued our closeness when we entered college in Manila. We were even classmates in a basketball class when he cross-enrolled from another school.

Richard and I became inseparable “partners- in-crime” two years later when he entered University life.

I was responsible for leading him to University of the East and even chose a BS Management course for him after all schools have already close for the Civil Engineering that he preferred to take up.

He however realized his dream course when he transfered to the University of Manila.
One day, he came to me and showed his swollen legs as a result of a hazing following his entry to the Samahang Ilocano fraternity.

He knew that I do not approve of this but explained that it was a moment when he can no longer resist the temptations of a college life or a calling of his youthful age.

Out of touch, my absence from the apartment where my family and his family shared in Sta. Cruz Manila changed the direction where I want him to take.

Misguided, his go-lucky, freedom like attitude somehow cause him to commit misdeeds that sometimes threaten his life.

One day, Richard consumed too much alcohol in a friend’s boardinghouse after school. When he went home alone he could not bring himself up for the jeep ride so he just sat at the edge of a busy street at the Manila Central Market. It was around 11 pm. But maybe with God’s grace, a woman province mate noticed someone familiar and recognized him and finally he reached home though in a bad state.

One time before that he was cornered by fraternity members at UE forcing him to join while pointing knife at him and threatening him to be hurt if he refuses. Luckily, I saved him from that harrowing experience because of my popularity within the frat community as being a campus journalist at that time.

We were classmates in two PE classes and at one instance, he was challenged to a fistfight by our karate instructor. Good thing that I played the peacekeeper which prevent ed a possible dismissal from the University.

But the funniest of all was when we shared a toothbrush during an out-of-town trip. This was at the wedding of his sister Dr. Josie Ferrer in San Carlos City, Pangasinan in (1987?).

He forgot to bring a toothbrush and because the nearby store ran out of supply, he said he just use mine after I use it first. He needed only a hot water to dip the toothbrush before he used it. That’s how the two of us were treating each other during those memorable days.

When I was bedridden for over a year because of a colostomy operation, he was always there at my side, tears flowing while boosting my morale.

Richard was a full-blooded Marcos Loyalist and he was deeply saddened when the former president was ousted in 1986.

But with pure curiosity, I persuaded Richard to join me during some of the biggest rallies calling Marcos to stepdown from power including the proclamation of Cory Aquino and Salvador Laurel to face Marcos in the snap election at the Bonifacio Plaza in front of the National Post Office where teenaged Kris Aquino showed up to the public for the first time by joining the podium.

Later on, Richard joined several political forums we in the progressive movement have organized in universities and colleges.

Richard and I have survived the infamous Mendiola Massacre. We were about meters away from the frontline when shots reverberated the afternoon rally forcing us to scamper for safety.

Richard was the first person that went to my mind and he was nowhere to be found but I realized later that I have already instructed him to go home early because of the volatile situation.

My advocacy work and commitment to community organizing caused us to part our ways for the longest time.

The next thing I know about him was that he is already married, went home to Flora and turned to politics, his longtime dream. I was at this time a newspaper reporter and only meet him once in a while.

The only instance I was with him during his term as Mayor was that when he was conducting a pre-nuptial at home and when I showed up he cancelled his time to office instead the office came to him as documents to be signed were being transported from the municipal hall.

From then on we never saw each other again until I came home from a six-year stint abroad for good. When he learned about this from relatives, he immediately contacted me and offered a job to which I could not resist.

Richard supported Duterte in 2016, the only man to openly campaign for him while all the other aspirants were either for LP’s Roxas or UNA’s Jejomar Binay, including Rep. Butzy Bulut and Gov. Eleanor Bulut-Begtang.

I was always pushing him to run for a provincial post but Richard, in a heart to heart talk told me he does not want to because of his devotion to keep the good things he started at home. He cannot just leave the political front at home.

In 2016, Richard and his father along with wife Jessica made one of their most difficult decisions in their political life.

Incumbent Mayor Rodolfo Juan came to the vice mayor’s office to ask Jessica to convince Richard to give way for him for the top post. (Previously, Richard beat Juan twice for Mayor and once for VP).

After she told Richard about this, Jessica went to me and asked pointblank what do I think about it. I was shocked and silent.

Juan as Mayor and Jessica as Vice Mayor and no other candidates will contest them. Kind of breaching the democratic process.

It took then Gov. Butzy Bulut and his party to go to the De San Jose residence to convince them for such an arrangement but they did not immediately give their approval.

That gentlemen’s agreement to be forged have assured the de San Joses to take the mayoralty post in the next polls and no opposition.

With some reservations, Richard and Jessica again had a serious talk with me on the eve of filing certificate of candidacy to ask my opinion.

I wanted Richard or Jessica not to agree but I never advice them with that and kept it to myself. Instead I told them to just pray and it is up to both of them to decide.

They agreed anyway and it is hard to imagine that when Richard died Mayor Juan did not have the conscience to appear during this miserable moment of a family that gave him an easy road to the throne.

Before the 2019 elections, the gentlemen’s agreement was sidetracked after Mayor Juan came to the de San Joses again to give him another chance. They agreed again.

The gentlemen’s agreement is totally forgotten now. Mayor Juan and Jessica both filed their COCs for the top post for the May 2022 polls.

Richard would have been joining the fray again but he is now in God’s care and watching us doing our share to care for the betterment of Flora, a thriving town that he loved so dearly.

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