BY CJ KUIZON
ARAKAN, NORTH COTABATO—“I thought he had a stroke.” Lucita Nombreda or Ate Cita was the first to discover the dead body of Italian missionary Fr. Fausto Tentorio, PIME. The 72-year-old caretaker of the convent compound was about to throw the garbage at around 8 o’ clock on that Monday morning of October 17. She found the priest slumped on the ground, part of his body under the driver’s side of his muddy SUV. There were no obvious signs of blood and she thought at first that his blood pressure had risen and he had a stroke. He was already watching his diet to guard against that possibility.
To show how the 59-year old priest – Pops to most, Tatay or Fr. Fausto to others – was positioned, and without any prompting, Ate Cita laid down on the cement walkway on the side of the chapel that the parish priest had built for the small town. Still on the cement, she sat up to show how she cradled his head. “Patay na siya (He was already dead),” she whispered, as if saying it softly would make it less true.
Ate Cita recalled that events happened very fast after she called for help. Although she knew that he was from around there, she could not even remember the name of the young man she had first run into. She did not know how other people came upon the body and who called the ambulance and who went to the hospital with the priest.
She only knew that Pops was dead. If Ate Cita had not been distracted by Pops’ body, she would have easily seen the reason for his demise. From behind the yellow tape of crime scene cordoned off by the police and even in that poorly lit area, the window of the driver’s side of Pops’ SUV was clearly ridden with bullet holes. One could also see dark splatters of blood on the ground where Nanay Cita had said she had found Pops.
The vehicle was parked just behind the daycare center in the compound of the Mother of Perpetual Help Parish. Classes were supposed to be under way by that time but the daycare teacher was absent. Several of the daycare students had yet to be picked up by their parents and they were playing outside their classroom nearer the chapel where there was space for running and jumping.
Ate Cita said there were many strangers who asked for the priest without saying why. Ate Cita said that, sometimes, members of the church service staff would tell her to send away vendors and suspicious looking persons who entered the compound. But it was not easy for her to do so because she understood that they might really need to talk with Pops. She also took pity on the sweaty vendors who asked to be allowed to stay awhile and rest in the kiosks. She said Pops also had never given such instructions. She said if it was up to him, people would be allowed to call on him even at midnight or in the wee hours of the morning. Ate Cita, who had been the caretaker of many different refectories all over Cotabato for decades, said Pops was different from other priests she had known because most of them were strict.
“Tinuyuan gyud ‘to (It (the killing) was well thought of),” Ate Cita added. However, the crime would not really have needed much planning. Aside from not being able to control the people who came and went, the chapel was far from restrictive to those who had harmful intent. It sat on top of a small hill, surrounded by the refectory where Pops lived, by the parish office and by the daycare center. There were also several bamboo kiosks near the daycare where parents could wait for their children and where a killer could lay in waiting. Although there was a gate in front of the chapel, the rest of the compound did not have a fence and anybody could just hide in the thick vegetation that surrounded the compound. Ate Cita, however, was certain this was not a simple killing.
Fellow Italian priest Fr. Peter Jeremiah, also from the PIME, agreed that any number of people from any number of groups could have pulled the trigger. Asked whom he suspected, Fr. Peter recalled the murder of Eliezer ‘Boy’ Billanes. Billanes was a staunch anti-mining leader and chairperson of the regional anti-mining alliance South Cotabato-Saranggani-General Santos City-Davao del Sur (SoCSarGenDS) Agenda. He was gunned down in Colombio, South Cotabato in 2009.
According to the priest, on the morning of his murder, Billanes went to a military camp upon the urging of army officers, who had put up an Special Operations Team in their area to guard the major mining companies. Violating basic human rights tenets, armed personnel of the state stayed in peoples’ houses. He said they would then ask for the names of leaders and active members of particular organizations.
“Kay Boy Billanes way ma-identify nga perpetrators pero tanan nagasiling kay lider siya, leading opposition sa mining sigurado nga mining ang hinungdad sa pagpatay siya. (With Boy Billanes, nobody could identify the perpetrators but everybody knew that because he was a leader, leading opposition against mining, it was certain that mining was the reason why he was killed.)”
However, Fr. Peter said it was not so easy to pinpoint the perpetrators of Pops’s murder. While he was also a staunch anti-mining advocate, Pops also spoke boldly for Lumad and genuine Lumad organizations, for peasant rights and for advancing human rights in general. He added that any of the powerful individuals and large groups that Pops went against had the resources to have had him killed.
The elder priest said the identity of the person or persons who pulled the trigger was immaterial anyway. Fr. Peter said it is certain that the triggerman would never be caught in the near future. Not when the culture of impunity still thrives in the country.
He said, even with the new administration, unchecked violence was still rampant. He said President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III had spoken of changes in the military and officials in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had said they were set to implement more peace-centered ways but these had yet to be seen. “May ara nga balik sa dati nga conditioning basta ang trabaho sa sundalo to destroy the enemy and then to use force (There are those (in the military) who are still under the old conditioning — the job of the military is to destroy the enemy and to use force,” Fr. Peter said.
Fr. Peter said getting justice for Pops involved promoting a culture of peace and mutual respect so that the same thing would not happen again. “Let us hope that the efforts of Pops will never be forgotten. Let us hope somebody will pick up where he left off.”