By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – “James Balao is already dead.”
This was the message received by Winston, James’s brother, on August 19, at around 8:20 a.m. from mobile number +639993031078.
James has been missing since September 17, 2008 when alleged state security forces forcibly took him along a busy street in La Trinidad, Benguet.
The news turned out to be a sham.
When James’ siblings inquired about the details of the circumstances of the incident and whereabouts of their brother, the person did not reply at first and then could not give information on James. Later that day, the Balao family called the same number, and a man who answered the phone introduced himself as Sgt. Maganto who claimed to be an officer of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Cordillera Quirino province. The man said James Balao and three other members of the New People’s Army (NPA) were killed in an encounter and that they have the bodies of the four. He further claimed that James was identified through an identification card inside his wallet. This certain Sgt. Maganto, however, did not provide information on how to retrieve the body of James.
Members of the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) tried calling the number but the calls were not answered. Beverly Longid, former chairwoman of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) and current president of the Katribu Partylist, called the chief of police in Quirino province and was told that there is no police officer by the name of Maganto. The police also said that there was no encounter with the NPA, and that they had no information on the whereabouts of James Balao.
“We denounce the callousness of this act in the face of the ordeals James’ family is going through in the search for him,” the CHRA said in a statement. “The misleading information is additional emotional torment to the family and colleagues of James.”
The CHRA deemed that the move is “a lame attempt to establish the storyline spun by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the PNP that James Balao is not a victim of enforced disappearance but has joined the New People’s Army (NPA).”
“We condemn this ploy that is not just meant to inflict further emotional distress to the Balao family but is also an attempt of State security agents to escape accountability for their actions and do away with their responsibility of conducting a thorough investigation of the case,” the CHRA said.
The group reiterated that James is not a member of the NPA.
“These people who have convoluted minds have nothing productive to do but weave stories and play with families’ emotions. If they cannot help us in our search for our missing loved ones, then they should instead shut up,” Lorena Santos, deputy secretary general of Desaparecidos (Families of the Disappeared), said.
Santos’s father, Leo Velasco, has been forcibly disappeared too.
“What is clear is the people behind this are vainly attempting to wash off their hands from responsibility over James’ disappearance by branding him an NPA rebel,” Santos said.
Santos said this is not the first time that state security agents did this to relatives of victims of enforced disappearances. She recalled that during the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) hearing on the case of Jonas Burgos in 2007, the accused AFP officers also claimed that Jonas was a member of the NPA and that his ‘rebel’ colleagues were the ones who abducted him.
The CHRA said, “Instead of these cheap tactics to muddle the case, the Aquino administration and his state security agents should provide us the true information about James and sincerely search for him until he is found.”
The Balao family wrote to PNP Regional Director Benjamin Magalong and to Lt. General Jessie Dellosa, chief of staff of the AFP regarding the incident. The family and the CHRA called for a thorough investigation on the incident
“The search for him has been very difficult but we will persist. We will resolutely clamor to surface James and to attain justice not only for him but for all the victims of human rights violations,” the CHRA said.
“James abductors are desperate to end the long standing search for James but no amount of lies can stop the families of the disappeared from searching for their missing loved one. Families will only stop when the missing is finally found,” Santos said.