Call center employee finds hope for abducted Pa, calls for respect for human rights

After her father disappeared, Jessamine let go of her reluctance to talk to government soldiers and approached her ex-soldier childhood friend, who confirmed that indeed, ‘soldiers do bad things to people like (Ben Villeno).’


MANILA — Jessamine Villeno, 23, said she finds hope every time she and other people are looking for her missing father, every time she sees other people supporting their search, and every time she sees others voicing the same calls she and her loved ones have been raising.

Jessamine is the eldest daughter of “Pangulong Ben,” as Benjamen Villeno, 43, is usually called by his co-workers. Villeno had served as president of the federation Organized Labor Association in Line Industries and Agriculture, the Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan and the Lakas Manggagawang Nagkakaisa sa Honda.

More than three months ago, Villeno was believed to have been abducted by military agents (on Aug 27) in Dasmariñas, Cavite. His last text message to a fellow labor leader had hinted that he was being followed by suspected government soldiers.

“No time to mope”

Jessamine Villeno joins protest action commemorating International Human Rights Day. (Photo by Marya Salamat /
Jessamine Villeno joins protest action commemorating International Human Rights Day. (Photo by Marya Salamat /

The news that her father failed to reach home that fateful day, after he communicated to co-workers that he was being tailed by suspected soldiers, had worried his family so much.

“We’re used to him being always on the move,” Jessamine told She admitted that she cried when it became clear that her father had disappeared, indeed. “It’s different when even those he works with are worried.”

But she and her family have no time to mope, Jessamine said. They have to do a lot of things to search for him. As if this is not enough, the rest of her siblings and family who are in Leyte have to be accounted for. They have now brought here in Luzon one of her three siblings. The others would have to stay there, Jessamine said, explaining that they are in the care of their grandparents. And that in provinces like Leyte (at least, before typhoon Yolanda), one can hope to eat even without money. They can gather food from their plants or they can catch fish.

Now that Christmas is approaching, the family is longing all the more to locate Ben Villeno.

After coming from night work as a call center agent, Jessamine takes part in searching for her father, going to military camps, going to government offices, filing a police blotter… At times all the sleep she could get is the nap she takes while on the way, with human rights defenders, to an errand in search for her father.

Worrying news from ex-soldier

One of Jessamine’s childhood friends used to be a government soldier. He resigned from the service last year because, according to him, he cannot stomach anymore the things they are being ordered to do in the military.

“He cannot bear it anymore. They’re being ordered to ‘slaughter’ (kumatay) people,” Jessamine said of her ex-soldier friend.

“If we don’t agree to killing them, then it will be us who would be killed,” the ex-soldier also said.

But his conscience keeps him awake at nights. He still have nightmares. At times, in thinking of what they’d done in the past, he said there are times he feels like he’s having a heart attack.

“When they say workers-leaders, we hear a lot about them; we hear stories about soldiers killing them,” Jessamine echoed the things she had heard.

After her father disappeared, Jessamine let go of her reluctance to talk to government soldiers and approached her ex-soldier childhood friend, who confirmed that indeed, ‘soldiers do bad things to people like (Ben Villeno).’

“I asked him: ‘Where do government troops bring the people they abduct?’

The ex-soldier replied that they are usually brought to military camps. He gave Jesamine a list, and it corresponded with the list the human rights organizations also have.

In Southern Tagalog alone, Karapatan has documented four cases of enforced disappearances, 21 extra-judicial killings, 61 illegal arrests and detentions and more than 7,000 forced evacuations and dislocation in urban and rural communities.

Missing Papa

It was while Jessamine was in grade school that she began to learn and appreciate the concerns for which her father has devoted his energies to, aside from his job at Honda Philippines.

Jessamine recalled that when she was in grade 4, her father’s influence in her thinking had shown in how she was one of the few students in her class who chose Andres Bonifacio as the genuine national hero, because he “contributed more.” Andres Bonifacio was the leader who founded Katipunan, the mass organization in 1896 that launched an armed revolution against the Spanish colonizers and eventually founded the Philippine republic. Asked in school where she learned about Bonifacio’s achievements and relevance, Jessamine said she cited her father.

As the eldest daughter, Jessamine said she and her father had often discussed issues. Her father helped her at her school assignments; even in translating prayers.

“Even when I was just a kid, I know he was active in this kind of work,” Jessamine said as she looked at the gathered protesters in Mendiola Bridge, near Malacañang, where a program detailing the Aquino administration’s numerous human rights violations, and how it should be solved, was ongoing.

When she was in grade 5, Jessamine’s father brought her to Gabriela’s summer art camp. That was in 2001.

“I learned a lot from there. I learned to wash my own clothes, be independent. In those activities, my father said he saw my ability to lead, something I believe I got from him. I think that was when he and I started to become close to each other,” Jessamine said.

After Jessamine finished high school, her father helped her to acquire a scholarship with Bayan Muna Partylist. With it, she managed to finish a two-year course which helped her get employed. Since graduating, she has continuously worked for five years now, although in different companies.

From having worked in three different five-star hotels, she is now working for a call center company in Nuvali, Sta. Rosa, Laguna.

She said she cannot give in and mope in sadness about missing her Papa while at work — she has to work well because it would be worse if, on top of her father missing, she won’t be able to contribute money to her siblings in Leyte.

By now, she and members of Karapatan in Southern Tagalog have done a series of searches in different military camps in the region, from Camp Vicente Lim, Camp Eldridge in Laguna to the Southern Luzon Command in Lucena City, Quezon. They decried the denial of the Armed Forces of the Philippines that Villeno is in their custody.

Karapatan and the labor groups Villeno works with are now consulting various human rights lawyers in their campaign. They are seeking to file a Writ of Amparo before the Supreme Court to oblige military officials to surface the missing union-leader. (

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