By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
Graphics by Arvin James Luna
MANILA – On May 2, 2021, about 4:00 a.m., Justine Mesias, 22, was supposed to go to their sari-sari (variety) store when his mother’s partner stopped him. Apparently, 20 to 40 state agents raided their house and allegedly found explosives.
This was the same day when the houses of two others, youth and student leader Maria Jesusa Sta. Rosa and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Bicol Spokesperson Pastor Dan Balucio of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), were raided by the police. They were arrested after authorities “served” the search warrant, and claimed that firearms and explosives were confiscated from their possession.
The court eventually cleared Balucio and Sta. Rosa of charges, and were released in August and October 2021 respectively.
Although Mesias evaded arrest, authorities still pressed charges against him. Last December 2021, Mesias, through his counsel, learned that the court issued a warrant of arrest on August 9, 2021. This affected his mental health, he said. It bothered him so much that he had trouble sleeping and had to apply for a leave of absence in school.
“It’s too much. I am thinking about the charges (against me) and then on the one hand I have to study,” Mesias told Bulatlat in an online interview.
Mesias is a second year peace education student in Bicol University. He was the former regional coordinator of Kabataan Partylist in Bicol, spokesperson of Youth Act Now Against Tyranny, coordinator of Tulong Kabataan Bicol and co-convenor of Rise for Education-Bicol University.
Mesias’s story is the same with other activists who were red-tagged prior to their arrest or worse, killing.
What candidates think about red-tagging and the NTF-ELCAC
For Mesias, it is important for voters to know the presidential candidates’ stand on rights abuses such as red-tagging. He said that people have the right to know if they side with the people or the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
“It speaks a lot if they are silent on this issue. It shows what principles they have and what platforms they are pushing forward,” said Mesias.
The NTF-ELCAC, a government-body created under Executive Order No. 70, is notorious in red-tagging and terror-tagging critics of President Duterte’s administration.
Vice President Leni Robredo, in her November 2021 statement, expressed her support to the NTF-ELCAC’s anti-insurgency mandate but said that she is against red-tagging of critics of the government.
In a webinar series organized by the Citizens’ Alliance for Just Peace (CAJP), Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierre, clarified that Robredo “believes that the original intention behind the agency was sound but the implementation of its mandate was marred by abuses.”
Vice Presidential candidate, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, made his stand clear against red-tagging. He was among the eight senators who stood against the red-tagging of community-pantries and the wrongful red-tagging of former UP student leader Sonia Soto in 2019.
“We don’t believe in red-tagging. We also joined marches and fought the dictatorship. If they red-tag Sonia, then I should be red-tagged too. This is not right. The Armed Forces should re-think this policy,” Pangilinan said in a statement.
At the height of the red-tagging of various groups and individuals in 2020, Pangilinan appealed to the defense and security officials to prioritize the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Pangilinan also said that the officials who are claiming that the Makabayan bloc are members of the CPP-NPA-NDF can always file a case in the courts to back their claim.
Manila Mayor and presidential candidate Isko Moreno also criticized the incessant red-tagging by some government officials. In a news article, Moreno urged the government not to resort to “baseless red-tagging.”
Moreno believed that there should be “enough proof that the government labels people as part of the communist movement.”
In 2020, the Senate committee on national defense and security head Sen. Panfilo Lacson held three hearings to probe into the red-tagging of the Makabayan bloc by security officials. After the hearing, the committee came out with a report acknowledging the dangers of red-tagging, calling on the authorities to “refrain from vilifying, labeling and imputing guilt by association to the communist groups, various institutions and progressive organizations based on false or unverified information.”
Lacson once considered recommending the criminalization of red-tagging.
But this campaign season, Lacson earned the ire of netizens when, ironically, he red-tagged the supporters of Robredo in a campaign rally in Cavite which was reportedly attended by almost 50,000 people.
Lacson alleged a coalition between Robredo and the CPP-NPA-NDF, without showing any proof.
“This is worrisome. A coalition government with the CPP-NPA-NDF will set back the gains of the government’s efforts to end the country’s decades-old insurgency problem,” he said.
Lacson, however, denied red-tagging anyone. In a television interview, Lacson said that he was only enlightened with the claims of “witnesses” presented by the security sector in the Senate hearing on red-tagging in 2020.
“Everything that they are doing, the front organizations, the legal organizations, they continue to recruit, indoctrinate, and to mobilize the different sectors. The urban poor, the youth sectors, students and labor and many more. So, I was enlightened with that. Although I tried my best to really be very objective and to prove that, I gave them enough space, enough time in the Senate hearing. But, more or less, that is what I was enlightened of. And these rallies in Iloilo, Cavite, Bulacan, I also received intelligence information that one movement helped in organizing these. For the other candidates, I am still gathering information if there are similar alliances in order to mobilize such crowds. That is where I went and I am worried that maybe the coalition government will again happen, and it’s like we have not learned because that is just one of their goals,” Lacson said in Filipino during a television interview.
During the Senate hearing on red-tagging, vice presidential candidate Sen. Vicente Sotto said that there is value to former NTF-ELCAC Spokesperson retired Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade’s claims about progressive groups’ supposed recruitment of activists to become NPAs.
Sotto said that he does not believe that the government is red-tagging any groups, but only “trying to identify rebel groups and lawmakers that support the CPP-NPA.”
He also said that victims of red-tagging can always file a libel complaint against red-taggers.
Sotto also found it unfair and said that the issue has become one-sided where those who were red-tagged portray themselves as victims before the public when witnesses who exposed them are so-called former leaders of revolutionary groups. He said these witnesses were the ones who are at risk from being assassinated by their former comrades.
But in 2021, Sotto said that NICA Director General Alex Paul Monteagudo’s claim that there are communists among the ranks of Senate employees through the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE), an umbrella organization of labor unions in different government agencies, are unfounded. He was also open to the idea of criminalizing red-tagging.
Presidential candidate Manny Pacquiao, however, said that red-tagging should stop. He recognized the root cause of the armed conflict saying that if he did not become a successful boxer, he too would be taking arms and go to the mountains.
In 2021, Pacquiao said that the NTF-ELCAC should not waste their funds on red-tagging groups and individuals. He said the reason why there are people who rebel against the government is due to the lack of social services in the remote areas.
Vice presidential candidate Lito Atienza also agreed that the budget of the NTF-ELCAC should be slashed.
For labor leader and presidential candidate Leody De Guzman, all acts of rights violation, including red-tagging, should stop.
De Guzman said that the NTF-ELCAC is a clear violation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) and the International Humanitarian Law.
The CARHRIHL is a peace agreement signed by both the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines in 1998.
He said the agency ignores the previous framework towards the peace issue.
Vice presidential candidate Walden Bello meanwhile said that red-tagging is part of the military’s “dirty game.”
“It is expected to the military and the generals,” he said.
He is also in favor of dissolving the NTF-ELCAC.
For Marcos, the NTF-ELCAC is doing a good job. For him, the anti-insurgency task force should continue its operation because “it helps.”
Vice presidential aspirant Sarah Duterte-Carpio has not made any condemnation on the red-tagging of activists. But prior to the national elections, the Davao mayor red-tagged the Makabayan bloc when they joined a major protest in Davao City in October 2018.
‘Red-tagging worse during election’
Mesias said that red-tagging is worse during elections as it aims to hinder the progressives from campaigning, such as the case of Robredo and her supporters, he said.
He said red-tagging is a prelude to worse kinds of rights violations.
“It should be opposed and condemned,” he said.
Based on the timeline provided by Kabataan Partylist, Mesias was first red-tagged in January 2020 when a certain Eric L. Estrevillo sent him a private message accusing him of being connected to the New People’s Army. It was followed by surveillance, threats through SMS and online messages, surveillance, and other forms of harassment.
On January 27, 2021, Mayalang Silangan Facebook Page posted photos of activists, including Mesias, tagging them as members of the NPA.
On March 19, 2021, Masbate City Police Station blatantly red-tagged Mesias in their official Facebook page.
On May 2, 2021, the simultaneous raids happened in Mesias’s house as well as in Sta. Rosa’s and Balucio’s.
To fight back, Mesias, with the help of his lawyers, filed a motion to quash search warrants, to suppress evidence, to declare inadmissible illegally seized items and to quash the information with prayer to dismiss the case before the Regional Trial Court of Legazpi City in January 2022.