MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/13 October) – October 14, 2011 marks the 20th death anniversary of Fr. Nerilito “Nery” Satur, who was killed in Barangay Guinoyoran, Valencia City (then still a municipality) in Bukidnon by a small group of Lumad militiamen. No motive was found other than his efforts to stop timber poaching in his parish. Reports said that on more than one occasion the priest had intercepted logs that were about to be smuggled by the group.
But there’s another dimension of Fr. Satur’s death that seems to have escaped public attention. All these years, attention has only focused on the motive of the killers. Nobody, it seems, has bothered to examine the circumstances that led to their emergence as feared overlords in Guinoyoran and in neighboring villages, and the characteristic impunity that shielded them from eventual prosecution. Although all of them had died – or had been killed – years ago, the same environment that abetted their relatively short-lived yet feared existence has persisted in many areas not just in Bukidnon but also in other parts of Mindanao.
In the few years before Fr. Satur’s death, Guinoyoran was beset by insurgency. Among other measures, the military recruited locals, mainly Lumads, in the fight against the New People’s Army. Some of those recruits were former rebels, one of whom was convicted of killing a church worker, escaped from prison and got killed in a shootout with local police. Reveling in their privilege as appendages of the counterinsurgency machinery, they soon became the informal power holders in the community, and everybody was careful not to step on their toes. In truth, however, their power depended on how long their military backers would coddle them.
The military reached a quid pro quo with their wards in Guinoyoran. To sustain their loyalty and devotion to the anti-NPA campaign, the militiamen were allowed to engage in timber smuggling as one of their incentives. It’s difficult to prove that some military officials also benefited from the militiamen’s illegal activity, but it could not be denied that it was taking place right under their very noses and they did nothing to stop it.
Perhaps, the military was just being pragmatic. If they stopped the militiamen from selling illegally cut timber, they would have lost local support against the rebels. At a time when NPA influence in the area was already waning, they would not risk losing the momentum. There was no turning back. This unwritten compact may have proved disastrous to the environment of Guinoyoran, which lies on the foot slopes of Mount Kalatungan, but it helped diminish rebel presence in the area.
Then in early 1991, the militiamen achieved a feat that cemented their relationship with the military. Using treachery, they killed an entire NPA squad led by Renerio Caga, a Xavier University scholar who became one of the National Democratic Front’s negotiators in the local peace talks in 1986-87. According to underground sources, the Lumads convinced the rebels to come to the barangay unarmed for a supposed dialogue. The Lumads finished off their unwary visitors with machetes.
The military presented a different version of the incident to the media. One newspaper report said it was a team of soldiers led by a mid-level official that encountered the rebels. As they said, in war the biggest casualty is truth.
After a few months Fr. Satur lay dead on a lonely road in Guinoyoran, his skull crushed with a rifle butt to make sure he would not survive. The perpetrators were identified. They were never arrested however. When pressure mounted on authorities to act on the case, some Guinoyoran residents held a picket in front of the Valencia town hall in support of the militiamen especially the datu (tribal leader) who led them. A sergeant on the other hand who was implicated was brought to the barracks where he was “detained” until the furor over the priest’s death died down.
The datu died of old age. His inner core of armed followers, the same persons who shot Fr. Satur, were reported to have turned to banditry and killed in encounters with the police. Nobody knew what had happened to the sergeant.
The culprits may have died. But the reasons for their existence are still very much alive. Why can’t the military do away with the practice of sponsoring ill-trained and undisciplined village thugs like the killers of Fr. Satur? (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. He can be reached at [email protected])