Activist monitoring human trafficking in Bongao detained, charged

ZAMBOANGA CITY (03 March/MindaNews) –An activist who leads an inter-agency surveillance and monitoring team against human trafficking in Tawi-tawi was jailed for five days and charged with obstruction of justice as her efforts to curb anti-trafficking through the backdoor are gaining ground.

Vema L. Gaticales, 47,  Secretary of the Sangguniang Bayan of Bongao and de facto team leader of the Surveillance and Monitoring Team of the Municipal Inter-agency Committee Against Human Trafficking (MIACAT) was  charged with  violation of Presidential Decree No. 1829 Penalizing Obstruction of Apprehension and Prosecution of Criminal Offenders by Provincial Prosecutor Jerry J. Cuento and was detained for five days.

She was released after posting bail of P12,000.

Gaticales, formerly of Radyo ng Bayan in Bongao, is known for her zealous and staunch campaign against human trafficking, was designated by Bongao Mayor Jasper Que to represent the municipal government in the MIACAT, which was created in 2006 through a Municipal Executive Order and works within the Regional Inter-agency Committee against Human Trafficking (RIACAT) based in Zamboanga City.

Within the MIACAT, Gaticales is recognized as the de facto Team Leader of the Monitoring and Surveillance Team against Human Trafficking.

999 rescued since 2011

The Municipal Welfare and Development Office of Bongao, reported that MIACAT-Bongao was responsible for the rescue of 797 trafficking-in-persons (TIPs) in 2011. This year, as of February 19, the group was able to rescue 202 TIPs.

The arrest, detention and eventual charging of case against Gaticales stemmed from a rescue operation conducted by the MIACAT on February 19 where two female victims of  trafficking-in-persons (TIP) from Zamboanga del Sur were rescued upon arrival at the port of Bongao en route to Malaysia.

Documents from the 5th Municipal Circuit Trial Court of Bongao-Languyan in Tawi-tawi, indicated that Gaticales  “… did then and there willfully and knowingly obstructs, impedes, frustrates or delays the apprehension of Sulma Sayadih and the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases by harboring or concealing, or facilitating the escape of Sayadih”.

Sayadih is a Tausug woman in her early 60s, who according to Gaticales,  presented herself as the aunt of one of the two TIPs that MIACAT has rescued on February 19 in order to secure their immediate release.

In her affidavit, Gaticales said, that she asked Sayadih to present an identification card that could indicate that she was indeed the aunt of one of the rescued victims. Having no proof to establish her relationship, Gaticales then proceeded to inform her of the consequences of her actions under the Anti-trafficking Law, including the possibility of being apprehended and jailed.

Sayadih then withdrew her claim and decided to go home, leaving behind the two victims in the custody of Gaticales in the Municipal Hall of Bongao. They were later turned over to DSWD.

Gaticales asserted that her actions were in accordance with the procedure that the MIACAT has followed in the processing of the victims s over the past years.

However, the Provincial Prosecutor, in the inquest proceedings found that Gaticales may have “reasonable ground to believe or suspect that Sayadih committed any offense under RA 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Person Act of 2003” and thus “preventing the arrest and prosecution” of Sayadih.

Tip of the Iceberg

Gaticales told MindaNews that her detention and the charges filed against her is meant to demoralize the MIACAT into inaction.

“The operators of human trafficking in Bongao is hurting badly and is moving to put a stop to our relentless campaign,” Gaticales said.

“One TIP rescued may mean a loss of P35,000 to human trafficking operators,” Gaticales said.

She added: “On the average, each TIP bound for Malaysia is supposed to pay the operators P35,000. We gathered this data from previous investigations with TIPs. If you multiply the 202 TIPs rescued this year alone, this will amount to over seven million pesos income losses for the operators.”

Gaticales said that MIACAT initially identified five human trafficking groups operating in Bongao. She, however, did not disclose who these groups are as it may jeopardize the surveillance operations being conducted on the said groups.

Gaticalesto raised her plight to the attention of the RIACAT based in Zamboanga City. “I have requested the  RIACAT to conduct investigation on the motive and role of the Philippine National Police Provincial Headquarters in Tawi-tawi in the filing of case against my person,” Gaticales said.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg in as far as human trafficking operations in Tawi-tawi is concerned,” she said. (Jules L. Benitez, MindaNews)