Losing Jesse

Yet another witness in a high-profile multiple murder case is gunned down in the Philippines.


    The call came in around mid-day.

    "They got to him."

    I'm sorry?, I thought, still trying to recognise the voice at the other end of the line.

    "They got to him,"  it was repeated sadly. "Just as he told you they would."

    We were in the middle of working on another story, and I wasn't sure exactly what I was being told.

    "The witness," the voice added, filling in my silence. "They got to him, he's dead."

    We had interviewed two men who claimed to be witnesses to the Maguindanao massacre, the worst case of political violence in the country that left at least 58 people dead in the troubled southern Philippines.

    The first one, known publicly as "Boy", was now in protective custody.

    He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but insisted that he was too shocked at the brutality, and was unable to participate in the shooting of innocent civilians.  

    The second one we dubbed "Jesse".

    He admitted to having participated in the murders, and surfaced in March after being in hiding since the killings took place in November.

    He was in fear for his life having heard that there was a bounty on his head, allegedly offered by his previous employers - the suspected masterminds of the massacre - the Ampatuan family.

    A powerful political clan, closely allied with Gloria Arroyo, the country's former president, that had ruled Maguindanao with an iron fist for almost a decade.

    Behind bars

    The patriarch and several other members are now in a high-security prison, facing charges of multiple murder.

    But Jesse told us that even from behind bars, they were still giving orders to kill.

    "Datu Unsay (Ampatuan) was already in (prison) in Manila when he gave the order for me to kill this one guy who could have been a witness against them. I did it," Jesse told us in an interview. 

    "If I didn’t do as told, they would kill me - even my parents were under threat."

    After that, Jesse heard he was next to be eliminated.  

    "I knew too much."

    Jesse claimed he was at the meeting where the Ampatuans planned to block a convoy of a rival family and kill them, and anyone else who might be traveling alongside.

    Over thirty journalists and several lawyers also perished in that ambush.

    Jesse said he didn’t know how many people he shot, but that he had to do it or face being killed himself.  It was just the way things worked, he said. They paid him, so he did as told.

    When it all got too much for him, he came to Manila hoping to get into the witness protection programme.  

    But things didn't quite work out as he'd hoped.

    Failing to even meet with officials of the Justice Department who were prosecuting the case, he returned defeated to the southern Philippines in April.

    Two months later, he was gunned down.

    Witnesses dying

    "Massacre witnesses are dying while the government sits on its hands," Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.

    "Suwaib Upham (Jesse) took enormous personal risks by agreeing to testify against Ampatuan family members, yet the government, knowing full well he was in danger, did nothing. This sends the worst possible message to other witnesses thinking of coming forward."

    "The rampant impunity for serious abuses in the Philippines is not going to end so long as the authorities don't protect the hired guns who are willing to talk," Pearson said. 

    "By failing to act to protect Upham so that he could testify, the government has raised strong doubts about its interest in holding accountable those behind the Maguindanao massacre."

    The irony is – Jesse was killed just as he was preparing to return to the capital city and try to get his story heard again.

    A new president is being installed next week, and like the rest of the country, he was hopeful this would usher in a change.

    That finally an end would be in sight to the culture of patronage politics, violence, and fear that had kept him, and many others like him, in chains for so long.  

    Now, Jesse becomes another postscript number – a fresh casualty to be added to the long list of victims killed with impunity, despite being guilty of having done the same himself.



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