A Killing Puzzle: The Life and Death of a Radio Commentator


By Alan Davis and Ma. Cecilia L. Rodriguez
Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

GINGOOG CITY, Misamis Oriental — Three days after burying him, the family of Aresio Padrigao were packing up their simple belongings and waiting for the people from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) witness protection program to take them to the relative safety of Cagayan de Oro, a two-hour drive away.

There they hope to be resettled: there, his three children, Ariston, Arceli and Aries hope to find new schools; and only there is his clearly nervous and distressed widow Teresita prepared to speak in detail to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) which has been ordered in to lead in the hunt for the killers of the local radio block-timer. Padrigao was a heavy critic of the city administration and illegal loggers via his weekly one hour show “Inform the Public.”

“Local police chief Superintendent Leonyroy Ga is working with both the NBI and the DOJ on two possible leads and hopes the case can be solved within the month. Even so, he complains he is heavily reliant on the public coming forward. Ga has only just moved from Iligan City where last year he headed the investigation into another journalist shooting, that of Joe Pantoja, a radioman who survived despite being shot eight times.

Considered by many to be a fair and reliable pair of hands, the police chief was just one week in the job at the time of Padrigao’s killing on November 17. He says there is “a lot of pressure from above” to solve this case.

A 9mm. bullet casing had been retrieved from the scene and so too, somewhat remarkably, the alleged license plate of the motorbike used in the attack.

“We first thought that yes, the plate could simply have been thrown there by the assailants and this could be a false lead to send us on the wrong trail. The bike too may have been stolen, but we have followed it up and it is registered to an owner in Davao,” the police chief told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

“The plate number will probably have been taken off and held or put in a bag before the shooting. We had witnesses that told us the plate fell out from the killer’s backpack as he was rushing to hide his gun and make a getaway,” he said.

Papers with the name, photograph and address of the bike’s owner were shown to the Project by Ga, who confirmed that while the owner had no known criminal record he remained one of two current suspects. The other, whose name was first given to the Project by another source, is a reported gun-for-hire with two outstanding arrest warrants to his name for murder and attempted murder.

“The problem is we don’t know where he is, but we have the bullet casing and if we can tie that to his gun, then we have a match,” Ga said.

But even if so, while it may prove the case of who pulled the trigger on Padrigao, it will shed no light on the person or people behind his execution.

Recordings of Padrigao’s final four shows have been given to the Project to see if they can help shed any light on his killing – the sixth this year, surpassing last year’s five media killings. He was also the 61st journalist to be killed in the Philippines since 2001 when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over.

In his broadcasts, Padrigao attacked city hall, the local government and too, the local police and the local Department of Environment and Natural Resources office for what he saw was a failure to catch illegal loggers.

“He had sources inside the city hall,” said Gualberto Pahunang, station manager of dxRS Radyo Natin (Our Radio) where the journalist had been broadcasting his show every Friday between 10 and 11 a.m. for the past two years. As a block-timer, Padrigao paid the station PhP 1,000 (USD) 20) a week.

Work-related?

Pahunang believes the killing could well be related to his work at the station.

Padrigao was one of six block-timers at Radyo Natin, a local community affiliate of the Manila Broadcasting Company. A framed certificate from the Philippine Red Cross thanking the station for its humanitarian reporting hangs on the wall.

“We are a public service radio for the people,” says Pahunang. “Some officials criticize us saying why are you doing this? You want to be heroes? You’re just monkeys.”

The station is little more than a simple box measuring six square feet with a computer, transmitter, basic mixing desk, two microphones and a stack of plastic chairs which can also be used in the yard outside.

“He was always reading directly from papers and documents he brought with him. He was very careful about that,” said Pahunang. With little experience in journalism, Padrigao was still considered “a trainee” and had to be coached by his manager on legal issues like libel and slander.

“I gave him a discount because he was poor. He was always trying to help the poor. But he was very poor himself. You can see that from where he lives. If people needed medicine, he would try and help and he would get sponsorship for the show from local people like sari-sari (variety) store owners,” said Pahunang.

He added: “His wife said somebody had been following them for a month and he told me he had threats, but he wouldn’t tell me where they came from.”

“It is very sad what happened,” says Attorney Benjamin Guimong, a respected lawyer in the city, from his office in Rizal Street. “Things are getting bad here in this city. You can hire a gunman here for PhP 1,500 (USD 30). That means nobody is safe.”

There has reportedly been a sudden recent spike in cases of extra judicial killings with the shooting of the administrator of the city market – an employee of city hall – under similar circumstances in August.

Some observers who wished not to be named suggested drugs, illegal gambling and extortion are becoming serious problems in this rural and somewhat isolated city of 120,000 people in North Eastern Mindanao. In the local print media, Gingoog is trying to advertise itself as a potential tourist attraction, but is much better known nationally only as a center for illegal logging.

According to Guimong, Padrigao was intending to publicly accuse those he believed responsible for a raid last month on the city treasury which reportedly netted robbers PhP 1 million (USD 20,408).

“I pleaded with him to be careful and not to talk about that on the radio until he had all the evidence,” Guimong said.

Guimong also spoke of the journalist telling him about threats he had allegedly received in the days before his death. Padrigao again supposedly refused to divulge the exact source of the threats.

When the lawyer said he urged him to vary his routine and take extra care, Padrigao replied that he would be okay. A few days later, on Monday, November 17, Padrigao was shot dead outside the gates of Bukidnon State University.

The campus also serves as the local elementary school. Padrigao was dropping off his youngest daughter at around 7 a.m. when he was ambushed by a gunman and his accomplice riding in tandem on a motorcycle.

A simple wooden cross and stone shrine built by local pupils stands at the spot where he bled to death in front of his daughter.

Witness to a killing

Exactly four weeks earlier on Monday, October 14, Padrigao witnessed a similar extrajudicial style killing on the national highway when Randy Naduma, the son of a barangay (village) captain was shot dead in front of him by two men on a passing bike.

“He witnessed the killing. He knew the killer,” said station manager Pahunang.

Many observers in Gingoog believe the two killings are very much connected and some reports claim Padrigao was overheard talking into his phone following the shooting agreeing not to testify.

“He wanted to keep out of that business. He told them that it was their business, not his,” a source told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

And according to his family, Padrigao refused to report the incident to the police. One month on, witnesses to his own killing are now similarly wary of speaking out.

Padrigao bled to death directly in front of at least five stall-holders and pedicab drivers. All told these writers that they were too scared to help and did not want to get involved.

Only Fely Brianeza says she is prepared to testify in court if called. Even then, she says she did not see anything that could help catch the killers. “I only looked up when I heard his little girl crying. I didn’t even hear the shot.”

Nobody could describe the gunman, the driver-lookout or the motorbike as it sped off heading south and away from the city. Both wore helmets — a serious traffic violation here which has ironically banned them for public safety reasons. Too many armed robberies have been committed by people in helmets.

Asked if he could remember anything or was prepared to testify, a man who prepared and sold small bags of sliced mangoes said no. “I don’t trust or believe in the system,” he said.

Another stall-holder who sells sweets to the children directly in front of the gates said she didn’t offer to help Padrigao “because it was obvious he was dead. There was a lot of blood.”

A neighbor who was bringing his own children to school saw the body and the crying girl and brought her back home to alert Mrs. Padrigao who says she had to take her husband to the hospital herself.

“Death is not the end. It is just the beginning,” says a simple paper streamer hanging over an unlit candle in the Padrigao family’s two-roomed house in the city’s shanty area. Their home in Barangay 19 is dark and hard to find and the lane down from the national highway and toward the sea is almost impassable.

A black and white banner calling for justice and decorated with a bloodied dagger hangs over a makeshift porch outside and above the heads of two special force police officers who have recently been assigned to keep watch over the family. But there is very little sense that justice for Padrigao and his family will be easily found here on the streets of Gingoog City.

In the days immediately following the killing, Padrigao’s wife publicly complained she was not being offered any support or protection from the authorities. It led to reports that protection instead had been offered by the communist New People’s Army (NPA) which is said to be very active in the surrounding hills.

NPA, agent

Like the city Padrigao lived and died in, his life read like a puzzle book up until the very end.

The lawyer Guimong first came across him 20 years ago when he was called to defend Padrigao from a charge of being a member of the NPA. At the same time, Guimong says, the army stepped in and identified him as being a military intelligence asset – an agent – for them.

Whatever the truth, veteran print and radio journalist Bingo Alcordo and columnist for the Mindanao Gold Star Daily remembers Padrigao as a friend and activist who was constantly working in support of the poor.

“He was former NPA but he was well-known for bringing 20 NPA members down from the hills to reintegrate them into society,” said Alcordo, who is based in Cagayan de Oro City.

And while Radyo Natin’s station manger suggests that Padrigao also nurtured political ambitions and was looking forward to campaigning in “some way” for the 2010 elections, his family confirmed that he had worked for many years as a bodyguard to Gingoog mayor Ruthie Guingona before quitting to manage a lumberyard on behalf of his cousin Roger Edma.

Request to interview the mayor was politely declined.

Broadcast targets

Some targets of Padrigao’s radio broadcasts claim Padrigao was himself involved in illegal logging and that illegal loggers may have killed him.

One of Padrigao’s targets on his weekly show was city administrator Tita Garrido. Says station manager Pahunang: “He was against favoritism and attacked her.”

Garrido confirmed she was the subject of some of his attacks, saying that Padrigao had suspicions her decision to come back out of retirement during a City Hall restructuring was ‘irregular.’ However she insisted she had nothing to hide and had even “offered to speak to Padrigao and open the books on her appointment.”

Garrido added that she never personally listened to his broadcasts and was not angry with him. “There was nothing to get angry about. I never get angry,” she said.

Asked if she thought anybody in City Hall had a serious enough grudge against Padrigao to kill him, she replied no.

“I can’t imagine anybody being involved.”

Instead Garrido suggested Padrigao could have been killed because of his involvement in illegal logging. She said: “There were no big problems with drugs or gambling in Gingoog City, just illegal logging.”

The city administrator went on to say that mayor Guingona has been “aggressively targeting the illegal loggers and went out at nights to catch them,” but in doing so she was attacked by Padrigao in his radio broadcasts.

“I believe that Mr. Padrigao should not have been critical of the mayor since she is the one against illegal logging.”

For their part, family and friends insist that Padrigao’s involvement in the logging business was wholly legitimate: contracts were arranged and won fairly and that their only other interest was in working so called “dry logs” or dead and fallen trees which are deemed unprotected and public property.

Clearly agitated and impatient to leave the city that was once her home, Mrs. Padrigao refused to say who she thought was responsible for her husband’s shooting. She also denied having publicly accused Gingoog vice mayor Marlon Kho for being behind her husband’s killing when he spoke to her by cell phone to offer his condolences at the hospital as Padrigao was being certified dead by doctors.

“I have witnesses that she did,” the vice mayor, a local businessman, told these writers outside his villa. He politely refused to answer any questions except to confirm he had filed a case against Mrs. Padrigao and to deny categorically that he had anything to do with the killing. “I will make a statement in due course,” he said. “But not right now.”

Kho also said he condemned the killing of Padrigao but had “no idea” who might have been responsible. “Right now we have convened the peace and order council of the city and the province, and we are discussing a proposal to give additional funds to the police this coming Wednesday.”

Back at the police station, an entry in the police blotter seen by the Project reports an alleged death threat made to a colleague of Padrigao who has a show Monday mornings in Radyo Natin.

The threat via phone was reportedly made to Manuel Ansiangan, 28, just a few hours after the death of Padrigao was publicly announced. Ansiangan, like other block-timers working there, gives his number out live on air to solicit feedback and stories.

“The caller said he will wipe us all out. He said I was the devil,” said Ansiangan.

The journalist also claims a friend in the intelligence section of Gingoog police force subsequently called him late last week and warned him not to go home after a helmeted man on a black motorbike was spotted waiting outside his boarding house.

Ansiangan says he destroyed the SIM card that would have shown the number of the caller.

Asked whether he is concerned about the future security of his station, manager Pahunang says yes. At the same time, he doesn’t want his block-timers to tone down either their language or their vitriolic campaigns against Gingoog City Hall and the illegal loggers. “I tell them to keep it hot,” he laughs.

For his part, the city’s police chief thinks the threats to Ansiangan are not serious and are unconnected to the killing of Padrigao.

Perhaps only time will tell. As city administrator Garrido said, while the mayor intends investing more funds and energy into “intelligence matters” to help combat a sense of increasing impunity here, “even she cannot promise there will be no more killings”. Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

(Alan Davis is Project Director of the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project and Ma. Cecilia L. Rodriguez is a journalist based in Cagayan de Oro City).

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