Searching for Shadows: The Unseen Struggles of Filipina Women Who Were Forcibly Disappeared

Searching for Shadows: The Unseen Struggles of Filipina Women Who Were Forcibly Disappeared

Trigger Warning: This blog contains details of sexual violence and torture. Header photo by Licas News.

“There is no end to mourning, searching, and questions until we find our loved ones.” - JL Burgos, brother of Jonas Burgos who disappeared during the Arroyo Administration

To date, the Philippines faces a chilling reality: the rising cases of desaparecidos, individuals who vanish without a trace. These human rights violation casts a long shadow on their beloved families left behind in anguish.

The Spanish term "desaparecidos" directly translates to "disappeared" which was popularized during the Marcos Sr. dictatorship where thousands of activists, journalists, and even ordinary citizens were abducted and often never seen again.

According to Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND), as of June 2023, there are 2,559 reported victims of forced disappearances in the Philippines, however only 2,078 were documented. From this number, there are still 1,165 who are still missing, 663 were surfaced alive but unfortunately, there are 280 who were found dead.

This blog post highlights and humanizes the cases of women desaparecidos from the dictatorship of Marcos Sr. to his son Marcos Jr., their unseen struggle, uncovering the reality that anyone can be a victim.

Southern Tagalog 10

In photos: (from left to right) Rizalina Ilagan, Jessica Sales, and Cristina Catalla 

Rizalina has always excelled in her academics. She has always been a delegate to school conferences organized by youth organizations such as Future Farmers of the Philippines or the Future Agricultural Homemakers of the Philippines. Beyond her studies, she was also active in their speech and drama club in high school where she directed a number of plays where she even won as best director. Rizalina also wrote for their publication, The Ruralite (the official student publication of UP Rural High School). 

Jessica finished her studies in social sciences in Centro Escolar University in Manila and graduated with flying colors in 1972. She then taught sociology and political science at UP Manila and later on at UP Los Banos. Jessica also worked as a research associate at UPLB's Department of Agricultural Education while taking her postgraduate studies. During her undergraduate studies, Jessica served as chairperson of their student government from 1971 to 1972. She also became the editor of the student publication of CEU and later on became an active member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines.

Rizalina, Jessica, and Cristina were part of the Southern Tagalog 10, a group of activists who were abducted last July 31, 1977, in Makati City. They were on their way to meet with each other for a meeting when state forces abducted them. However, military operatives never verified reports of their disappearance. A year later, state forces told their families that they had been killed in an encounter between soldiers and New People's Army but to this date, there were no bodies that were produced.

Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño

In photo: Karen Empeño (left) and Sherlyn Cadapan (right)

Sherlyn Cadapan was the second of five children. She attended UP Rural High School and later on, became an athletic scholar at UP College of Human Kinetics. At the time of their abduction, Sherlyn was a senior sports science student. Sherlyn was also active in the fight for rising fuel prices and human rights abuses during the Arroyo administration. She became a community organizer for Alyansang Magbubukid ng Bulacan.

Karen Empeno was a graduating sociology student at UP Diliman. She was completing her thesis when they were abducted.

Sherlyn and Karen were activists during the Arroyo administration. They were abducted by state forces in Hagonoy, Bulacan while they were on an immersion in a farming community. Sherlyn was pregnant at the time of the abduction. Reports said that they were moved from one military camp to another. According to an eyewitness, military men tortured and sexually molested them by ramming pieces of wood into their vagina. They were beaten by hitting their mouth and punching their breasts and stomach until they bled. They were also half-drowned by shoving a water hose into their nose and mouth.

On September 17, 2018, Gen. Jovito Palparan, responsible for the abduction of the two activists, was found guilty of kidnapping and serious illegal detention by the Malolos Regional Trial Court. He and together with the other co-accused, Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado and S/Sgt Edgardo Osorio, were sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment without eligibility for parole.

Ma. Leticia “Tish” Pascual-Ladlad

In photo: Tish Ladlad

Tish was a student journalist. She was the first woman editor of Aggies Green and Gold, the official student publication of the University of the Philippines Los Banos College of Agriculture (now named College of Agriculture and Food Science). She was set to graduate magna cum laude in agricultural chemistry but left her studies and continued working alongside peasant farmers in Southern Tagalog. On November 28, 1975, she left home to meet up with someone in the area of Paco Church but she never returned home ever since.

Moncada 2 

In photos: Elgene Mungcal and Maria Elena Pampoza, posters from Kabataang Tarlakenyo - Anakbayan

Elgene “Leleng” Mungcal and Maria Elena “Cha” Pampoza were staunch land rights activists and peasant organizers and worked closely as organizers after the strikes related to the Hacienda Luisita Massacre. On July 3, 2022, they were last seen at Winfare Supermarket in Moncada, Tarlac. However, according to Cha's children, their mother's Viber account was still open until July 5 but they never received any responses to their messages.

According to Asaze Galang, daughter of Cha, prior to their abduction, they were reportedly been subject to red-tagging, death threats through text messages, and surveillance.

In their search for their mother, most of the military camps and facilities refused to certify that they were not in their custody. They even reached military camps outside Central Luzon. The Moncada police made efforts to locate them at first but later on profiled their family instead of investigating the case. In December 2022, the Supreme Court granted Asaze's petition for writ of amparo and a temporary protection order (TPO). However, this did not stop the tailing, texting, and visiting their grandmother's house.

“Just because we are activists, are we legitimate targets?” -Armand Dayoha, abduction survivor during Marcos Jr. administration

While the stories of desaparecidos remain shrouded in uncertainty, the voices of abduction survivors offer a glimmer of hope to their loved ones. Their tormenting experiences serve as a stark reminder that there is hope in the fight for surfacing desaparecidos.

In photo: Dyan Gumanao (left) and Armand Dayoha (right)

Development workers and labor rights advocates Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dayoha were no strangers to these. They were abducted in broad daylight at a pier in Cebu. Their captors introduced themselves as police and forced them to ride a van where they were handcuffed, blindfolded, and gagged. Even with a lot of psychological intimidation from their abductors pressing them to confess to terrorist connections and changing their narrative,  they were soon dropped off at a secluded resort where they were rescued by their loved ones and fellow advocates.

In photo: Jonila Castro (third from left), Jhed Tamano (second from left) together with Alexander Umpar (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict Director), Lt. Col. Ronnel Dela Cruz (Armed Forces of the Philippines 70th Infantry Battalion Commanding Officer), and Jocell Vistan Casaje (Mayor of Pladirel, Bulacan)
Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano are environmental activists who strongly opposed the reclamation projects in Manila Bay. On the night of September 2, 2023, they were abducted near the Orion Water District Building in Bataan. According to Jonila and Jhed, they were being forced to surrender as "rebel returnees" by state forces. On September 12, they "surrendered" under duress.

They made their abductors believe that they will be surrending as "rebel returnees" and requested a big press conference inviting the local media. During the press conference, Jonila and Jhed went off script and revealed that they were abducted by military forces. They were later on passed to the Commission on Human Rights before bringing them back to their parents.

Despite having a local law of Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act, authorities have failed to implement this, with them even behind the abduction in some cases. Making the above testaments needs to be amplified to seek accountability and justice, and to dismantle the culture of impunity that allows such atrocities to continue. Only then can our country move towards a future where dissent is not met with abduction and torture. The fight for surfacing desaparecidos in the country is far from over. Until every story is heard, and every perpetrator is held accountable, the pursuit of truth and justice will continue.

“Before the curtain falls on our early existence, we should at least know what happened to our disappeared kin.” - Gerardo Faustino, father of Geraldo Faustino part of Southern Tagalog 10


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