Mrs. Burgos’ search for her son

2011-Luke-BrownBy Luke Brown

Only two things will stop me. Finding my son, or I die. So I’m not going to stop.” – Edita Burgos.

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Edita Burgos speak. In the past four years, Mrs. Burgos has led a tireless campaign in an attempt to answer the question: where is her son, Jonas Burgos?

Four years ago Jonas was dragged from a Manila restaurant in broad daylight by four men and one woman. He was thrown into a van and hasn’t been seen since. The abductors were not wearing masks, and the licence plate of the van was fully visible. This is typical of enforced disappearances in the Philippines, where agents of the State brazenly abduct people accused of participating in the communist insurgency (but who generally, at most, only have connections to left-leaning groups). Jonas is a farmer-activist.

Edita Burgos speaks at the Ateneo de Manila University law school, Manila, Philippines, Friday, June 17, 2011.

Mrs. Burgos sought justice through all the official channels, filing complaints with the police and the national Commission on Human Rights (an independent investigatory agency). When this led nowhere, she sought relief through the Court of Appeals of the Philippines, and finally the Supreme Court, which ordered the Commission on Human Rights to perform a full investigation into Jonas’ disappearance, citing major lapses in the police and military investigations into the matter.

In March of this year, this Commission released its report, in which it found there was enough evidence against the military to recommend laying criminal charges against several military officers and the former police chief for arbitrary detention and obstruction of justice.

So Mrs. Burgos is soldiering on. Two weeks ago she filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, asking for charges to be laid against the officers. Sadly, she will now have to wait even longer. In cases of extrajudicial killings (a related phenomenon to enforced disappearances), it takes on average 7 months from the filing of a complaint for the DOJ to lay charges.

This is a good illustration of how slow and cumbersome the domestic legal remedies are.

But this case is also an illustration of the amazing and tireless work that many human rights advocates in the Philippines (including the Ateneo Human Rights Center, where I’m volunteering) are doing to address the phenomenon of enforced disappearances.

I met Mrs. Burgos at a presentation she delivered through the Ateneo Human Rights Center. Her story is so compelling, local playwrights even wrote a one-act play about her.

Despite the painfully slow pace of the official investigations, Mrs. Burgos is undeterred. She is fiercely committed to finding her son. As she told me, “only two things will stop me. Finding my son, or I die. So I’m not going to stop.”

For more information, visit this siteThis article describes Jonas’ abduction.

2 responses to “Mrs. Burgos’ search for her son”

  1. Catherine Binet says:

    Great post, Luke. The courage and determination of women like Edita Burgos are what keep the “desaparecidos” movement strong in many countries. She reminds me of many of the women I have come in contact with since beginning my own internship with the Peruvian Forensics Anthropology Team (based in Lima), whose mission is to promote the access to truth, justice and adequate conditions for the social, cultural and economic development for the relatives of the 15,000 disappeared that are still missing from the time of the internal conflict (1980-2000). The Peruvian example shows that the issue of the disappeared can remain salient long after enforced disappearances have (for the most part) stopped occurring, as many relatives are still fighting to know what happened to their loved ones that went missing in the 1980s. I was curious to know, in the Phillipines is it typical for people like Mrs. Burgos to form associations of relatives of victims of enforced disappearance? It may help in helping to make their voices heard.

    For more on the issue of the disappeared in Peru:

    • lukebrown says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Catherine. There are organizations in the Philippines specifically representing the relatives of victims, but I’m not sure how many families actually seek out their help. The main organization I know about is called Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND). I spoke with FIND’s co-chair, Aileen D. Bacalso (whose husband was disappeared, and thankfully resurfaced, back in the 1988). She is another outspoken advocate against ED. Unfortunately, she said she’d be surprised if even 10% of the cases are filed before the courts, since most families of desaparecidos live in isolated rural areas, and are unaware or unable to avail themselves of the legal mechanisms available to help find their loved ones. I assume that because of their isolation, many of these families can’t seek out the support of NGOs either. I’d be curious to learn more about how the Peruvian Forensics Anthropology Team is documenting cases of desaparecidos and reaching out to their families.

      Best of luck with your work in Peru!

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