Remembering Charlie de Rosario: The First Desaparecido

The topic of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) has been dominating headlines recently, because of the number of fatalities in President Duterte’s brutal crackdown on drugs. It is a hot issue both domestically but has also gained traction in the international news media. Many observers, particularly foreigners, fail to understand that (EJKs) have been commonplace in the Philippines even before the incumbent administration. 

It was during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos that EJKs first became rampant, many of the victims simply vanished and were never seen or heard from again. These individuals were presumed to be dead, despite no body ever being produced. People who vanish without a trace with suspected political motives are branded as desaparecidos, a Spanish word translated to ‘disappeared’. This phenomenon of ‘forced disappearances’ first started in South America with ‘Operation Condor’ in 1968, where many political opponents of right-wing governments in Latin countries disappeared without any explanation. The crackdown affected Argentina, Chile and Paraguay among others.

The first recorded desaparecido was a young university professor named Charlie del Rosario, who was last seen on the 19th of March, 1971. He was an activist and founder of the militant youth group Kabataang Makabayan (KM) [translated: Nationalist Youth], his involvement in youth activism made him a prime target of the Marcos regime. The night he disappeared, Del Rosario was last seen putting up posters for another activist group – Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP). He was slotted to give a speech at an MDP meeting the day after, but failed to appear.

charlie del rosario

Charlie del Rosario was never seen or heard from again, but an unidentified source in the 70’s pinned the blame on the military whose members allegedly abducted and ‘liquidated’ the activist.  Del Rosario’s parents also pointed their fingers at military involvement, but their scrutiny of the armed forces never produced any evidence that their son was under the latter’s custody. The university professor would be the first of hundreds of desaparecidos under Ferdinand Marcos, and the first of thousands as of 2017.

The dictator Marcos was ousted in 1986, but the cruelty experienced under his regime still plagues our nation today. President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘Operation TokHang’ is no different from ‘Operation Condor’ nor the military-ran ‘liquidations’ of the Marcos era, they are all examples of a barbaric government resorting to extrajudicial measures to silence political opponents. The various governments rationalized their methods by demonizing the victims as criminals worthy of extermination, but barring a fair trial the victims are innocent until proven otherwise.

On the anniversary of Charlie del Rosario’s disappearance, may we remember that no government – no matter how popular – have the right to act on their political opponents with impunity. Forty-six years since that day, this lesson lives on.

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