Ten Years On, Where is Jonas Burgos?

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The activist during better days.

Modesty may have been the motif of his upbringing, but the life Jonas Burgos lived was anything but simple. 

Born to a journalist father who had a penchant for hard-hitting investigative reporting, he was exposed to the intricacies of Philippine politics at a very early age. It came as no surprise to his mother, Edita, when the young Jonas pursued a life of activism himself.

After finishing his studies at the Benguet State University in 1998, Burgos entered the communist underground movement soon after. He quickly rose through their ranks, becoming a reputed intelligence officer in his home province of Bulacan. It was his high-ranking position in the New People’s Army (NPA) that made Burgos a hot target for the military.

This is also the reason widely pointed out to be the cause for his disappearance ten years ago.

A lunch meet-up gone wrong

On the 28th of April 2007, Jonas Burgos planned to meet other NPA operatives at a low-key restaurant at the Ever Gotesco Mall in Quezon City.

That meeting never happened.

Instead, Burgos was dragged out of the Hapag Kainan restaurant by six armed men and a woman. During the ordeal, eyewitnesses testified that he kept yelling: “I’m just an activist! I’m just an activist!” as if he was hinting at the reason why he was being accosted.

A busboy at the restaurant recalled his attempt to help Burgos as the latter was being apprehended by these unidentified individuals, the “leader” allegedly told him not to interfere as they were “arresting a drug dealer”. A security guard outside the shopping mall also told investigative journalists that he saw a man fitting Burgos’ description being forced into a maroon Toyota Revo.

Jonas Burgos has not been seen or heard from since.

Military involvement?

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Edita Burgos, center, leads a rally demanding the AFP to release information regarding the whereabouts of son, Jonas.

The alarmed security guard outside the shopping mall promptly took down the plate number of the car he claimed to have seen Burgos being pushed into, it was ” TAB 194″.

Little did that eyewitness know how monumental his testimony would be to this case.

Upon tracing the plate number, it was discovered to be registered to a vehicle once impounded by the 56th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. It had once belonged to an illegal logger who was detained by the Battalion, his car was impounded in their headquarters in Bulacan.

The car bearing that plate number was in the custody of the Philippine Army. Either they used it themselves and were behind the illegal detention of Jonas Burgos or due to negligence (or corruption) they allowed it to be used by external groups that conducted the criminal act.

Compromised contacts

Adding evidence to an involvement by the military is to examine the individuals Jonas Burgos was supposed to meet that day.

They were a woman named Melissa Reyes and a man only known as “Reggie”. Both were rebel returnees, meaning they had already surrendered to the military in exchange for amnesty. These RR’s (in NPA parlance) would often obtain their freedom by performing favors for the military.

Hence, it would not be farfetched to suspect that the two played a hand in exposing Burgos.

Another significant fact is that Burgos was in contact with a junior officer in the Army who was feeding information to the NPA. This officer was 2nd Lieutenant Dick Abletes, a recruit from Leyte who also had activist roots. The Army was able to expose Lt. Abletes by using Melissa Reyes, orchestrating an entrapment operation by getting them both to meet up.

Reyes previously met Burgos in the underground movement. As Burgos was an intelligence officer for the NPA, Reyes knew he would not squander the opportunity to form a link with a military insider. Thus, she organised to have them rendezvous on that fateful day. Unknown to Burgos, both his contacts had already been compromised.

It is worth mentioning that Lt. Abletes belonged to the 56th Infantry Battalion, the same battalion that had custody of the plate number used to abduct Burgos.

Indisputable evidence — but where’s Jonas?

A photo released by Edita Burgos showing her son allegedly under military custody. This photo was taken after Jonas’ abduction.

The Supreme Court (SC) mandated the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to probe the Jonas Burgos case. They came out with a report in 2010 stating that there was “overwhelming evidence” the Philippine Army was involved in the activist’s disappearance.

Their findings pointed out a junior officer in the 56th Infantry Battalion, a certain Major Harry Baliaga, as the “leader” of the group that abducted Burgos on that day. This was corroborated by a busboy who witnessed the event. The eyewitness positively identified Baliaga Jr as the man who told him not to interfere when he tried to help the victim.

However, the ‘smoking gun’ evidence came in 2013 when Jonas’ bereaved mother released a photo of her son allegedly under military custody. The photo resembles a mugshot, showing a visibly distressed Burgos with a handkerchief tied around his neck – presumably used as a blindfold.

According to Edita’s source, the document came with an “after apprehension report,” a “psycho social processing report,” and an “autobiography”.

With the mounting evidence against them, the military declared in 2013 that they will comply with the findings of the CHR and produce the junior officer in question – Major Harry Baliaga Jr,. He surrendered in October that year, posting bail and is still currently facing trial.

Despite stating their desire to coordinate with the judicial process, the military still has not given any indication on the location or even the condition of the victim. They may have produced the suspect, but where is Jonas?

The higher-ups

Former President Noynoy Aquino with then-Army Chief Maj. Gen. Eduardo Año.

Former Major Harry Baliaga Jr, was charged with arbitrary detention, but how likely is it for a junior officer to orchestrate such a conspicuous criminal act on his own? This same suspicion was shared by Edita, who claimed that Baliaga may be the “fall guy” for his higher-ups.

Regardless of what the truth may be, pursuing much high-ranking officers seems like a futile task since Baliaga’s superiors and co-accused have already been exonerated by the Department of Justice.

One of them was the then-head of the intelligence service Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año, who oversaw all intelligence gathering operations. He gradually rose through the ranks of the AFP, first as Chief of the Philippine Army and eventually becoming Chief of the entire AFP late last year.

A mother’s love

Edita Burgos, mother of Jonas, has become a vocal activist for desaparecidos.

A decade had elapsed since her son’s disappearance, yet Edita Burgos continues to be an unwavering voice calling for all cases of forced disappearances.

Her tireless work in this advocacy made headway on a few occasions, including several court orders mandating the release of Jonas. A writ of habeas corpus was issued by the court in 2007, while the Supreme Court has ordered the military to produce the victim and also to release information on all soldiers linked to the case.

While some may see those as victories, her objective has not been met. Despite the clear evidence that he was in custody of the military and even with the plethora of court orders as it stands, her son is still missing after ten years.

So where is Jonas Burgos?

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