What we know so far: The abduction of Elena Tijamo

On Saturday evening, June 13, community organizer Elena Tijamo, who works as a program coordinator for the Farmers Development Center Central Visayas (FARDEC), was kidnapped from her home in Bantayan Island, about 4 hours north of Cebu City. (READ: Farmers group organizer abducted from Cebu home)

According to human rights group Karapatan, she was taken at around 11 pm by 4 men and two women in civilian clothes.

Almost two months after she was taken, there is still little known about the motive for the abduction and what the suspects want.

Here’s what we know so far:

Who is Elena Tijamo?

Elena Tijamo, a 58-year-old program coordinator at the Farmers Development Center (FARDEC) was taken from her home in Barangay Kapingganon, Bantayan in Cebu and has remained missing for almost two months now.

Elena oversees the Sustainable Agriculture Program at FARDEC, an organization that gives legal aid and agriculture education to farmers. She has worked for FARDEC in service of local farmers in Central Visayas for almost a decade now.

Her work was mostly in Metro Cebu and she stayed with a relative in Mandaue whenever she was at the Fardec office. She only occasionally went to Bantayan, but decided to stay there when the lockdown began at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.

What happened the night she was kidnapped

On the evening of June 13, unidentified men and a woman bearing "long firearms" broke into Elena's home and took her from her family.

Aside from Elena, her sister, parents and youngest daughter were home when the kidnapping happened.

Elena’s younger daughter, a minor, said that the men kept on repeating they were only after Elena.

Her daughter said she was not familiar with the person’s voice and scurried down to the kitchen where she saw men pointing guns at her aunt and Elena, who was on the floor.

She said both she and her aunt tried to struggle with the men to free her mother to no avail.

"We were asked to go up because they weren't after us. It was only my mother whom they wanted," the daughter told Rappler in an interview in Cebuano.

"I could hear my mother's sobs outside. Even if they gagged her mouth probably. I could still hear her voice," she added.

Elena’s family received a text message from her mobile number that night. It said Elena would be allowed to return home after 24 hours. That was before news of the capture broke in local media.

Not long after, the family received a call from Elena who said the people who abducted her demanded that the news articles be taken down.

A family member reached out to Rappler after the incident and said the abductors specifically demanded that the Rappler story be taken down. (READ: Farmers group organizer abducted from Cebu home)

Later on, they asked the family to ask other media outlets who reported on the abduction to take down theirs as well.

Since that night, Elena had been able to contact her family through 5-minute phone calls. Her younger sister Violeta said Elena would only repeat the demand to have articles about her abduction taken down, and that she was okay and would soon be returning home.

In a recent phone call with Elena, Violeta, on July 27, told Rappler that her sister once again assured her family she would be returning home. This time, Elena reportedly assured Violeta that her abductors were only waiting for travel restrictions due to COVID-19 to be lifted before they could return her.

Motive

Aside from her work in human rights with the farmers group, neither the family nor police know motives for the kidnapping.

The abductors have also not made specific demands nor conditions for Elena’s release.

Leo Villarino, chief investigator of the Commission on Human Rights Central Visayas, believes Elena might know her abductors. This is based on communication being made by her abductors with members of her family via her phone.

"We could not immediately believe, how could we immediately conclude that these texts came from Elena? Sa ako lang (for me), si Elena really knew who her abductors are," Villarino told Rappler in a phone interview on July 28.

However, he clarified that since FARDEC filed for a CHR investigation, there have been no updates on Elena. The CHR has no leads on who could have taken her or what their motives could be.

Villarino added that this is because Elena has no history of handling sensitive human rights cases during her time at FARDEC.

The CHR intends to pursue its investigation when restrictions allow travel to the northern island.

Prior to this, Elena’s family said they have never received threats against them or Elena in particular.

Elena's organization FARDEC has, however, been red-tagged before.

While the abductors have not explicitly accused Elena of being linked to the communist movement, in November 2019, her organization FARDEC was red-tagged by the Department of National Defense as a communist front.

Red-tagging, as defined by the Supreme Court, refers to “the act of labeling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy…by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’” (READ: Lives in danger as red-tagging campaign intensifies)

What the police say

No one – not even the police – has a clue as to who may have taken Elena.

In a July 16 interview with Cebu Provincial Police Office chief Roderick Mariano, he said his office has already deployed mobile patrol officers and intelligence officers to the Bantayan Municipal Police station to hasten the investigation into Elena’s case.

Violeta said that since the abduction, the police have visited their household about twice supposedly to investigate.

The first time, on June 14, the day after the abduction, police reportedly came to take pictures of the logbook of Kapingganon Farmers’ Association, a farmer’s group Violeta was a member of. Apart from the logbook, police also reportedly took pictures of flyers and the organizations’ T-shirts.

Rappler reached out to the Bantayan Police Office multiple times but could not get a comment.

Elena was under surveillance

One thing the family knows is that they have been monitored a while before the eventual abduction.

In an earlier interview with Rappler, Violeta also said she had heard from neighbors that police officers were asking if the Tijamo family members were really native to Bantayan. This happened prior to Elena’s abduction.

In the first week of June, individuals who claimed to be from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), allegedly took photos of Elena and her family for a house-to-house survey.

They claimed that their visit was for the Emergency Subsidy Program but they were unable to produce IDs when Elena asked for identification.

The family later found out that the surveyors only visited their home and that of their nearest neighbor.

Despite having gone through all of this, Violeta said their family won’t stop Elena should she decide to continue her service to local farmers upon her return.

"For us, whatever she wants to do with her job, we're still going to be here," she said.

Violeta added that what's important to their family is that Elena comes home. The last time they heard from her was sometime second week of July.

"We're still here, praying for her safe return," Violeta said in Cebuano. "We may hear her voice, but hearing her alone is no longer enough for us. We may hear her, but we don’t really know her situation."

Clearly they want to see her. – Rappler.com