[OPINION] Impunity in Cebu and why covering this election was personal

The first thing I noticed when I came home in April for the first time in a year was the number of guards securing our village doubled and there were stricter security protocols. 

Not that I’m complaining about more security, but when I saw this, I knew that coming home to Cebu this time was different. 

I joined Rappler’s election coverage team already halfway into the campaign season and decided only at the last minute to come home to take on the role of Central Visayas correspondent.

I have done this before. I came home before the 2016 presidential election, staying through the early days of the drug war, before going back to Manila.

I consider Cebu as my home, even when I lived elsewhere.  Both of my parents are Cebu City natives. My dad came back home to stay for good after living abroad for decades. Much of my family is still here, and will probably be here for a very long time.

So when I agreed to come back, I already understood that it was not just a parachute assignment, where I’d only be flown into a place I have no stake or history in, and then leave right after my assignment is published.

I am
and will always be a part of this community.

That’s why it has been extra tough watching, even from a distance, the number of killings happening here.  

While riding-in-tandem killings have been around as long as motorcycles hit the streets of this country, most Cebuanos can tell you it has never been this bad.

A special report of Rappler’s Rambo Talabong noted that the number of murders in Cebu, mostly by motorcycle-riding gunmen, doubled in July 2018 compared to the same period two years prior, in July 2016.

This was the month Royina Garma took over as director of the Cebu City Police Office. Outgoing Mayor Tomas Osmeña, who did not choose Garma as his police chief, had pointed out this glaring fact on several occasions.

It was also that month when most people who followed the news noticed that there were at least 3 to 4 shootings happening every day.

I’ve used a motorcyle to travel to my coverages lately to bypass Cebu’s notorious traffic jams. With these stories of killings constantly on top of my mind, my heart races every time we have to idle at a stoplight for too long. Or if I hear the sound of loud engines zipping past me.  

The day after I arrived in Cebu, a gunman walked up to a coffee and  nonchalantly shot 4 young people while they were closing up shop. Two of them – John Hermoso, 29; and Kis Ramos, 21 – died in the shooting.

I was with my friends at the time at a pizza restaurant and they all looked down on their phones when they saw the news on Twitter. Because Cebu is a relatively small community, I was not surprised that all of them knew either Kis or John.

That Sunday, in my  barangay next to where my dad now lives, a 
9-year-old girl was on a motorcycle with her parents when a man on another motorcycle pulled out a gun, shot both of her parents, and stole her mom’s bag. 

I am afraid. Not just for me, but for my father, for my family, for my friends and neighbors.

Perhaps it’s the paranoia. Or it’s me realizing that I’m no longer watching impunity from a safe distance.  The cognitive dissonance is gone. I am here and my fellow Cebuanos are being slaughtered like animals. 

Instances of police brutality have been caught on camera, yet its leadership continues to deny any kind of misconduct.

In the context of the election, only the Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña was brave enough to speak out and push back against alleged police abuses. He openly criticized the police leadership for its inability to solve any of the killings happening in Cebu. 

For this, he was President Rodrigo Duterte accused  him of acting like he “owns” Cebu.  

But now that Osmeña lost the election, who else will speak up against killings and police abuses that will surely continue for at least the next 3 years? 

The winning candidate, Edgardo Labella, was the candidate endorsed by the President. He supports the war on drugs.

While Osmeña saw the police force as bullies, Labella said during the May 10 mayoral debate that only “criminals” should be afraid of the police.

So while election day is over, the story is not. And when people are dying, some things become meaningless like being called "dilawan" or "pressitute" for reporting these incidents.

When people are dying – especially in my own backyard – this just means that the circumstances have changed. But adhering to the important questions of community journalism remains the same: What is happening? Why is it happening? How do we make sense of this? Who needs to be held accountable?

From city hall to the barangay hall, local journalists and citizens must continue to hold the line. We love our home and that is why we fight for it. The election is over, pero laban gihapon ta. – Rappler.com 


Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers Cebu and the Visayas for Rappler. He covers all news in the region, but is particularly interested in people stories, development issues and local policy making.