Autopsying democracy’s wounds

Peasant activist Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis’ funeral. (GMA News)

(This is part of my submission series for our Creative Non-Fiction class.)

Way back in 2018, 72-year-old peasant activist Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis was one of the 600 individuals designated by the Department of Justice as “terrorists.”

Two years after, he was killed — right inside his home.

How gruesome, how macabre, could this execution of an activist be — not only as a final act of tragedy on Echanis’ life of activism and political participation, but more so as a mirror of our “democratic” spaces?

But that’s not the end of the tragedy.

Exactly a week after Echanis was killed in a cold-blooded fashion, in the bloodied sugarcane island of Negros, human rights worker Zara Alvarez was gunned down right across her home. Like Echanis, Alvarez was also included in the terrorist proscription case filed by government prosecutors. She, too, became a “terrorist.”

Their unjust proscription as “terrorists” both marked them for death by unknown assassins.

Zara Alvarez knew it was coming. On May 6, 2019, she joined human rights organizations and other progressive groups to ask the Supreme Court to grant them protection through a and , which could have both guarded them against state-sponsored attacks and state surveillance.

A little over a year after that, a lone gunman shot her dead. The are of no use anymore.

One theme cuts through the fabric of Ka Randy and Zara’s murders: the state of lawlessness and tyranny in this supposedly democratic country.

Echanis was the fourth peace consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) killed under Rodrigo Duterte’s watch — following Sotero Llamas, Randy Malayao (who was killed while sleeping in a bus), and Julius Giron. At the time of his death, he was also the national chairperson of peasant group Anakpawis.

Meanwhile, Zara worked for human rights organization Karapatan’s chapter in the Negros island.

It’s already a disturbing fact to hear that, in a country that prides itself as the first democratic nation in Asia, and the first to reclaim that same democracy after years of brutal dictatorship through a nonviolent uprising, activists are being killed, as if a standing order to gun down any and all opposing forces are handed out.

But more disturbing are the details itself into Ka Randy and Zara’s killings — and what followed.

Ka Randy’s family did not have a smooth period of grief. Far from it. The Quezon City Police District’s initial investigation asserted that Ka Randy was not the one killed, but a certain person that goes by the name Manuel Santiago. According to the police, several IDs found in the crime scene had proven this fiction.

The QCPD tried to stick this narrative out for days. They claimed to have interviewed the landlady, who also identified Ka Randy as Santiago. Several laptops, flash drives, and P400 in cash were also recovered from the apartment, aside from the IDs.

Policemen brought Ka Randy’s body to Pink Petals Funeral Services, where two legal representatives for Ka Randy’s widow Linda — paralegal Paolo Colabres and lawyer Luz Perez — had showed up to reclaim the body of the slain activist. Armed with a death certificate that allows them to take custody of the body, a video conference was set between Pink Petals’ manager and Linda to identify Ka Randy. But, when the police got wind of it, the story had taken a different turn: the two legal counsel for Ka Randy’s widow “pretended” to have been given a greenlight by QCPD’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit to claim Ka Randy’s body.

Around this time, Ka Randy’s body was already brought to St. Peter Funeral Homes on Quezon Avenue. The police did not budge. What happened next was unspeakable in the depths of its evil and despicable nature: policemen from La Loma police forcibly took (read: snatched) Ka Randy’s body and brought it back to Pink Petals.

The paralegal, Paolo Colabres, was arrested — for claiming Ka Randy’s body for Linda.

Here was a story of an activist slain after years of being red-tagged by no less than state forces themselves — and how the same cabal of state forces had denied his widow a human right so basic, so primordial, as the right to grieve a loved one’s death.

The police held hostage Ka Randy’s body until after two days. On August 12, Ka Randy’s friends and comrades held a mass in front of the funeral parlor in his honor, but even in this solemn regard the police refused to budge: invoking existing minimum health protocols and quarantine restrictions amid the pandemic, they cracked down on the Echanis family’s supporters who gathered in the parlor and stopped the mass.

In his life, as it was in his death, the State extended no mercy for Ka Randy. Not even for prayers offered to him.

It was only later that day when the QCPD finally yielded its stance and confirmed that victim Manuel Santiago is the same as Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis. Linda was able to reclaim his murdered husband’s body later that night.

In so many levels, this is as despicable as despicable can be.

But not before one reads or hears the autopsy on Ka Randy’s body.

Eleven days after his murder, forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun reported about the autopsy conducted on Ka Randy’s body. The autopsy team’s conclusion could not get any darker: .

According to the autopsy report that Fortun read out, Ka Randy was stabbed 40 times before a fatal incision finally took away his life. An in-depth report from GMA News describes his murder in a grimmer, much sickening way: “He had 12 incised wounds on his back. Both his eyes were black. What caused his death was a “spike,” a weapon akin to a knitting needle, thrust into one side of his back to the other side. It hit his aorta but failed to go through because of its hook.”

Ka Randy sustained 28 puncture wounds (an injury caused by a sharply pointed object such as knife) and 12 stab wounds, two of which was akin to a “slicing” — according to a member of the autopsy team.

Aside from that, Fortun also noted that Echanis “suffered blunt force trauma to the head,” which indicates that he was hit multiple times (while being stabbed) before he died.

For Fortun, the peasant activist’s murder was a slow but sure one. While he only sustained 1 fatal injury, which means he was killed “at once,” the other injuries found in his body were inflicted upon him as he struggles to live. The pattern and distribution of the wounds in his body, Fortun furthered, suggested intent.

The intent to make him suffer before he was killed.

To imagine that so gruesome a murder like that happen to anybody is already gut-wrenching. What makes it worse is the fact that the cold-blooded assassins inflicted this much pain on a frail 72-year-old peace activist who had no means of fighting back.

While the QCPD initally announced that all angles, including a ridiculous one of robbery, would be assessed and investigated to get into the murder of Ka Randy and Louie Tagapia, progressive organizations to which Ka Randy belong see only one decisive factor that led to his atrocious assassination: the same systematic scheme of red-tagging where handprints and footprints of the Duterte regime can be seen.

This was not some form of ordinary crime. This is a politically-motivated extrajudicial murder executed in the worst possible degree of atrocity and in the worst possible time: nightfall.

The same applies on Zara’s case. Long before and after her try to obtain protection from the Supreme Court, she had been at the receiving end of threats and harassment from both state forces and mercenaries in Negros. Posters and tarpaulins with faces of activists and human rights defenders tagged by the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and the Duterte regime’s entire security cluster as “high-ranking officials” of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the Maoist New People’s Army, were plastered across Negros — with Zara’s face on it.

Of course, her identification in the proscription filed by government prosecutors themselves in the spirit of the Human Security Act of 2007, now superseded by a much more draconian Terror Law, had its own weight in her further vilification.

Zara was not the first in Negros to suffer murder after the anguish of getting into the crosshairs of state-sanctioned red-tagging. In 2018, the lawyer of several farmers massacred in the town of Sagay, Negros Oriental, Atty. Benjamin Ramos, was murdered a few days after the barbaric massacre of his farmer-clients — and also because several posters hung across towns in Negros called him a communist leader. Last year’s slew of farmer massacres and other extrajudicial killings in the bloodied island of Negros also owe their roots to military vilification.

Ka Randy and Zara’s subsequent murders, more than a testament to the vicious regime of Duterte and his murderous generals and mollycoddles, is an autopsy to our bruised democracy. This is no more than a flagrant and fatal bastardization of an already blood-soaked banner of democracy which started its struggle to fly above the people’s heads after the reviled and monstrous Marcos dictatorship was kicked out of Malacañang. Infuriatingly, the ouster of Marcos did not mean the dethronement, too, of the same fascist methods that he employed and which he fostered.

In the age of a president who never had qualms about meting out shoot-to-kill orders, their murders are a conclusive manifestation of the same despotic evil that has since beleaguered the autopsy of the Philippines’ flawed, bloodied democracy.

A few days after his ferocious and torturous execution, Ka Randy was laid to rest. But on that same night, only a few hours away from his burial, three bullets pierced into Zara Alvarez’s back — which killed her instantly. In a mere five days’ time from then would be the anniversary of another brutal murder of a former senator who fought tooth and nail against a past dictatorship.

If this isn’t a microcosm of the kind of democracy that we have “enjoyed” since time immemorial, I don’t know what else could fit the bill — or the coffin of our society.

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Karl Patrick Suyat

editor-in-chief, up journalism club • institute for nationalist studies • bookworm