Wednesday, October 18, 2006

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By Maria Rowena D. Ebdani
Last updated 00:10am (Mla time) 10/17/2006

Published on page A11 of the October 17, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IN JUST one week last September, several robberies took place in Cebu City. There were two on Wednesday, one in the early morning and another in the evening. I heard about the latter through a flash report in an AM radio station to which the taxicab I was riding was tuned in shortly after the incident happened. I was very angry to know that the victim, who was in a jeepney, was a female college student and that she had been shot dead. The student was carrying a book on accounting, and her identity was known from a piece of paper she had slipped between its pages, with her name on it and the name of the person to contact in case of an emergency. The robbers ran away with her bag and her cell phone.

“That means riding a PUJ [public utility jeepney] is dangerous,” the cab driver observed, speaking in the Cebuano language. I agreed, but at the back of my mind I was wondering how taking a taxi could be safer. As a radio commentator lamented the lack (or the absence) of police visibility in areas where robbers frequently operate, the driver said in dismay, “When an ordinary person gets shot, no human rights organization stands up for him, but when it is the robber who gets shot, there will be groups protesting the abuse of his human rights.

I knew he was referring to robbers who got executed vigilante-style. I wanted to discuss the matter some more, but I was already close to my destination, so I opted not to make any comment.

The following Friday as I was on my way to work, I heard a follow-up report on the case over the radio. The driver remarked that another robbery had taken place near a well known department store the day before. I couldn’t catch the details, but I heard him mention vigilantes several times.

I asked him point-blank if taxi drivers approved of what the vigilantes were doing. He turned to look at me and smiled, in what I supposed to be a sign of affirmation.

Vigilantism in the city reached its peak in the later part of 2004 and appeared to have dropped toward the end of the following year. Most of the victims were allegedly robbers. Among the so-called “index crimes” (which includes rape, murder, homicide and physical injury), robbery seemed to have fallen most sharply during the period when the killings were most frequent.

In December 2004, the city mayor issued a statement sidestepping demands for him to do something to stop the vigilantes. He said stopping the killings was not his priority. A number of Cebuanos suspected that the mayor was condoning, if not actually encouraging, the summary executions.

Most of the cases of vigilante-style killings remain unresolved. No suspects have been identified, and no witnesses have come forward to name them.

But now that the number of vigilante killings has gone down, it appears that robbers have become bolder again. It seems that not a day passes without someone being held up by robbers somewhere in the city. On Friday, for example, two dealers were victimized by robbers. And to think that preparations for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in December are going into high gear.

It would be hard to dispute the fact that the killings have brought down the crime rate, and maybe it will continue to do so. Eliminating recidivists and habitual offenders obviously prevents them from committing more crimes. Many of the robbers who were killed were repeat offenders; robbery is punishable by imprisonment of six months to six years (depending on the gravity of the offence or the amount taken, if I remember correctly). So if we go by the figures, the number of innocent people who have been killed in the crossfire is insignificant compared to the volume of crimes prevented.

But one police inspector told me it would be wrong to assume that these vigilantes were hunting down repeat offenders. Indeed a closer look at the statistics shows that among those killed were one-time offenders as well as those who had already served their sentences several years earlier and had turned to selling fruits and vegetables in the market to earn a living. Apparently, the chilling message being sent by whoever is behind these killing is that anyone who commits a crime forfeits his life.

Recent Philippine history proves that vigilantes are able to get away with murder, literally. But shall we tolerate injustice if it serves the ends of justice? Shall we put a higher value on declining crime rates than the human lives being lost in the crusade against crime?

Because the government has constantly ignored calls to make law enforcement efficient and effective in protecting society and our people, a vicious cycle of lawlessness and terror has been unleashed. It is a perversity to think that in order to stop others from breaking our laws, one needs to act as if laws do not exist. When we begin thinking this way, the criminal justice system breaks down, morality is abandoned and some people play god.

Maria Clara Rowena D. Ebdani, 23, is a workforce management coordinator at Sykes Asia Inc.

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