­‘Aanhin ko yung takot?’: The unsung volunteers who help move cases of drug war victims

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These people shoulder the tedious task of ensuring there is enough evidence and documentation to build cases for human rights victims. Photos by AMANDA LINGAO and JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Kung aalis pa ako, eh sino na?” Jojo* says.

Whenever Jojo finds fear creeping up on him, he reminds himself why he does what he does.

The 47-year-old is one of several volunteer focal people working with the Church and a non-government organization to reach out to victims of human rights violations (HRVs).

As a documenter gathering records and firsthand information on HRVs, including alleged extrajudicial killings (EJK), he is a vital link that bridges victims and their families with the organizations that assist them.

Responsible for the groundwork that goes into case buildup, Jojo, along with other focal people, shoulder the tedious task of ensuring there is enough evidence and documentation to build cases for human rights victims.

These volunteers go door to door, visiting the victims’ families and helping them recount and record the excruciating details of their loved ones’ death or arrest.

It’s a job that wedges them in the perilous environment of the administration’s drug war at a time when others distance themselves from the bloody campaign.

Jojo admits it’s a daunting job for the weak of heart, but to him, his work as a volunteer is more than just gathering evidence — it’s a calling he must fulfill.


Elsa*, 48 is a woman of steel.

Barely five feet tall, she speaks with the bulletproof confidence of a woman girded by years of life’s blows.

It is with this openness that she talks of her life, unabashedly — her past as an orphan, deliverance through God, and of her son, whose dependence on drugs has pushed her to volunteer and help others.

She says she may not be able to help her family, but she can channel her energy towards saving other people.

“Kung hindi ko mahihila ang anak ko, sa iba ko kukunin ang pagkakataon magligtas ng mga ibang tao,” she says.


In a sea of lawyers and advocates whose names pepper headlines, Jojo and Elsa are the unseen movers who ensure there is fuel to make the wheels of justice turn.

The two work with a non-government organization to put into record HRV cases and to ensure that victims and their families secure justice and put violations on record.

The cases they build help give short-term remedies to victims, allowing them to avail of writs that can provide them with legal protection. Documentation can also serve as a springboard if families choose to file cases in court or, possibly, claim potential reparations in the future.

But it’s not without its perils; one wrong move and they could catch the attention of hostile forces.

The administration’s highly controversial anti-drug campaign has killed at least 5,000 people according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), although human rights groups estimate the death toll to be much higher.

Critics panning the drug war’s ballooning death toll have not gone unscathed. While it has denied any political motivation in their arrests, the administration has gained a reputation for silencing detractors, with some of its staunchest critics either detained or slapped with criminal charges.

Despite this, Jojo and Elsa’s resolve remain unshaken.

Widely aware of the security issues they may face, they say the drive to help others outweighs any dread.

“Happiness eh... ‘Yung nakakatulong ka sa tao. Hindi mo matulungan ‘yung pamilya mo, pero sa iba nakakatulong ka,” Elsa says.

“Nagsasabi na kami [ng asawa ko] na pag tumulong tayo, ‘pag naglingkod tayo, alam na natin ‘yung kapalit. Buhay na natin ‘yung binibigay natin sa kapwa natin,” she adds.

These motivations are made stronger by the attachment some focal people now share with the families.

Focal people don't just collect evidence — they also serve as a support system to help ease the recovery of the bereaved children and spouses.

Beyond being a point person, Jojo says he values the relationships he’s formed with the victims’ kin.

“Ang pagod nandiyan, pero masaya na ako kapag nandun ako sa bahay na nakikita ko ‘yung kasiyahan nila,” Jojo says.

In some cases, it’s these contacts who reach out and guide Jojo to other victims when there are new cases to be profiled in the community.

This bond is immensely important in encouraging victims to pursue legal action against those accountable.

This, as efforts to investigate human rights violations and EJKs allegedly taking place in the drug war struggle to move forward, due in part to the lack of families willing to file cases against culprits, and the government’s failure to cooperate with investigative bodies.

The fear is palpable in these communities, where victims fear legal action will spark retaliation from perpetrators.

Jojo stresses it is important that the families — many of whom are traumatized — feel there are people ready to support them despite the tragedy they had gone through.

“Merong tao o mga biktima o mga orphan na takot, pero sinisikap pa rin namin na... ma-convince [sila] na ito ay para sa kanila. Para mabigyan ng hustisya ‘yung mahal nila sa buhay,” he says.

It’s a heavy job, and one that requires not only empathy, but the emotional capacity to cope with and release the negativity that comes with exposure to such issues. However, the burden becomes light when he sees the joy he’s given them.

When asked what keeps them going, the two stress intently: the passion and happiness they get from helping others will always trump fear.

Jojo says, “Ang takot nandiyan, pero sa akin, aanhin ko ‘yung takot kung di ko naman magagawa ‘yung kasiyahan ko na makatulong sa mga mas nangangailangan?”

*Both Jojo and Elsa’s names have been changed to protect their identities.