It must be a sign of the times that it took me at least a week to make up my mind whether I was going to write this article or not, for reasons that will be self-evident to any Filipino who’s lived through the past couple of months since the 30th of June. Several hundred Filipinos clearly didn’t—the victims of a bloody and remorseless extermination of suspected drug dealers and users purportedly sanctioned if not encouraged by the new regime.
It was probably just as well that I waited. I had a chance to simmer down—to indulge my fears, surely, but also to collect my thoughts and try to see beyond personal grief and rage to possibly even greater tragedy, and thereby to find solace in collective suffering.
We found a picture online of Lauren slumped face down on the floor of the jeep, clutching her bag, and it was the most heartbreaking sight I’d seen, the pain of which Beng’s wails could only scratch at.
My wife Beng and I were in San Diego late this July, visiting family and taking in the harmless lunacy of Comic-Con, when we received the numbing news that Lauren Kristel Rosales, the girlfriend of Beng’s nephew Gab, had been shot dead by a man as she was taking a jeepney ride to work. We found a picture online of Lauren slumped face down on the floor of the jeep, clutching her bag, and it was the most heartbreaking sight I’d seen, the pain of which Beng’s wails could only scratch at. I’d come across ghastlier crime scenes as a sometime police reporter, but this one hit home and hit hard; she was someone we knew and cared for, someone who occasionally dropped by with Gab and whom we shared Christmas lunches with. We had flown to the US for a family vacation, and were flying home to a family funeral.
Lauren’s unidentified killer walked away and no motive was given for the crime, but it was hard not to place it in the daily continuum of murders—mostly of poor, young Filipino men—quite openly tagged though not claimed by the police as drug-related. Indeed, without any proof whatsoever, the tabloid Abante reported her murder in the context of six other gangland-style liquidations that same day of persons on the drug pushers’ watchlist of the Manila police.
That she was killed on purpose seems obvious—you don’t fire three shots into the same person by mistake.
Lauren, 26, was most emphatically uninvolved in the drug trade, enjoying her career as an executive assistant at a leading food company, a job she took after working at a call center; the closest she got to drugs was at the Carewell Foundation, where she helped take care of cancer patients. Her only addiction, Gab would tell the curious, was K-Pop, and the boy group F4 that she had saved up to fly out and catch in Taiwan; she was even studying Korean.
So was she collateral damage in the new administration’s all-too-literal war on drugs? I’m not even sure if extrajudicial killing is the proper subject of this piece, because no one really knows, at least not yet, who shot Lauren, and why. That she was killed on purpose seems obvious—you don’t fire three shots into the same person by mistake. A theory went the rounds of social media that Lauren’s killing was likely another case of mistaken identity—which only begs the question, is there a “correct” identity in these affairs, an approved master list against which the day’s quota could be ticked off? Did someone have to scratch his head and say, “Sorry, boss, I got the wrong one, but I’ll make sure to get it right tomorrow?”
We find ourselves in the strange position of according Lauren’s killer and his handlers the presumption of innocence they never gave her.
Of course we can’t really accuse anyone. We may have our suspects, but we have no proof, and the breath that exhales those names could very well be one’s last. We find ourselves in the strange position of according Lauren’s killer and his handlers the presumption of innocence they never gave her. Unsurprisingly, the authorities have no leads. (When the family followed up the case, a precinct hand reportedly told them, “We have no gas.”)
I know we’re hardly alone in this gray zone of grief and rage and fear; whoever put us there made sure we’d have ample room. Lauren’s wake was teeming with mourners, some of whom had similar stories to tell. We could imagine half a dozen other wakes—her unlikely companions in that tabloid report—that same night in that same city, perhaps in lean-tos along the street with a card game on the side, or in some dim parlor in the suburbs, with only a mother and a sniveling sister to mind the dead. Lauren had friends on Facebook and Twitter (inexplicably, someone—not the family—shut her FB page down); I’d have to wonder about the others, who most definitely won’t have an Esquire piece written about them and their likes and loves.
It’s a short step from a war on drugs to a war on words, from a war on terror to a war of terror, a war that will be driven by that most dangerous and most potent of narcotics, that same fever that inflamed Macbeth to wanton murder.
It’s a class thing, to be sure and to be honest. Like many others, I found it difficult to relate to the tattooed and trussed-up flotsam that washed up along the Pasig, battered to anonymity. Even in horrific and warrantless death, grief and outrage will choose their subjects, settling on the familiar—until Death itself becomes the most familiar figure of all, visiting not just the drug dens and the back alleys but the Internet cafes and the suburban malls and the campus hallways. It’s a short step from a war on drugs to a war on words, from a war on terror to a war of terror, a war that will be driven by that most dangerous and most potent of narcotics, that same fever that inflamed Macbeth to wanton murder.
Our dear, hapless Lauren wasn’t the only collateral damage in this offensive—it’s every citizen’s peace of mind, that spasm that now seizes you when a stranger turns up at your door or on your rear-view mirror with malice aforethought.
If I speak in riddles, it’s because metaphor may soon be our only refuge. I’ve often made the grim joke that only journalists get shot in this country and that poets and fictionists never do (at least not since Rizal) because politicians and generals don’t read the sort of ponderous prose and verse we teach. But this isn’t a novel now, is it?
No, it’s not. It’s nonfiction of the worst kind, a waking nightmare we can’t seem to break out of. Our dear, hapless Lauren wasn’t the only collateral damage in this offensive—it’s every citizen’s peace of mind, that spasm that now seizes you when a stranger turns up at your door or on your rear-view mirror with malice aforethought. We cremated Lauren, but there’s no rest for the living.
This piece originally appeared in our September 2016 issue. We notified Butch Dalisay before running the image, both in the print edition and in this website. The image printed in the article is a manipulation of an original photograph taken by Bernadette Parco. (Our print edition mistakenly attributed the photo to the DZBB.)