The media used to dub it "Black Thursday." Now, it's referred to as the "Mendiola Massacre," a diplomatic protest that turned into a bloody mess and became infamous around the world, especially since it followed another international headliner: the People Power Revolution.
Today is the anniversary of the Mendiola Massacre, and the memories are still fresh.
The Long Road To Agrarian Reform
The sad plight of the farmers started way before any living president assumed power. Some scholars believe that the agrarian problems of the country are rooted in its colonial history. The encomienda and hacienda systems during the Spanish Era perpetuated a feudal relationship between farmers and landowners that greatly favored the latter.
This carried on until the American Colonial Period due to the eagerness of the new colonizers to please the elite, the landowners, whose support they needed to survive.
Governments after have since promised agrarian reform policies but nothing notable has materialized. The biggest breakthrough was during the term of Ramon Magsaysay in the 1940s and early ‘50s when land reform was seriously considered in Congress due to the threat of the Huks, composed of peasant farmers who used to fight against the Japanese.
With Cory Aquino consistently declaring Marcos’ reforms as a “mockery” and not a “genuine” agrarian reform during her campaign period, the farmers glimpsed a sliver of hope.
Despite Magsaysay’s efforts, Congress continued to water down the proposed reforms. The house was dominated by people who themselves were landowners and would gain nothing from the proposed extreme resolutions. There were more attempts during the Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos administrations but they all had the same ending.
The farmers, who were experiencing hardships everyday, grew more impatient. That is, until the EDSA revolution.
With Cory Aquino consistently declaring Marcos’ reforms as a “mockery” and not “genuine” agrarian reform during her campaign period, the farmers glimpsed a sliver of hope. Eleven months into her presidency, however, Aquino did little about the issue. Her critics lambasted her for not using her unlimited power under the Freedom Constitution, promulgated on March 26, 1986, which allowed her to mandate a genuine agrarian reform program. Instead, Aquino left it to Congress to decide the scope, retention limits, and compensation for a comprehensive agrarian reform program. The fact that she appointed someone like Heherson Alvarez as head of Ministry of Agrarian Reform (MAR), someone without any background on agriculture, also did not sit well with the farmers.
The farmers reached their breaking point.
The March to Mendiola
On January 15, 1987, the farmers and MAR officials started a dialogue. The farmers, led by Kilusang Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (KMP) leader Jaime Tadeo, had several pressing concerns. Among their demands were (a) giving land to farmers for free; (b) zero retention of land by landlords; and (c) stop amortizations of land payments.
On that day and the days that followed, members of the militant KMP camped outside MAR (now DAR) at the Philippine Tobacco Administration Building along Elliptical Road in Diliman, Quezon City.
Tadeo’s plea was that their demands be heard by Alvarez himself. Their wish was granted on January 20. During their meeting, Tadeo “demanded that the minimum comprehensive land reform program be granted immediately.” Alvarez could only promise to bring the matter to the attention of then President Aquino during the cabinet meeting the next day.
This was not enough to placate the farmers and tensions mounted the next day. Already on their seventh day of encampment, the farmers barricaded the premises of MAR, which prevented the employees from working. The farmers hoisted the Philippine flag together with the KMP flag.
Later that night, Alvarez met again with Tadeo and the other leaders of KMP. The minister suggested the group wait for the ratification of the 1987 Constitution and the implementation of the comprehensive land reform program which falls under it. Tadeo, however, was convinced that the landlord-dominated Congress would not push for genuine land reform. Alvarez offered to continue the meeting the next day. Tadeo and the other leaders were tired of talking. It was time to march to Malacañang.
The next day, before marching to the presidential palace, Tadeo and his group removed the barricades and allowed interviews with the media. Their group was aware they would be treated as a security threat. In fact, civil disturbance control units were deployed near Malacañang. These units were under the command of Capital Regional Command Commander Gen. Ramon Montaño, Task Force Nazareno commander Col. Cesar Nazareno and Western Police District Chief Police Brig. Gen. Alfredo Lim.
“Inalis namin ang barikada bilang kahilingan ng ating Presidente, pero kinakailangan alisin din niya ang barikada sa Mendiola sapagkat bubutasin din namin iyon at dadanak ang dugo."
During the interview with the media, Tadeo reiterated their demands and hoped for Malacañang to listen to their pleas.
“Inalis namin ang barikada bilang kahilingan ng ating Presidente, pero kinakailangan alisin din niya ang barikada sa Mendiola sapagkat bubutasin din namin iyon at dadanak ang dugo,” Tadeo said.
At 1 p.m., they reached Liwasang Bonifacio where they held a short program. Some of the marchers entered the eastern side of the Post Office Building, and removed the steel bars surrounding the garden.
They were joined by other organizations such as Kilusang Mayo Uno, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, the League of Filipino Students, and Kongreso ng Pagkakaisa ng Maralitang Lungsod. When they got to Mendiola Bridge late in the afternoon, the numbers swelled to around 10,000 to 15,000 people. Despite the crowd, the authorities were well-prepared due to their fear of communists and other insurgents who had allegedly joined the ranks of the protesters.
The first line of defense was composed of police officers from the Western Police District (WPD). They were positioned at the intersection of Mendiola and Legarda Streets. They were later ordered to move forward to Mendiola Bridge. These officers were in khaki uniforms and carried aluminum shields, truncheons, and gas masks.
Ten yards behind the police officers stood the Integrated National Police (INP) Field Force stationed at Fort Bonifacio from the 61st and 62nd INP Field Force, who carried also the standard CDC equipment—truncheons, shields and gas masks.
Ten more yards away was the third line, the Marine Civil Disturbance Control Battalion composed of the first and second companies of the Philippine Marines stationed at Fort Bonifacio. They too were equipped with shields, truncheons as well as M-16 rifles.
Behind the marines were four 6 x 6 army trucks, occupying the entire width of Mendiola street. They were backed by by two water cannons, one on each side of the street and eight fire trucks. The trucks were used to supply water for the water cannons.
Stationed further behind the CDC forces were the two Mobile Dispersal Teams (MDT) which each had two tear gas grenadiers, two spotters, an assistant grenadier, a driver and the team leader.
It was more than a protest. This was a war.
To this day there is still some confusion as to who attacked first. The police were adamant that the protesters started everything. They allegedly threw stones and bottles at the police officers. Some of them also carried pipes and clubs with nails, according to the police. In an interview with the Washington Post, then Police Captain Eduardo Mediavillo, who was at the scene, said the demonstrators attacked the police column.
"They hurled stones and pillboxes. The military came to our rescue. We were outnumbered. Some of the demonstrators fired at the ranks of the police. The police don't have guns. If the Army started to shoot, it was to protect the ranks of the police because we were outnumbered," he told the Post.
Of course, the protesters saw things played out differently. Some have claimed they were still 55 meters away when the officers started shooting. One of the eyewitnesses was Luis Pineda, a member of the Health Alliance for Democracy, one of the groups participating in the protest.
Pineda, who was injured, also spoke to the Post while being treated at the Philippine General Hospital.
“We didn’t provoke them because they were too far away,” he said.
So what really happened? The commission that later was tasked to investigate the incident described in their report that basically, "pandemonium broke loose".
“The demonstrators disengaged from the government forces and retreated towards C.M. Recto Avenue. But sporadic firing continued from the government forces,” the report stated.
“After the firing ceased, two MDTs headed by Lt. Romeo Paquinto and Lt. Laonglaan Goce sped towards Legarda Street and lobbed tear gas at the remaining rallyist still grouped in the vicinity of Mendiola,” it continued.
After dispersing the crowd, the two MDTs, together with the two WPD MDTs, proceeded to Liwasang Bonifacio upon order of General Montaño to disperse the remaining rallyists. They were accompanied by a number of officers in civilian clothes, wearing headbands and carrying long firearms.
No matter who fired first, history cannot change the outcome of that dark, bloody day—12 people died on the streets, 13 by some accounts. Among the protesters, 39 were severely injured by gunshot wounds. There are accounts stating that 12 to 19 more eventually succumbed to their wounds. Twelve more sustained minor injuries. According to some accounts, as many as 62 were injured.
No one died on the other side of the barricade. Among the police and military personnel, only three sustained gunshot wounds and 20 suffered minor physical injuries such as abrasions and contusions.
Afterward, the Presidential Commission on Human Rights was dissolved, following the resignation of most of its members, led by former Sen. Jose W. Diokno.
In its place, Aquino ordered the creation of the Citizens’ Mendiola Commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Pedro Abad Santos. Its main task was to investigate what happened on Black Thursday.
On February 16 the same year, almost a month after the massacre, two lawyers submitted two videotapes to the commission. The videos showed anti-riot lawmen in khaki uniforms firing handguns at the marchers as they retreated toward Mendiola.
A little over a week later, on the 27th, Aquino ordered the filing of administrative charges against several military and police officers who were caught on film or in photographs firing handguns at the marchers.
Around this time, Tadeo was also charged with inciting sedition and violation of the Public Assembly Act for holding rally at Mendiola without a permit.
On March 2, the commission recommended the filing of criminal charges against all armed military and police officers assigned to civil disturbance control duties. The commission also recommended the government compensate the victims of the violent dispersal. Later that year, the commission disbanded without taking any action or following through with its recommendations.
A year after the bloody event, the survivors and families of the victims filed a class suit against the government and certain police and military officers for damages totaling P6.5 million. This was backed by the House Committee on Human Rights on February 10, 1988. However, on May 31 the same year, the Manila regional trial court dismissed the class suit.
Three months later, on August 8, the petitioners filed a motion for reconsideration but it was denied by the court, citing that the State had filed no waiver of immunity from the suit. Years later, on March 19, 1993, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision, citing the government’s immunity from suit.
“While the Republic in this case is sued by name, the ultimate liability does not pertain to the government. Although the military officers and personnel, then party defendants, were discharging their official functions when the incident occurred, their functions ceased to be official the moment they exceeded their authority,” the decision read.
“The inescapable conclusion is that the State cannot be held civilly liable for the deaths that followed the incident. Instead, the liability should fall on the named defendants in the lower court,” it concluded.
In 2017, the farmers commemorated the 30th year since the massacre. Current KMP Chairperson Joseph Canlas said that after three decades, there was still no land and no justice for the farmers.
“No one was arrested, convicted and punished for the massacre at Mendiola that killed 13 farmers, namely, Danilo Arjona, Leopoldo Alonzo, Adelfa Aribe, Dionisio Bautista, Roberto Caylao, Vicente Campomanes, Ronilo Dumanico, Dante Evangelio, Angelito Gutierrez, Rodrigo Grampan, Bernabe Laquindanum, Sonny Boy Perez and Roberto Yumul,” Canlas said in an interview with Business Mirror.
In 2018, on the 31st anniversary of the Mendiola Massacre, the farmers marched for the same causes with an additional cry for justice— a total of 109 farmers had been killed in recent years. That number, unfortunately, seems to be growing.
Timeline of Mendiola massacre: 25 years and counting
The Mendiola Massacre and Political Transition in Post-Marcos Philippines
Untold stories of Aquino human-rights violation
Supreme Court 1993 Decision
Manila Troops Kill 12 Protesters
Remember, remember, the Mendiola massacre