By Mark Garcia, Aaron Recuenco, and Martin Sadongdong
BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental — Nine sugar farmers were killed, including three who were allegedly burned to death, by a group of unidentified armed men Saturday night in Barangay Bulanon, Sagay City, this province due to an alleged land conflict, police said.
In a phone interview with the Manila Bulletin, Senior Superintendent Rodolfo Castil, chief of Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office (PPO), identified the victims as Marchtel Sumcad, 17; Jomarie Ughayon Jr., 17; Eglicerio Villegas, 36; Angelipe Arsenal; Bingbing Bantigue; Necnec Dumaguit; Dodong Laurencio; Morena Mendoza and a certain Pater. All of them were from Sagay City, Negros Occidental and members of National Federation of Sugarcane Workers.
Castil said one of the survivors told the police that around 40 gunmen were involved in the shooting incident but the results of the re-enactment of the local Crime Laboratory on Sunday morning showed only at least six or seven suspects were behhind the grim massacre.
Initial investigation disclosed that the group of sugarcane workers were resting inside makeshift shelters inside Hacienda Nene in Purok Fire Tree, Barangay Bulanon, Sagay, Negros Occidental around 9:30 p.m. when the gunmen arrived, apparently, on foot.
“According to one survivor, the gunmen only arrived on foot. The workers did not immediately notice them because it is a remote area. It is not a city proper and vehicles hardly pass by,” Castil said.
Suddenly, a burst of gunfire filled the air, disrupting the silence of the night, and screams erupted from the horrified sugarcane workers.
The shooting lasted about 10 to minutes, police said. When the gunmen fled, the workers discovered the lifeless bodies of the victims – all riddled with bullets.
But the terror allegedly did not end there as some of the survivors were claiming that three of nine fatalities were burned by the assailants.
“While the protesters were resting inside their improvised tents, and according to some of the surviving victims, they were allegedly fired upon by more or less 40 unidentified armed men,” Bulalacao told the Manila Bulletin in a phone interview.
The victims were also reportedly tied to progressive group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) but police have yet to verify the information.
BAYAN Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr. called for a ‘swift’ investigation on the massacre of the sugarcane workers, who were said to be agrarian reform beneficiaries.
“We call for a swift investigation into the massacre of nine farmers, incuding two minors, in Hacienda Nene, Negros Occidental. We condemn this atrocity and demand justice for the victims,” Reyes said.
“According to reports, the farmers were agrarian reform beneficiaries. This is impunity at its worst,” he added.
Castil said one of the motives being eyed behind the incident is land rivalry among laborers. He also said that the victims “tend to own other’s land and claim it as their own.”
“Here in Sagay [City], there are groups that would occupy someone’s land and build makeshift houses and other structures. When the righful owner tells them to leave, they would claim they have partial rights,” Castil said.
“In Manila, it’s called squatters. We are looking at possible land dispute among rival groups,” he said.
“But according to the families of the victims, they were only ‘recruited’ to build a structure inside the hacienda which is owned by… The police met the owner and we conducted profiling,” he added.
The farm is reportedly owned by a certain Carmen Tolentino. Investigation also showed that the workers occupied the farm after the owner harvested her crops earlier that day.
Chief Insp. Roberto Manseto, director of the Sagay City police, said the initial result of their investigation revealed that there appeared to have a shootout between the attackers and some of the protesting workers.
“There are witnesses said that there were just a few shots fired, apparently meant to scare the victims. Kaso nagkasagutan kaya nagkabakbakan,” said Manseto.
This theory, according to Manseto, is bolstered by the fact that two of the protesting workers have yielded handguns and appeared to have also fired the guns.
“According to the Crime Laboratory, one of the slain workers was holding a caliber .38. A spent shell from a similar gun was also retrieved in the area,” Castil said, implying that the workers did fire shots.
Police also found on the crime scene 12 empty shells from a caliber 5.56 mm rifle and seven pieces from a .45-caliber pistol.
The area, according to Manseto, is located some 10 kilometers away from the city proper of Sagay, and some 400 meters away from the main highway of the barangay.
Police vowed to conduct an in-depth investigation of the incident.
“The police will conduct a fair and just investigation. All the angles will be looked into,” Castil said.