Zara Alvarez, a legal worker for the human rights alliance Karapatan, was on her way home from buying groceries on August 17 in Bacolod City, about 700km south of the Philippine capital Manila, when she was shot three times in the back by an unidentified gunman. She was finished off with multiple shots as she lay sprawled on the street.
Randall Echanis, a longtime peasant leader and left-wing party chair, was apparently tortured and stabbed to death along with his housemate in their home in Quezon City one week prior.
Alvarez and Echanis were both “red-tagged,” or linked by state security forces to the country’s decades-long communist insurgency. It’s a method of state intimidation that remains deadly even during the pandemic.
Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines is in chaos as the president struggles to contain Southeast Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreak. But although strict regional lockdowns have led to a relative slowdown of Duterte’s deadly drug war, they have not stopped the extrajudicial killings of his political enemies.
At least nine human rights defenders have been killed since March 13 despite COVID-19 movement restrictions throughout the country, according to Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay, who said lockdowns have made life “increasingly dangerous” for threatened human rights defenders such as herself.
“Our mobility is restricted, our routines are restricted,” Palabay said, leaving activists confined to “places where the most likely killers and harassers have access.”
Philippine police and military have been given free rein to enforce a series of the world’s strictest COVID-19 lockdowns that the United Nations human rights office has slammed as “highly militarized.” In July, Duterte signed a controversial anti-terrorism bill, allowing the government to decide who can be considered a terrorist. Critics fear it is designed to target legal dissent.
The recent killings, in the specter of these harsh measures, “contribute to the [anti-terror] law’s chilling effect directed at groups and personalities identified as critics and sympathizers of leftist groups,” Maria Ela L. Atienza, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman, told VICE News.
“Despite the heavy presence of uniformed government personnel in the streets, people’s rights are not protected,” she said.
For activists like Alvarez and Echanis, whose names appeared along with more than 600 people on a Department of Justice terrorist list in 2018, the country’s militarized coronavirus response can quickly take the form of an inescapable dystopia.
Echanis, 72, and his housemate were killed days after Metro Manila was put into a strict lockdown, raising questions not only of how the assailants entered their home – police claimed there was no “forcible entry” despite apparent photo evidence showing a broken doorknob – but how they were able to evade quarantine measures.
Alvarez, 39, was a former political prisoner who documented the murders of dozens of farmers and land activists after Duterte’s counterinsurgency campaign led to a wave of unsolved killings in the central island of Negros. She was waiting for court protection when she was killed, leaving behind an 11-year-old daughter.
Her death came as Bacolod reported a spike in COVID-19 infections. The city announced a four-day lockdown starting Saturday and is considering stricter quarantine measures and regional checkpoints, leaving surviving activists worried for their own safety if they are confined to their homes.
“What happened to Zara is really a message for us,” said Clarizza Singson, secretary-general of Karapatan-Negros, who received a death threat on the night Alvarez was killed.
It was far from the first threat Singson has received, but she said coronavirus movement restrictions make this time different. Not only are she and her fellow activists unable to conduct fact-finding missions to investigate alleged police and military abuses on the island – the lockdowns also keep them from fleeing to safe houses to evade danger.
Ereneo Longino, a rights worker in Negros, said he left his home last week after being watched by an unidentified person on a motorcycle, just days after the murder of Alvarez. On Saturday, Karapatan said it received a text message of a “liquidation” list containing the names of Longino, Singson and eight other activists.
“We really have to be cautious,” said Singson, who added that the murder of Alvarez deviated from the usual police and military-led counterinsurgency operations seen in Negros. Instead, it contained the hallmarks of a “death squad” killing – a new threat for Bacolod that has left activists there creating plans to go into hiding should the need arise.
Death squads have played a key role in Duterte’s drug war, which the country’s rights commission estimates has killed over 27,000 civilians since he came into power. They have also executed a skyrocketing number of rights workers and activists under Duterte, making the Philippines among the world’s deadliest countries for human rights and environmental defenders, according to Karapatan and the United Kingdom-based Global Witness.
Some have lost their lives in official counterinsurgency operations, but many more, including Alvarez, have been killed by small groups of assailants, often on motorcycles, who are swifter, less predictable, and harder to track than state security forces.
But even as the drug war has slowed – although not stopped amid the pandemic – the elimination of Duterte’s critics has continued. On Sunday, Merlin Ansabu Celis, a Manobo opponent of logging on Indigenous lands in Mindanao, was killed by four men as she walked to her farm with her daughter.
It has left activists left with no choice but to continue their work, even as quarantine measures and travel bans give them fewer avenues to hide from authorities.
Felipe Levy Gelle, a spokesperson of the Negros-based peasants’ rights group Paghidaet sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG) Inc. who was also named on the “liquidation” list, said military surveillance has escalated on the island. He accused the government, which has dragged its feet in investigating past murders of rights activists, of being “behind the killings.”
“Our work and movement is limited,” he said. “But we must go on. The people, the farmers and farm workers need us more than ever.”
Alvarez “feared for her life and for her daughter’s life,” Singson said. “But the search for justice has no end.”