A Woman on Death Row and the Neighbour Who Put Her There

Mary Jane Veloso lives about 300 feet away from Maria Cristina Sergio in the Philippines. Veloso is on death row for allegedly smuggling heroin into the country. Sergio is in jail and awaiting trial after being accused of trafficking her neighbour.

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30 September 2015, 4:00am

Celia Veloso sits in front of a sign advocating for the release of her daughter Mary Jane, who is on death row in Indonesia for allegedly trafficking 2.6 kilograms of heroin in 2010.

This article appears in the September Issue of VICE

About 300 feet apart on a muddy dirt road in the remote village of Esguerra on the Philippine island of Luzon are two similarly appointed houses made of cinder block and rusted sheet iron. In one lives the family of Mary Jane Veloso, a 30-year-old Filipina now on death row in Indonesia for allegedly smuggling 2.6 kilograms of heroin into the country in 2010. In the other lives the family of Maria Cristina Sergio, the woman accused of trafficking Veloso by promising her work abroad and then giving her a suitcase with drugs sewn into the lining.

The two families' lives have been closely intertwined since Veloso arrived in the village of fewer than 3,000 in the early 2000s. When she married her ex-husband, Michael Candelaria, in 2002, the couple asked Ramon Lacanilao, the father of Sergio's live-in partner, Julius, to be their godfather in marriage, an important role in Philippine Catholic society. "We are practically relatives," Veloso's former mother-in-law, Teresita Candelaria, said. But the families and their town have been ripped apart by Veloso's imprisonment and the reality that if there's any chance of her ever going free, Sergio must take the fall.

On April 28, after nearly five years on death row, Veloso was scheduled to be executed by firing squad along with eight other convicted drug smugglers, when she was granted a last-minute reprieve after Sergio was arrested in the Philippines and charged with trafficking her and others. Now both women are behind bars—one awaiting trial, the other death.

According to Veloso's family, the trouble began when Sergio approached her in 2010 about an opportunity to become a domestic worker in Malaysia. For women in the region without college degrees, housekeeping is the most common occupation, and three of Veloso's four siblings and her mother had worked as domestics abroad. Veloso's first stint out of the country, working as a maid in Dubai, had ended abruptly, after just ten months, when her boss allegedly tried to rape her. Out of work, she was excited by Sergio's offer because it promised to pay $540 a month, more than twice what she had made in the United Arab Emirates. She accepted it in large part because of their families' close connection. "We trusted Cristina because she is like our sister," said Michael Candelaria, who still refers to Veloso as his wife. "We had no idea that she would dupe us."

Veloso left for Malaysia with Sergio on April 22, 2010, and Sergio returned five days later with news that Veloso had found a good job and was well situated. She even brought diapers and baby formula for the newborn Veloso had left behind. But within a few weeks, Veloso's family began to receive vague text messages from her implying that things weren't going well. When Veloso got to Malaysia, she was told that the job she had come for had already been filled, but Sergio promised her that she'd found her another in Indonesia. On May 12, Veloso's family discovered that she had been arrested for drug possession and was in prison in Indonesia.

"We will never go back to the way we were. They are the ones who destroyed our relationship."

When I met the Candelarias at their home on a rainy day this July, several neighbors who had had similar experiences seeking work abroad joined them. It's not uncommon for Filipinas working abroad to find themselves in bad situations. Veloso's own sister is currently stuck in Bahrain with an expired work visa and no money after running away from her boss, who was allegedly physically abusive to her. Lorna Mitch Valino, a 19-year-old whose plump, languid face belies a determined disposition, is one of the three women who have come forward since Veloso's arrest as having been illegally recruited by Sergio. "I used to give her manicures and pedicures," Valino said of Sergio. "She told me this would be good work abroad, but I told her that I wasn't at the right age. She said that when I came of age she would send me abroad, that she had money and she would pay for everything."

Valino, who had few job prospects apart from painting nails for the equivalent of a couple of dollars, originally intended to take Sergio up on her offer. "At first I believed her, because life is hard and you want a better life," she said. But she began to have suspicions when she heard about Veloso's imprisonment, and she eventually determined the offer was too good to be true.

Despite having felt intimidated for speaking out and having been accused of getting paid off by the Veloso family, Valino has refused to back down, because she believes that what happened to Veloso could have easily happened to her. She and the Candelarias have claimed that Sergio tried to recruit many people in town, including ones whom she got money from by offering processing papers and English lessons. They say these people are keeping quiet for fear of reprisal.

Valino, who still lives four doors down from Sergio's family, has no such qualms. "To the best of my ability, I will try to help Até Mary Jane," she said, referring to Veloso using the Tagalog word for big sister. "I will not give up. I am ready to testify. We are strong because God and the truth are on our side, and Até Mary Jane will someday go free because she is the true victim."

Sisa and Ramon Lacanilao claim their daughter-in-law Maria Cristina Sergio is innocent of planting drugs on Veloso.

Once the rain slowed to a drizzle, I walked past a few makeshift houses to the home of Ramon and Sisa Lacanilao, where Sergio had lived with the couple's son, Julius, since 2008. The door was ajar, and Sisa, a reedy woman whose tense face betrayed suspicion, motioned with her hand to welcome me in. Soon we were joined by Ramon, Sergio's father-in-law and Veloso's godfather. Though the Lacanilaos confirmed that they used to be close to Veloso, they told a vastly different story of what had happened between her and Sergio, starting from the beginning. They claimed that Veloso wasn't recruited, but that instead it was she who sought Sergio's assistance to go abroad. "She came to Tintin crying," Sisa said, referring to Sergio by her nickname. "She told us she would do anything."

Ramon explained that because Veloso was his godchild, she used to confide in him, especially because she didn't always get along with her mother-in-law. He claims she told him the truth about why she came home from Dubai. "It was Mary Jane who took advantage of her employer, and not her employer who took advantage of her," Ramon said. "She took advantage by stealing from her employer. She was just too shy to tell her parents and in-laws that she stole. So that's why she made up the story that her employer tried to rape her."

Though the Lacanilaos emphasized that they did not want to see Veloso executed and that they kept quiet for a long time for fear that they would hurt her case, they started to speak out after their family was scapegoated. They were adamant that it must have been Veloso herself who had arranged to bring drugs into Indonesia.

"She was desperate," Sisa said. "She told us she would do anything and that she wasn't planning to come back to her family. When Tintin jokingly told her she could make money by spreading her legs abroad, but added that Mary Jane couldn't do that because of her family, Mary Jane said, 'No one will know me there anyway.'"

What Veloso did not know when she got on a plane from Malaysia to Indonesia was that the country has some of the strictest drug laws in the world, with heroin trafficking punishable by life in prison or death. When Joko Widodo was elected president, in 2014, he brought the previous administration's four-year moratorium on the death penalty to an end. Soon after, Veloso was slated to die by firing squad along with seven other foreigners accused of trafficking,including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were convicted of being part of a syndicate known as the Bali Nine. The two were executed despite strong public outcry, leading to the withdrawal of the Australian ambassador to Indonesia.

A public campaign also erupted over Veloso's death sentence, both at home and in Indonesia, which has a large population of people who have worked abroad as maids and nannies, mostly in the Middle East. Many of them were familiar with the abuses and tricks women in Veloso's situation can face, and they rallied for her cause. (Earlier this year, Indonesia banned its citizens from working as domestic helpers in 21 countries, citing human rights abuses.) A Change.org petition for Veloso's release garnered more than 400,000 signatures, and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III made a personal appeal to Widodo to spare her. When the government granted a reprieve on the day she was set to be executed, they said her death had only been delayed so that she could be a witness at Sergio's trial, and that she will still be executed regardless of the outcome.

Yet according to the Lacanilaos, Sergio and Julius did not surrender but rather went to the police seeking their protection because of death threats they had received in the wake of the campaign to save Veloso. It was at that point that they were arrested and Veloso's life was temporarily spared. "Tintin and Julius both had passports," Ramon said. "They both went back and forth between the Philippines and the US. If they were actually members of a syndicate, meaning they had a lot of money, they wouldn't go to the police, they wouldn't ask for protection. They would just fly away to another country."

Sergio, they said, had been working for a legitimate business as a real-estate agent, selling condominiums to Filipinos working temporarily in Malaysia. They pointed to the state of their house to prove that Sergio hadn't worked for a drug syndicate. There is no sign of money, and their bathroom didn't even have a proper door. "It made me cry when another reporter came while we were having lunch," Sisa said. "Our meal was two pieces of eggplant. Is that the life of a drug lord?"

Lorna Mitch Valino, Teresita Candelaria, and Saning Longalong are all planning to testify against Sergio.

Before Veloso was slated for execution by firing squad and Sergio was imprisoned as her suspected trafficker, Esguerra was nothing more than a typical rural town in the Philippines. It consists of a network of unpaved roads with houses made of cheap materials like bamboo, corrugated metal, and cast concrete, and many kilometers of flatland for growing rice all around. Occasionally, a home appears more solidly built than the rest, perhaps with a decorative iron fence or a second story. This is usually an indication that someone in that household has spent time abroad.

The town has mostly taken Veloso's side as she has been galvanized by the international effort to save her, which included a jailhouse visit by world-champion boxer Manny Pacquiao. The Candelarias told me about the candles that were lit outside each house in town the night that Veloso was supposed to be executed, made even brighter by the fact that there was a blackout, a routine occurrence in the Philippine countryside. Saning Longalong, a longtime neighbor of both Sergio and Veloso, raised her arms and shook her torso when she demonstrated how the town felt after they found out that Veloso had been spared: "Everyone was shouting, 'Thank you to God, who heard our prayers.' People were jumping up and down."

Sergio's family did not participate in the celebration. Over the weeks since Sergio's imprisonment, they've felt increasingly ostracized. "They don't have friends here anymore," Longalong said.

"We will never go back to the way we were," Sisa told me. "They are the ones who destroyed our relationship."

So in the end, everyone could lose: Veloso, Sergio, their families, the town of Esguerra, and an entire country that continues to send foreign workers abroad toward uncertain futures.

Valino has a different perspective. She believes that it is the Lacanilaos who isolated themselves from the town. "We've tried talking to them, but they are the ones who have too much pride. For us, they are still our neighbors. They are the ones who are so angry at us, as though they are the victims."

Sergio was arraigned on August 20, and her trial on charges of illegal recruitment is set to begin on September 18. In the Philippines, it is against the law to recruit people for work abroad without a license, which Sergio did not have.

In the meantime, the case brought against Sergio of trafficking Veloso is still in the court system and awaiting a trial date. Even if convictions are secured in both cases, and Veloso ends up testifying against Sergio in the Philippines, the domestic worker may still end up being executed by the Indonesian government. So in the end, everyone could lose: Veloso, Sergio, their families, the town of Esguerra, and an entire country that continues to send foreign workers abroad toward uncertain futures.

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