Saturday, April 24, 2004 
OPINION

     

Revisiting the Chiong murders

     WHEN Marianne del Gallego first heard the news that Francisco "Paco" Larraņaga was being arrested as a suspect in the murder of the Chiong sisters in Cebu (Jackie and Marijoy), she laughed as she talked to her father about it. She thought it was silly. She was sure that there was a mistake and that Paco would be immediately removed as a suspect--because she was, along with several others, at a party with Paco in Quezon City on the night the Chiongs disappeared. She even had pictures of the party to prove it, some taken by Raymond Garcia, the son of then Cebu Mayor Alvin Garcia

     Why was she so sure of the date? In her case, it was easy. She had just celebrated her birthday on July 14, and part of her birthday gift was a trip to Manila to be with two younger sisters. She couldn't leave on July 15 because it was the birthday of yet another younger sister, and there was a party at the Cebu Casino Espaņol. So she left the next day, July 16. Her arrival was a second excuse for a get-together of Cebuanos at a restaurant-bar in Quezon City, as a "bienvenida" (welcoming party) for her; the other excuse being that it would also be a "despidida" (farewell party) for Paco, who was leaving for Cebu the next day in anticipation of his mother's birthday.

     The others at the reunion, sons and daughters of respected community members in Cebu--doctors, business persons, civic, as well as political leaders--were sure that Paco would be cleared once their story was told.

     The classmates and teachers of Paco, when they learned of his arrest, (the officers of the CIDG went to fetch Paco at the Center for Culinary Arts in Katipunan, Quezon City) where equally sure that he would be immediately cleared. After all, July 16 had been an exam day, and Paco was with them the whole day as well as on the morning of July 17, when they had taken a practical exam on skills with knives.

     One can imagine the shock and dismay of these young people when Paco was formally charged, in spite of their protestations of his innocence. Prevailing public opinion ran high against the boy and his co-accused, fanned by media that were putting a rich vs. poor, a powerful vs. powerless spin on the stories. This of course was a gross exaggeration, because the parents of the Chiongs were by no means poor or powerless. Dionisio Chiong had a managerial position with  businessman Peter Lim (who was the subject of a congressional mmm

investigation involving drugs), while his wife was the sister of the appointments secretary of then President Estrada.

     To make matters worse for Paco, there was the matter of his being half-Spanish (his father was a former pelotari), which in some people's minds gave the whole controversy a tisoy (Spanish creole) vs. pinoy (native Filipino) or tisoy vs. tsinoy flavor. And to top it all, Paco is an Osmeņa, his maternal grandmother being the sister of Serging (father of Senator Serge and Cebu City Mayor Tommy) and Emilio (father of Senator Sonny and former Cebu Governor Lito).

     Why was the Osmeņa factor a big minus rather that a big plus for Paco? Two reasons: For one, any statement by the investigators or anybody else in his favor was immediately suspect as a sign of not only toadying to the rich, but also toadying to the powerful Osmeņa clan. When Mayor Alvin Garcia declared his belief that Paco was innocent, the immediate conclusion was that it was because of his closeness to Tommy Osmeņa, whom he had served as vice mayor. Thus the declaration of Alvin's son Raymond Garcia that he was at the Quezon City party with Paco, 600 kilometers away from where the kidnapping of the Chiong sisters occurred, was considered politically motivated. (Ironically, Garcia and Tommy Osmeņa ran against each other in 2001, and are running against each other now--but Garcia and his son Raymond still stoutly maintain that Paco is innocent.)

     The second reason why the Osmeņa factor was a minus for Paco was that his relatives, being political figures, probably thought it was politically incorrect to defend him, no matter his innocence, so none lifted a finger. The boy was left twisting in the wind. 

     The father of Marianne, Juan Miguel "Cuco" del Gallego, stood up for his daughter's story and for Paco, but given the force of public opinion, it was like spitting in the wind. So he counseled the young people that the truth would come out during the trial.

     But the trial turned out to be a traumatic experience. The young people were either not allowed to testify, or their testimony were cut short and declared irrelevant. And they watched as other testimony that would have proved Paco's innocence were also disregarded or not allowed, e.g. the logbook of the security guard in Paco's apartment showing that he left in the evening of July 16th and returned at two in the morning of July 17th. Paco and his co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to double life terms.

     In spite of the shock, dismay, and horror of the arrest and trial, Cuco assured himself and those who knew that Paco was innocent, that the Supreme Court, in its review of the case, would reverse the decision of the lower court. But to their astonishment and disillusionment the Supreme Court, two months ago, not only affirmed that decision, but raised the penalty to death.

     Which is when Cuco and the young men and women who firmly believe that justice has been denied Paco, began their crusade for truth to prevail. But that is for another column.

NOTE:   THE ABOVE TEXT IS THE FAITHFUL REPRODUCTION OF THE ORIGINAL
                                  DOCUMENT REFORMATTED FOR  CLEARER APPRECIATION.                                        

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