A tunnel and 176 bodies

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The investigation on the brazen killing of Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and the suspicious death of inmate Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palaña, the alleged middleman in the murder of the hard-hitting broadcaster, has uncovered more skeletons in the closet of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

This became quite literal with the grisly discovery last week of over a hundred bodies of NBP inmates left unclaimed at a funeral parlor in Muntinlupa City. Police investigators who came to conduct an autopsy on Palaña’s body at the Eastern Funeral Homes in Alabang stumbled upon 30 corpses being kept there. It turned out that the funeral home, the sole mortuary service accredited by the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), had 176 unclaimed cadavers since December last year.

Eastern Funeral Homes manager Charlie Bacani said that since December 2021, some 50 to 60 bodies have been brought there. Most of the cases, he said, were listed as having died of natural causes.

Bacani said the funeral home had asked the BuCor to retrieve 126 bodies, which were “already overdue’” as of this month. They can only keep bodies in the morgue for five to six months, he explained.

The latest body to be brought to the funeral home was Palaña’s. He was found dead on Oct. 18, the same day that Joel Escorial, the confessed Mabasa gunman, was presented to the media. Forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun, whom Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla had asked to conduct an independent autopsy, said Palaña’s case was a homicide, and that he was possibly suffocated with a plastic bag.

Authorities have moved with uncharacteristic speed to solve the Mabasa case, the first media killing under the Marcos Jr. administration. Last week, two counts of murder were filed against BuCor director general Gerald Bantag and BuCor deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta, who were tagged as the masterminds of the Mabasa assassination.

That no less than the top BuCor officials were alleged to have ordered the journalist’s murder is an appalling condemnation of the sickening state of the country’s correctional institution, an important pillar of the criminal justice system tasked with the custody of convicted prisoners and the rehabilitation of those serving shorter jail terms.

Bantag allegedly orchestrated, with the help of felons and gangs in Bilibid, the killing of Mabasa for his exposé on the former’s supposed unexplained wealth, including numerous vehicles and a big house in an upscale village.

Bantag, however, fired back at Remulla, saying the Department of Justice (DOJ) chief was implicating him in the Mabasa killing to cover up the illegal drug case against his son, Juanito. Bantag, a Duterte appointee, went as far as calling for Remulla’s resignation.

Now, this is a strange development, and one wonders where Bantag draws his fiery demeanor and unusual temerity to go against the DOJ secretary, his very own boss. Bantag gave the interview to Sonshine Media Network International, the network owned by evangelist Apollo Quiboloy, a close friend of former president Duterte. As speculations rose as to whether there was a bigger mastermind, Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, Duterte’s former police chief, disabused people’s minds of his former boss’ possible involvement.

Indeed, the drug case involving his son has put Remulla in a defensive position, and whether he will engage Bantag in a slugfest remains to be seen. But Remulla must not blink in the pursuit of justice against Mabasa’s killers, and ensure an airtight case against them in the courts.

President Marcos Jr., at the same time, should order a top-to-bottom overhaul of the BuCor and the NBP to once and for all deal with the corruption, criminal activities, and other shenanigans going on within the walls of the national penitentiary, with the possible complicity of its top brass. Certainly, this is not the first time that horrible activities in the NBP have been reported, but the Mabasa case exposed the bottomless pit that the NBP had fallen into, no thanks to its mismanagement.

Again, take that in a literal sense, as new NBP officials last week discovered an unexplained tunnel being dug adjacent to the director’s (Bantag’s) quarters in the NBP compound.

But the first order of business should be dealing with the 176 unclaimed bodies in the funeral parlor. How did these inmates die, and who are responsible for the crime, and the palpable disrespect and denial of dignity to the dead? The Commission on Human Rights should conduct a thorough investigation, and demand accountability and justice for the victims and their doubly-bereaved families.

Should he be proven liable as well for this macabre affair, Bantag should be prosecuted to the hilt, and made to answer for the spate of deaths in the BuCor under his watch.

The inmates, whether they were facing life or given a second chance to reform, do not deserve to be dumped as faceless and nameless remains in a morgue or a hidden NBP tunnel. They must be given back to their families or accorded a decent burial, while those responsible for their gruesome fate must be made accountable.

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