BACOLOD CITY – Townsfolk of Murcia, Negros Occidental appeared in droves Saturday for the funeral march of Benjie Sustento, 30, the latest victim of summary execution related to land dispute and the bogus Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) in this island region.
Sustento was a member of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NSFW), local affiliate of the national agricultural workers center Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) in Negros Island.
The victim was also a listed CARP beneficiary of a parcel of land reportedly disputed and sought by new landlords or land speculators running the aryendo or lease system in Murcia. Sustento was abducted by unidentified men from his home in Purok Eslabong, Barangay Lopez Jaena around 10:00 in the evening of January 9, and was blindfolded, gagged, hogtied and dragged several hundred meters on the street from a motor vehicle.
Witnesses reported the incident to Murcia police authorities who apparently refused to respond to the scene. Sustento was found dead 6:00 am the next day, with torture marks and close-range gunshot wounds in the eyes and ear.
The bereaved family led the mourners in silent protest over Sustento’s gruesome killing. The family marched to Sustento’s final resting place with the word “JUSTICE” emblazoned in their black garb. In the religious service preceding the march, Sustento’s brother called on the public to help them identify the killers.
The NFSW has led farmworkers in asserting land rights through land cultivation activities to produce food and sustained livelihood for the community, including in the area tilled by the Sustentos in Murcia. This bold initiative provided strong, viable alternative to the farmworkers’ usual toil as cane cutters enduring slave-like conditions and wages in vast sugar haciendas.
Land cultivation, however, has been consistently blocked by the landlords, their dummies and new land speculators. UMA believes that the aryendo system, which offers measly amounts to beneficiaries for the annual lease of CARP-awarded farm lots, was established precisely to complement the bogus CARP in re-concentrating lands back to the control of landlords and undermining these land cultivation efforts by organized farmworkers.
Prior to the killing, the Sustento family and other tillers faced continuous harassment while defending their collective land cultivation area. A trumped-up criminal charge of arson was filed against Sustento’s brother by one scheming land speculator, who reportedly ordered goons to burn a sugarcane field in the area just to fabricate the case against the tillers. Hired goons of these notorious aryendadors are therefore prime suspects in the killing of Benjie Sustento.
UMA said that the torture and killing of Sustento further highlights the failure of agrarian reform in Negros Island, widely-known as a landlord feudal stronghold since the Spanish colonial era.
“Sustento was merely a toddler when farmers seeking land rights were massacred in Mendiola by the first Cojuangco-Aquino dispensation. Today, even at the last few months of the oppressive regime of another Cojuangco-Aquino landlord president, young farmers like Sustento still become victims of cacique-style murder,” said Ranmil Echanis, UMA secretary general.
With the absolute failure of CARP, farmworkers led by UMA and NFSW have been pushing for the enactment of House Bill 252 or the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB) co-authored by Anakpawis Party-list and Rep. Neri Colmenares in Congress.
Farmers and NFSW members have started to mount local protests and picket-dialogues with the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in several municipalities in Negros Occidental, which are set to culminate in a peasant camp-out led by the militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP-Negros) here in Bacolod City from January 19 to 22.
UMA will also join the national KMP, Anakpawis Partylist and other militant peasant organizations and multi-sectoral groups in a protest at the very site of the Mendiola Massacre in Manila on Friday, to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the bloody dispersal which claimed the lives of 13 farmers on January 22, 1987.