Fr. Picx Picardal: the true Maisug

It began apolitically. No politician had backed the rare crusade. And that was how it ended – apolitically.

It was rare because it was matchless – no one but no one had ever dared to question the Rodrigo Duterte rule in Davao city for extrajudicial killings. The crusade was motivated only by truth-telling objectives – the right to life must be defended; no government official in Davao city has the license to kill, no public servant can arrogate unto himself the power of life and death; the rule of law must be upheld.

The date was July 16, 2003, when the Philippines had known very little of the power abuses going on in Davao city. CASE – the Coalition Against Summary Executions came out publicly unflinching and unwavering. It began documenting the cases. On its public launching, the opening address was delivered by one of the organizers, a Redemptorist priest who spoke of Duterte despotism.

On that day, Duterte knew of the warning to his tyrannical rule. The city’s television networks all reported CASE’s coming out on the early evening news. That night, the priest was interviewed on local radio. The following day, his sound bytes came out in print on three of the city’s local dailies. His previous day’s opening address was printed as guest editorial in two local newspapers. The die was cast.

That priest was Amado Picardal. This was the story he had related to me when he had already suffered the fate of death threats against his life, when Duterte had already become a national figure after he had exported his brand of grotesque governance to Manila.

This special report of Reuters in 2017 narrates the names of the police that Duterte, under his national police chief Bato dela Rosa, deliberately transported to Manila to replicate the blood and gore of Dutertismo in the national stage. Father Picardal had long warned of that national catastrophe before the 2016 elections.

On the morning of July 17, a convent colleague confronted Father Picardal. “Are you not afraid that you have denounced Mayor Duterte and his death squad?” The colleague’s voice indicated a brotherly advice – for Father Picardal to desist from such a dangerous liaison.

His reply gave a human face to the trajectory that CASE would take in the next two decades: “I have already offered my life to God and I am prepared to accept the consequence of my prophetic stance. I am not afraid of Duterte and his death squad. I am not afraid to die.” Finally in Davao city, somebody had matched the Duterte show of force.

So resolute was CASE’s documentation work that even the Reuters report had to reference it, written when Duterte was already president. Its importance lie in the fact that it documented the Duterte EJKs even before he had become president, when his killing sprees were glorified by an unthinking mass of Filipinos as the rule of the bravado.

The work of CASE reached international stature. Two years later, it figured among the so-called wikileaks of Julian Assange using leaked diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Manila.

So credible was CASE that in 2009, US ambassador to the Philippines Kirstie Kenney dispatched an embassy diplomatic officer to Davao city to interview CASE. That year, Sara Duterte was already vice mayor to her father. Her public statement on the unraveling of their extrajudicial killings was very telling of how the family tried to confuse the public mind. She said these EJKs were just the product of “revenge and love triangles.” Picardal et al had hit the raw nerves of the Dutertes.

Today, the CASE documents are safely deposited as important testimonial evidence of crimes against humanity lodged on the two Dutertes at the International Criminal Court. In the event they are arrested and jailed in The Hague, we thank God for his divine intervention and the fearless work of Amado Picardal.

Duterte was myopic. He had thought that disengaging the country’s membership in the ICC would free him from prosecution. But the ICC had averred that he can still be investigated and if found warranted, prosecuted for crimes he had committed before the Philippines ceased its membership. Among those crimes were the extrajudicial killings under his watch as Davao city mayor. CASE was spot on.

Duterte knew the weight of the CASE evidence. His government pursued Father Picardal no end. The priest had to transfer residences a couple of times. He would relate to me that a drone had kept on coming back daily over his hiding place. He had thought the place was safe. One time an itinerant foodstuff seller had entered the place.

And then the ultimate modus operandi came. He wrote me: “A motorcycle squad of riding in tandem men had reached my place. And the drones would appear daily.” The surveillance was relentless. He had to move again.

If they had him killed, it was purely revenge for exposing the Duterte killing empire. CASE had even documented the Davao city hall’s 11,000 ghost employees’ payroll that was used to fund the killings. At that point, it was useless to silence Father Picardal. The rich documentation was already in the hands of the ICC.

So important was he to the ICC investigators who came to the country in December 2023 that he was one of those they had wanted to meet. It was not his first meeting with the ICC investigators. “They were concerned about me and the surveillance of the places where I was staying. They suggested the possibility of leaving the country. I decided to stay.”

Last May 29, 2024, Amado Picardal stayed in the country that he had so valiantly defended, until his death by cardiac arrest. He was a true priest till the end who defended life, as God had entrusted him to. He died on the 47th year of his religious profession as a Redemptorist priest.

That morning, he wrote his last, that he was in the twilight of his life – “to meet face to face the One I love to whom I sacrificed my whole life.”

The Dutertes think they can mobilize the country for a people power when the ICC arrest warrants come, their dwindling rallies they call as Maisug – the Cebuano for brave and courageous. Those who recoil from facing the consequences of the law are the cowards.