MARAMAG, Bukidnon — A leader of a farmers group in Bukidnon's Maramag town was killed by armed men believed to be members of the security group of the Villalon Ranch there.
Welcie Gica, 28, was shot dead on Wednesday at a meeting between framer-claimants and supposedly "armed goons" of Ernesto Villalon, owner of the ranch over which Gica's group has been claiming tenure rights under the government's Community-Based Forest Management Program, said Task Force Mapalad (TFM), a farmers' federation advocating agrarian reform and rural development.
SP02 Roel Zapanta of the Maramag town police quoted witnesses as saying Gica was shot in Barangay Panalsalan around 9 a.m. Gica left behind his wife and two sons, aged three and four years old.
Citing an autopsy report, police investigator SP01 Jonathan Bataykan said Gica was shot in the left armpit and in the neck with a Carbine, with one bullet exiting in his mouth, causing his death.
According to Joseph Coles, TFM coordinator for Mindanao, all the nine suspects witnesses identified were arrested but were released by the Maramag police before dawn Thursday.
Police identified those arrested as Milo Ceballos, Ruerico Coronel, Rey Coronel, Edwin Coronel, Rowen Ragrag, Felipe Rayon, Benito Imostino, Rechipen de Asis and Quico Atsacoso.
Asked why the police released the suspects, SP01 Zapanta said "We released the eight, except Milo Ceballos, who witnesses identified as the one who shot Gica. But he was able to escape."
TFM condemns Gica's killing
Meanwhile, Coles said the TFM condemns the killing of Gica, who is a member of Panalsalan Dagumbaan Tribal Association (Padata), a group staking out for land tenure rights at the Villalon Ranch.
"The killing of Gica and other harassment against farmer-claimants in various landholdings in Bukidnon are desperate moves of some land owners who have lost legitimate basis of using public lands," Coles said.
Moreover, he claimed the killing of Gica "was not an isolated case. We take this as a signal for heightened violence in many ranches and public lands where farmer organizations are fighting for their legitimate land rights."
According to Coles, Gica was with 26 other Padata members in a meeting with alleged goons of the Villalon Ranch to appeal for a stop of harassment against farmers in the landholding.
Padata and Alyansa Bukidnon farmer-members at a dialogue with Bukidnon Vice Governor Jose Zubiri on land-tenure issue last Wednesday. TFM photo
In that meeting, backpacks of the farmers were collected by the goons for security reasons. “The backpacks were returned except Gica's. He protested and he was shot," Coles said.
The meeting at the Villalon Ranch was held while other Padata and Alyansa Bukidnon farmer-members were having a dialogue with Bukidnon Vice Governor Jose Zubiri on land-tenure issue.
Last year, the Padata members demanded the resignation of a National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) official for supposedly being party to the issuance of a fake Free and Informed Prior Consent (FPIC) to a group supposedly used by Ernesto Villalon to retain his control over the 480-hectare ranch.
Villalon supposedly used the fake FPIC to extend his expired Forestland Grazing Management Agreement Contract.
Coles said the Villalon Ranch management cannot be reached for comments as of posting time. — LBG, GMA News