Championing trafficking victims

By Jake Soriano, VERA Files

Lawyer Darlene Pajarito had her first brush with human trafficking in 2004 as an assistant prosecutor in Zamboanga City. Since then securing justice for victims of the crime has become almost like a mantra to her.

Initially she only wanted to observe her boss, Zamboanga City Prosecutor Ricardo Cabaron, prosecute a trafficking case and learn from him. “I practically followed the case, until one time he told me, ‘Darlene, you do it. Finish this case,” she recounts. “And of course I had to finish it. It was an order from my boss.”

In her first case she secured the first conviction of a sex trafficker in the Philippines in 2005, a feat that led to many more.

After handling a string of cases, the fight against human trafficking became Pajarito’s personal crusade against modern-day slavery. This earned her the honor of being one of 10 global anti-trafficking heroes of the US State Department in 2011.

The Philippines is a source country, and to a much lesser extent, a destination and transit point for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.

And even as advocates like Pajarito work to raise awareness of the problem in order to stop people from being victimized, many continue to fall prey to traffickers.

Trafficking does not only claim women victims, Pajarito says in an interview. Men are trafficked for forced labor too, but women most times suffer doubly. “In one condition of bondage, women victims suffer both from sex and labor exploitation,” she explains.

The country’s anti-trafficking czar warns, though,that women are not confined to the role of victims.

“Most of our convicted traffickers in Zamboanga are women,” the prosecutor says. The very first case she handled and won involved a woman.

Hadja Jarma Lalli’s conviction was a landmark case: it was the first ever trafficking conviction in the Philippines. More significantly, the case reached the Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision of the lower court, setting a legal precedent for future trafficking cases.

On November 29, 2005, the Zamboanga City Regional Trial Court (RTC) found Lalli and accomplice Ronnie Aringoy guilty of both trafficking in persons and illegal recruitment. A third accused, Nestor Relampagos, remains at large.

The Supreme Court affirmed the convictions on October 12, 2011 and increased the amount of damages from P50,000 to P500,000 for moral damages and from P50,000 to P100,000 for exemplary damages.

For Pajarito, this proved that the high court itself believes that “trafficking is a very, very grave crime.”

A mother of two daughters, Pajarito grew up in Zamboanga City. She obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University. She then studied Law at the Western Mindanao State University, and passed the bar in 1997.

After working at the National Telecommunications Commission and the Commission of Human Rights regional offices in Zamboanga, shejoined the Department of Justice (DOJ) as prosecutor in July 2004.The Philippine anti-trafficking law was over a year old then, and no trafficker has yet been convicted.

More than a year later, she succeeded in securing the first conviction.

In 2007, the DOJ created the inter-agency Sea-Based Anti-Trafficking Task Force in the Zamboanga region, with Pajarito as head. This same anti-trafficking task force is today the biggest in the country. She has since been assigned to Manila.

Growing up in Zamboanga meant Pajarito has lived in close proximity to cases of human trafficking. The southern province and neighboring Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are favored trafficking getaway points because of their geographic and even cultural closeness to Malaysia.

Hadja Jarma Lalli’s is a case in point, and Pajarito remembers this only too well.

Lalli had promised a group of Filipino women jobs in restaurants in Malaysia. She bought the boat tickets herself and they all travelled together by sea for 15 hours to Sandakan from Zamboanga. As soon as they cleared immigration in Sandakan, Lalli and the women boarded a van for Kota Kinabalu. There, the women met with several people who all went by the nickname “boss.”

One “boss” told the women they each owe him 2,000 ringgits, the amount paid to Lalli for each of them. The women would have to repay the 2,000 ringgits not by serving food, but by entertaining customers in the club owned by “boss.”

One of the women trafficked by Lalli received a small pink paper on her first night working at a club in Malaysia. Pink means a customer has paid for her “short time” service. In the span of that “short time,” the customer poked a gun at her, punched her on the side of her body and had sexual intercourse with her every fifteen minutes.

On her second day, she got a yellow paper. Yellow means a customer has paid for her overnight services. A tall dark man of about 40 years brought her to a hotel. He slammed her head against the wall of the restroom. He had sex with her every hour.

Such dreadful stories of trafficked women serve to remind the soft-spoken but tough lawyer that a lot of work still lies ahead.

Among the cases she has handled, Pajarito says human trafficking is the hardest to prosecute. “It is even more draining than prosecuting murder cases,” she confides. The process is long and intensely emotional.

For victims to tell their stories in open court is for them to relive the pain and the horror of the experience all over again. She says this process leaves even her, as a prosecutor and as a woman, emotionally involved and emotionally drained.

One time, she relates, she had to ask a victim in court to describe what she felt when she was trafficked, in order to prove moral damages.

“When she answered, she looked directly at the accused and said, ‘Galit ako sa iyo (I am furious at you)!’ The whole courtroom became so quiet because she shouted this directly to the accused. You could actually feel the violation she suffered as a woman,” she narrates.

“That kind of emotion is draining. Depressing even, to listen to something like that.But it is necessary if you want justice for the victims.”

And justice for trafficking victims is what is driving Pajarito, whose calm demeanor hides a steely determination and toughness in prosecuting human traffickers.

For her tireless dedication in pursuing cases against human traffickers, Pajarito was named Global Trafficking in Persons Hero in 2011. The award, handed to her by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, recognized her campaign against human trafficking, while juggling more than 300 other criminal cases.

The US State Department that same year upgraded the trafficking rating of the Philippines to Tier 2 from the watch list. This means that trafficking remains a problem but the Philippine government has made significant efforts in combating the crime.

To date, the country has secured 122 convictions involving 141 traffickers, the latest of which was handed down last March 4.

In her present role as Executive Officer of the Operations Monitoring Section of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) in Manila, Pajarito shares her one ultimate goal.

“If I could be instrumental in bringing the Philippines to Tier 1,” she says, “that would be a wonderful achievement for all of us.”

(This story was produced under VERA Files’ Trafficking Casewatch, a project supported by the Embassy of the United States and the Embassy of Canada. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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