Julieto Mahinay was a catechist of the Catholic diocese of Surigao del Norte. He was respected and well-liked although he was a quiet person and was rarely heard to raise his voice. People turned to him for guidance and leadership, and he often helped settle conflicts in the community.
His family lived in Amontay, a small outlying barrio in the municipality of San Francisco (formerly Anao-aon), west of Surigao City. The family enjoyed the respect of the community because they were known to be kind to neighbors and many were actively involved in their church.
History of political involvement
In the mid-1970s, tension was rising in northern Mindanao due to increasing incidents of landgrabbing, militarization and government abuses. In 1977, the Catholic Church started a program called the Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos or ECTF, under the auspices of the Justice and Peace desk of the National Secretariat for Social Action. The ECTF was tasked to document social issues faced by indigenous peoples in the country and to organize campaigns in their behalf. Julieto became an ECTF staff member.
Surigao in those days was one of the country’s least developed provinces. Ethnic communities wallowed in poverty and suffered from illegal incursions of big mining and agricultural corporations in tribal lands.
At that time, Julieto was working with Mamanwas, a semi-nomadic group physically similar to Aetas of Luzon but occupying the mountains of Agusan and Surigao. Julieto held literacy classes for a group of Mamanwas staying in a farm ran by the diocese. He also taught them farming techniques to help them improve their livelihood.
With his work in ECTF, Julieto learned more about the abuses being suffered by indigenous communities in Mindanao particularly from landgrabbers and from government troops. He took up human rights work, helping communities displaced by military operations or families of victims of illegal arrests or of those summarily executed by soldiers. He started teaching Mamanwas themselves about human rights. “Lito gave talks on the dignity of man…we wanted to help tribal minorities become aware of their dignity and human rights,” said Fr. Arturo Bastes, SVD, then social action director and pastoral coordinator of the diocese.
Good Shepherd sister Diane Cabasagan was also among those who worked with Julieto. In the early 1980s she was executive director of Silingang Dapit sa Mindanao (SILDAP), an interfaith group which wanted to start operations in Surigao. Julieto sought the approval of the bishop and local officials, paving the way for Sildap.
Because the diocese took a conservative stand on tribal people issues, and even stayed silent about crucial issues, Julieto spoke of his increasingly critical views only in small groups, in indoor forums or small local rallies. When the abuses grew worse and the condition of lumads (ethnic communities) deteriorated, Julieto began to speak more openly on these issues. He denounced extrajudicial killings, illegal logging practices, and landgrabbing attempts by cronies of the dictatorship.
Circumstances of disappearance
The day he disappeared, on March 14, 1984, Julieto was on his way to the Claver National High School, where he and a coworker were expected to conduct a spiritual retreat for graduating seniors. The driver said his jeepney was stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint of the 36th infantry battalion. The soldiers searched the occupants and found on Julieto a copy of the Holy Bible and a map of tribal Filipino settlements in Mindanao. They also said he was not carrying proper identification papers (cedula). They let the jeep and its passengers go, except Julieto. Julieto never made it to the students’ retreat; neither did he return home.
The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus for him. His family and coworkers searched for him whenever they received rumors of bodies being dumped in certain places. Julieto was never found. The family believes that the soldiers who seized him had probably killed him.
Impact of disappearance on the community
The community, including Julieto’s co-workers, strongly protested the abduction. They called a 5,000-strong protest rally, exceptionally large for this once-tranquil town. Groups of Mamanwas trekked long distances to attend the first hearing for the habeas corpus petition filed in Julieto’s behalf. Many were reduced to tears, said Fr. Bastes, but others made angry remarks about why such a deed could be perpetrated on such a good man. Some people started calling Julieto the “Ninoy Aquino” of Surigao, after the assassinated senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
The Surigao church and many Surigaonons were affected by the incident. “If Julieto’s disappearance had any redeeming value,” said Fr. Bastes, “it was the transformation of the Surigao clergy’s conservative stand to one which actively upholds human rights and protests rights violations ... Now they are awakened.”
Members of Julieto’s family said they hoped Julieto’s sacrifice would help expose the abuses going on in their province. “There is oppression and abuse of power against innocent people. This is the truth we wish to announce,” Julieto’s sister said.