Friday, June 27, 2008

Kidnap, ransom and politics

This was my column last Monday, June 23.

Of course we all suspected that there was more behind the Ces Drilon kidnapping than what we were being made to believe.

The main hostage happened to be a media celebrity affiliated with a major media network. The perpetrators of the dastardly act were bandits who have successfully pulled off a string of kidnappings in the past. The site of the kidnapping was a virtual war zone riddled with social, cultural, and political issues that have been festering in the national consciousness for quite some time. The military, a number of national and local politicians, and a host of other kibitzers and hangers-on got in the act. In short, all the elements that spelled big trouble were present.
But most were still unprepared for the level of complications and the kind of intrigues that would surface in the aftermath of the kidnapping and the release of the hostages.

To begin with, despite all public pronouncements to the contrary, we all knew ransom was paid. We all knew that all that public posturing about a “no ransom policy” was untenable. We all suspected that the supposed negotiations for the “unconditional” release of the hostages really involved bargaining on the crucial questions “how much,” “when,” and “where.”

I didn’t think anyone actually believed that yarn about how the bandits released their hostages in exchange for Senator Loren Legarda’s promise of livelihood projects. I did catch a very pleased Legarda on television grinning like the proverbial cat that swallowed the mice and intoning, very authoritatively, that absolutely no ransom was paid. All those years spent reading the news with an impassive facial expression are really paying off well for the senator given her ability to assert half-truths and outright lies without choking.

It’s now very clear that ransom was indeed paid. Ces Drilon’s family has admitted that they indeed forked up P5 million and the payment was supposed to have been instrumental in the release of the first hostage. Some sources say that two duffel bags containing more ransom (P15 million, sources claim) were unloaded at the Jolo airport on the day the rest of the hostages were released.

It is inconceivable to think that the senator was unaware of this fact since she was directly in touch and negotiating with the kidnappers. And if we really think about it, even the senator’s promise of “livelihood projects” is still technically ransom. Heck, even this nonsense about simply paying for the board and lodging of the hostages is downright ridiculous because not only are the living conditions beyond miserable, paying for board and lodging also legitimizes the whole sordid arrangement. If one pays for board and lodging, there is a presumption of gratitude, services rendered, and a consensual arrangement.

We know why it is important to maintain a no-ransom policy—as a theoretical policy. All efforts to intellectualize the discussion yields the same conclusion: Paying ransom turns kidnapping into a highly profitable industry. It emboldens kidnappers to do more. It encourages others to get into the act. It perpetuates a vicious cycle. A no-ransom policy makes sense.

But it’s not workable. Paying ransom is often unavoidable and many families would rather pay up than lose someone they love. The rationale is that “it’s just money” and therefore cannot compensate the worth of a loved one or the trauma everyone goes through.

As shown in the kidnapping of overseas worker Angelo de la Cruz, our own government, just like many other countries, had also capitulated to ransom demand from kidnappers. Most would rather pay up rather than risk public condemnation in the event that kidnappers carry out their threats and kill their hostages. The reality is that while most of us may come to accept the death of hundreds of people to calamities and accidents, we all demand that kidnapped hostages be saved at all possible costs.

Paying ransom is the better option in the short run, but it does bring more long-term harm. Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is not found within a kidnapping situation. The solution is not a no-ransom policy per se, but to make sure that kidnapping does not thrive by addressing that issues that make it relatively easier for certain people to commit kidnapping even, supposedly, as a last resort.

So we know that ransom was paid. It is one thing to obfuscate issues in an effort to conceal knowledge or involvement. It is an entirely different thing, however, to deliberately wash one’s hands and make categorical denials in public. It makes everyone look stupid. And quite frankly, it makes the people who insist on perpetuating the lie look like creatures with forked tongues.

I wasn’t surprised that Legarda’s involvement in the negotiations was the subject of mischievous speculation. We’re a people notorious for seeing politics in practically everything. I also received that poison text message that accused her of having milked every bit of the occasion for media mileage supposedly to boost her presidential ambitions. The family of Ces Drilon has denied the veracity of the text message but this denial hasn’t stopped the speculative drivel on the real value of the senator’s role in the release of the hostages.

Legarda’s supposed posturing for the 2010 elections is not the only element that has linked kidnappings and elections once again. Kidnappings and elections do seem to be intertwined in this country in many ways. Conventional wisdom says that kidnappings rise during elections purportedly as a fund-raising effort. I am not saying that this particular kidnapping was staged to finance an election, but the upcoming gubernatorial election for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has figured in the issue.

The mayor of Indanan, Sulu, who is now being held on suspicion of having masterminded the whole kidnapping operation, is one of the candidates for governor of the region. As if the recent twists in the search for the real culprits have not been complicated enough, there are now those who see the mayor’s arrest as politically motivated.

The political implications of the mayor’s alleged involvement threaten to upstage the quest for the truth around the kidnapping. As usual, politics do tend to confuse the issues and get the better of most of us. Things are bound to get more complicated in the next days as the quest to unravel the truth becomes entangled in politics and political swashbuckling.

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