Filipino death row inmate claims she is duped into trafficking drugs

Seeks clemency.

The serious problem of human trafficking is again taking center stage in the wake of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s failure to bring up the case of Mary Jane Veloso during his recent state visit to Indonesia this September 4 to 6. 

Veloso, a former Filipino migrant worker, is convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad by the Indonesian government for drug trafficking in 2010. Because of a strong public campaign in the Philippines and migrants all over the world, Veloso’s execution was stayed in 2015 and she remains in prison. 

Veloso was originally recruited to work as a household worker in Malaysia in 2010. But her recruiters arranged for her to land in Indonesia instead, where she was arrested for drug trafficking. She has repeatedly told the Indonesian authorities she was not aware 2.6 kg of heroin was hidden in the lining of her suitcase, and that she was a victim of human trafficking.

Veloso’s family and supporters from various human rights groups and migrant organizations expressed disappointment that Marcos Jr. was silent on Veloso’s case when he met with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. According to the press office of the president, Marcos Jr’s visited Indonesia to “reinforce the economic and security ties” between the two countries.

Migrante International said Marcos Jr should have brought up Veloso’s case given the Supreme Court has earlier stated the president’s office has the prerogative to respond to changes on how to obtain Veloso’s testimony per the request of the Indonesian government.

Back in 2019, the high court allowed Veloso to give her testimony before the Philippine Consular Office and Indonesian officials, regarding the human trafficking charges against her recruiters in a court in Nueva Ecija, Veloso’s home province and where she was recruited. 

Written by Supreme Court Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando, the decision said the executive branch “need not obtain the assent of the judiciary in accepting, rejecting, or modifying the conditions set by Indonesia.”

The Indonesian government, however, proposed changes to the venue. Instead of acting on the proposal, then president Rodrigo Duterte did not take action. When Marcos Jr. took office in June 2022, Veloso’s family immediately appealed to his office to help bring her home. Veloso has been detained for 12 years in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Marcos Jr., however, opted not to even mention Veloso’s case. Presidential press secretary Trixie Angeles-Cruz said there is a need to be careful in releasing statements to avoid repercussions such as transgressing the sovereignty of another state.

She said Marcos Jr. has yet to release an official statement on Veloso’s case but assured that processes are “moving.” In the president’s stead, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo asked his counterpart Retno Marsudi to ask for executive clemency for Veloso.

Protesters outside the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Victim of human trafficking 

Migrant worker support groups insisted Veloso is a victim of human trafficking. Her traffickers, Maria Kristina Sergio and Julius Lacanilao, have already been sentenced to life imprisonment and found guilty of charges of large-scale illegal recruitment and estafa, the criminal offense of swindling. 

This case was filed by three other victims, Lorna Valino, Ana Marie Gonzales and Jenalyn Paraiso, who were residents in the same community where Veloso and her family lived. They were lucky enough not to have been sent abroad after they were recruited.

Through the years since 2015, thousands of Filipinos and allies from different countries held different forms of collective action such as prayer vigils, pickets, demonstrations, petition signing and government lobbying for Veloso and her family. 

“They are people whose lives mirror the plight of countless migrants who become vulnerable to human trafficking because of their poor economic status and are forced to find work abroad to survive,” said Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion.

“Mary Jane has come to represent so many other victims of poverty who became vulnerable to unscrupulous traffickers. Human trafficking is a frightsome threat to migrants all over the world. We will continue to stand by Mary Jane and her family in their journey to seek justice against her traffickers,” said Rev. Juliet Solis-Aguilar, United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) and Church Task Force to Save the Life of Mary Jane Velos.

Rev. Homar Distajo of the same church group said they will not let up their appeals for clemency and any other appropriate remedies that will allow Veloso to return to the Philippines.

“Mary Jane can bring hope that there can be a rescue for those used and abused through the trickery of traffickers. This case also sends a strong message for migrant workers to be careful even as we also assert the need for care and compassion to help and restore those who fall into the trap of traffickers,” he said.

Concepcion pointed out that during Marcos Jr.’s first State of the Nation speech, he mentioned the government’s campaign against human trafficking. 

“If he is truly genuine in his commitment to combat human trafficking, he will exert all efforts to appeal to President Widodo to release Mary Jane under humanitarian grounds,” she said.

Supporters from church groups.

Indonesian solidarity

The International Migrants Alliance (IMA) led by Indonesian migrant worker Eni Lestari Andayani has released a statement in support of Veloso and called out the Indonesian government’s declining performance in handling human trafficking cases, which was also the conclusion made by the U.S. Department of State in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report or TIP.

According to the report, there are now a total of 206 Indonesian migrant workers facing the death penalty. Many of these migrant workers have all testified they were victims of drug syndicates and human trafficking.  

Lestari said Veloso’s case is similar to that of Indonesian Merri Utami who has been imprisoned since 2002 when officers found heroin weighing 1.1 kg on the wall of the bag. Both Veloso and Utami were offered jobs as migrant workers, but they were instead used by syndicates to carry drugs which led to their arrest and imprisonment.

“We see that the background and life journey of both of these women are not much different from the daily reality experienced by women migrant workers. They are victims of poverty, forced migration, human trafficking, and drug syndicates who exploit the powerlessness and vulnerability of rural women for their business interests,” said Lestari.

Lestari said the Indonesian government should not punish the victims. 

“Veloso is still waiting for a chance to testify. There have been two presidential period changes in the Philippines and three in Indonesia, but the Mary Jane justice process remains stagnant for Veloso.  Utami in the meantime has tried to appeal for clemency to President Widodo, but he refuses to grant it to her,” she explained. 

Another case similar to Veloso’s was of Indonesian migrant worker Dian Wulandari, who was arrested in the Philippines when authorities found 6.3 kg of cocaine in her luggage. She was recruited by her neighbor to work in Malaysia, but she was asked to travel to several countries including Peru and the Philippines. 

On her way to Peru, she was asked by someone to bring an item with her to Manila. She was arrested in Manila and given a life sentence after being imprisoned for five years. Thankfully in 2019, her appeal was granted and she was acquitted of all charges.

During Marcos Jr’s state visit to Indonesia, the IMA said both the former and Widodo should agree to allow Veloso to testify in the trial in the Philippines against her recruiters. She has up to now not been given the chance to explain to the authorities the circumstances that led to her arrest and incarceration.

A supporter wants both presidents Marcos Jr. and Jokowi to intervene.

Human trafficking is inhumane

Even as the Philippines maintains its Tier 1 ranking for the seventh straight year in the U.S. State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Philippines remains a major source of both sex and labor trafficking. 

An immediate reason for this is the fact the country has one of the largest migrant populations in the world. Male Filipino migrant workers work in fisheries, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. Female migrant workers, on the other hand, take on domestic and hospitality jobs.  

Countries under Tier 1 are said to have “made efforts to address the problem” that meet the “minimum standards” of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Still, the U.S. State Department said there is much to be desired about the Philippine government’s efforts to report and investigate trafficking crimes that take place inside the country. 

The report also noted the Philippines has not taken “adequate steps” to investigate and arrest individuals suspected of commercial sex trafficking. There is also not enough training for labor inspectors to ensure they are well aware of indicators of human trafficking.

“The government prosecuted and convicted fewer traffickers, and it did not report holding accountable officials allegedly complicit in human trafficking crimes,” the U.S. State Department said.

Based on reports from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, there have been at least 1,832 victims-survivors of human trafficking in 2021.  

The Cure Foundation, in the meantime, said the Philippines has among the highest incidences of child trafficking and sexual abuse including internet pornography. It said recent statistics show 54 percent of those abused in OSEC (Online Sexual Exploitation of Children) cases are children under the age of 12.

The Filipino Domestic Workers Association (UKFDWA) in the United Kingdom said an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) leave the Philippines per month in search of better work and living conditions. The group said many of them fell victim to human trafficking and modern slavery, even in the UK and other parts of Europe.

The Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) announced earlier that OFWs in United Arab Emirates are being illegally recruited by fellow Filipinos and other foreign agents to work in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. There have also been documented cases of Filipinos entering Poland, Hungary, and Romania without proper working documents and they ended up with abusive employers.

Even during the height of the pandemic, human trafficking persisted. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) assisted 2,294 women domestic workers, investigated 233 cases, and filed 10 criminal cases and 10 administrative cases in 2020.

In the first half of 2021, the DOJ handled 25 convictions of human trafficking cases. Of these convictions recorded from January 1 to June 30, 2021, 28 human traffickers were involved, with a total 73 victims: 57 minors and the rest adults. In 2020, 92 convictions were recorded during the same period, with 85 human traffickers arrested, and a total of 231 individuals, including 149 minors, were rescued.  

Even in other countries, it has been noted many victims of human trafficking hailed from the Philippines. In Malta, for instance, labor trafficking victims came mostly from China, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Southeast Asia, with increasing numbers from the Philippines. 

The majority were women who worked as domestic workers, in massage parlors and nightclubs. In 2020, Agenzjja Appogg identified 18 potential foreign trafficking victims. In 2020, the number was six and in 2019, the figure was 11.  Some victims have also been forced into domestic servitude and sometimes into criminality.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) urged the government to take more proactive measures against human trafficking given that new technologies are leading to the evolution of new trafficking crimes.

“Human trafficking denigrates the dignity of individuals and tramples on the most basic human right to life, liberty, and security. It is vital that we continually work to address all forms of exploitation and abuse that prey on the most vulnerable members of our society,” the CHR said in a statement.

Mary Jane’s supporters want President Marcos Jr to help.

Veloso’s supporters want Philippine government to do more

Veloso’s supporters insisted the Philippine government failed to provide Veloso with the help she needed during the most critical times of her ordeal. She was arrested in April 2010. She was tried, convicted and sentenced to death six months later in October 2010.  During this period, supporters alleged she was deprived of her right to consular services. She was defended by a lawyer from the public defender’s office and assisted by an unlicensed interpreter.  

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, however, said the allegations were not completely true. It said former president Rodrigo Duterte chose not to interfere with Indonesia’s judicial process and said he would accept the country’s decision on Veloso’s case.  

Duterte’s predecessor, former president Benigno Aquino Jr, took last minute steps to save Veloso. Hours before Veloso’s scheduled execution in April 2015, Aquino called Indonesian Foreign Minister Marsudi and asked that Veloso be turned into a state witness against her recruiters.

Earlier in 2011, a year after Veloso was sentenced to death, Aquino wrote a request for clemency to former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He did the same a few days before Veloso’s scheduled execution on April 29, 2019, this time writing to President Widodo. Apart from sending letters appealing for clemency, the Aquino government also appealed twice for a judicial review of Veloso’s case.

Prayer vigil for Mary Jane.

In Mary Jane’s own words

In a written testimony in broken English but translated by the alternative media site Bulatlat.com, Veloso narrated how she ended up in prison. The original copy is reportedly still with the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta after it was also accessed by the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), a Filipino lawyer rights group handling Veloso’s case.

“I worked in Dubai as a domestic helper. My contract was for two years, but I worked only for 10 months because I nearly became a rape victim. I decided to return to the Philippines on December 31, 2009.  My money was not enough to send my son to school so I needed to find work again.

“I went to an employment agency in Manila to apply as a domestic helper, but after three months, I still hadn’t found one.  The agency did not contact me. One day, Christine (a neighbor and Veloso’s future recruiter) asked me about work. My family knows her because she goes to Malaysia almost every week to buy shampoo, lotions, and perfume, among other things. 

“All the people in our village know that her business is “buy and sell.” When she asked me to work as a domestic helper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I told her that I want to but have no money to buy a ticket. She assured me not to worry and that I will have to pay for it with my first two months’ salary. I thought it was a blessing. I accepted her offer and thanked her.

“On April 21, 2010, Wednesday, Christine and I went to Malaysia. I brought only two pairs of jeans, two shirts, and some underwear in my backpack. We stayed in the Sun Lagoon Hotel near the Pyramid Mall. During our three-day stay, we always ate out and shopped for my personal needs, but I said that not everything will fit in my bag. She told me not to worry because her boyfriend will buy me a new bag.

“On Saturday evening, her boyfriend called and told us to meet them in a parking lot. I saw their white car and approached them. Christine’s boyfriend’s name is Prince. There were other men whom I did not know. One was black and tall, and one was fat and had curly hair. There was another one who was not fat. One of them said that they were informed that I needed a bag. So, they bought one for me. I thanked them.

“We returned to the hotel. Christine carried the bag. When we were inside the room, I asked Christine why the bag was heavy. She said it was because it is brand new. I checked all the zippers and pockets of the bag. All were empty and did not think that something was wrong with them.

“I packed all my things in the bag. After packing, Christine handed me a brown envelope that contained $500 and an Air Asia ticket. She told me to fly to Indonesia for seven days for the holidays and meet some of her friends there. She said I will start my work as soon as I returned to Kuala Lumpur. I did not have a choice. I told myself that when I return to Malaysia, I can start my work because it is important for me and my children.

“I rode a taxi to the airport at around 3:00 am on April 25, Sunday. My flight was at 7:00 a.m. Christine gave me her friend’s contact number. She said that I can contact them when I reach my hotel. 

“I landed at the Indonesia Airport at around 8:30 am. When my bag passed through the scanner, the Indonesians asked me to do it over and over again, around two to three times. Then I was taken to an office where they asked again if they can check my bag. They checked it but did not find anything. Then a man asked if he could cut my bag and I agreed. 

“After all, I knew that there was nothing wrong with it because I had checked it before. When they cut my bag, they saw a black plastic bag, inside was some aluminum foil. I asked what the problem was but then I was taken to another office. There they opened the aluminum foil and found a powder that was a light brown color. 

“The men checked the powder, which then turned solid. The man asked me if I know what it is and I answered that I don’t know. They all laughed at me, saying that it was heroin, a kind of drug. My body felt so cold. I could not speak. I just cried and cried. I knew my life was finished. I knew drugs like heroin were illegal. I hated myself for why I believed Christine and why I never doubted her. Now, I’m here. But I did not know anything.”

Veloso’s mother, Celia Veloso, continues to appeal to the government.

“Please help us give Mary Jane her freedom. We all know that the perpetrators have already admitted their crimes. But why is Mary Jane still in prison? Is it because we are poor? Will there be no justice until our death? Maybe if we are rich, Mary Jane will have been freed a long time ago,” she said.

All photos credit: Asia Pacific Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, Migrante International, Kodao Productions

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Silverio, our Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.

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