Gunmen massacred nine farm workers, including three women and two teenagers, on a central Philippine sugarcane farm on Oct. 20, sparking outrage across the country. Initial police investigation revealed that the killings and the subsequent burning of some of the victims were caused by a "land dispute." A group of 14 farm workers arrived on the farm in the village of Bulanon on the outskirts of Sagay on Oct. 20 to plant beans and other crops after the harvest season. When evening came and while the victims and their companions were resting inside improvised shelters, a group of gunmen shot and killed nine of the workers. "Our tents were open. We were sitting ducks," said survivor Danilo Canete who ran for his life after he smelled gasoline and saw flames spreading. Police investigators confirmed that the bodies of the three women bore severe burn marks. The two youngest victims were aged 16 and 17. Police investigators said they were new members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers. A statement from the National Federation of Sugar Workers said there were indications that the attackers "finished off" victims with a shot to the head. Bishop Gerado Alminaza of San Carlos
Diocese, which covers the city of Sagay where the murders occurred, called on authorities to quickly bring the perpetrators of the "massacre," to justice. "The right to life is inalienable and inviolable," said the prelate, who immediately sent a team from the diocese to provide aid to the families of the victims and the survivors. The victims were long-term workers at the farm that had been placed under the government's agrarian reform program, but remained in the hands of its owners who leased it to a private corporation. They slain farm workers were all members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers
, which has been campaigning for the occupation of disputed land to allow workers to plant crops that could tide them over the post-harvest and pre-planting months. The Agrarian Reform Department, however, said the victims were trespassing. A department statement said the victims were "not yet beneficiaries of any agrarian reform area" because land holdings were not covered by the Agrarian Reform law.
Shock and condemnation
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Sagay mayor, Alfredo Maranon III, expressed "shock" and condemned the killings. He ordered police to "do everything possible to bring justice to the nine families that lost loved ones" and promised to extend all possible assistance to the families. City and provincial officials offered a US$10,000-reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of the killers. In a statement, the presidential palace said it was "deeply perturbed to learn about the incident." "Families of the victims of this extremely cruel act can count on the government that it will enforce the full wrath of the law," said Salvador Panelo, spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte. Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones also condemned the killings, saying that his office has "always pushed for the peaceful resolution of land disputes." Human rights group Karapatan
said the incident was "reflective of a kind of system that further strangles the victims of landlessness and poverty." In the wake of the killings, Bishop Alminaza warned that violence could escalate across the country in coming months due to the mid-term elections next year. "[Let us] be vigilant and proactive ... not to allow the reign of terror to rob us of our rights and freedom," said the prelate. Activist groups blamed the government's "red-baiting" of leftist organizations for the attacks on farmers. The National Peasant Federation claimed that the latest killings brought to 163 the number of farmers and agricultural workers killed since Duterte took power two years ago.