Updated at 9:52 a.m. ET on 2018-10-21
Dozens of gunmen killed nine sugarcane farmers, including women and minors, at a farmland that the agricultural workers were occupying in the central Philippines, authorities as well as a human rights group and union said Sunday.
The victims, all members of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW), were cultivating part of the Hacienda Barbara plantation in the city of Sagay in Negros Occidental province, police said.
The farmers were resting in their tents when some 40 unidentified gunmen attacked them on Saturday, according to reports by police and rights groups.
“October is a month to commemorate the struggle of the peasant sector, yet nine farmers – six men and three women – were massacred in Negros Occidental yesterday,” said Cristina Palabay of Karapatan, a Philippine rights group.
“They were strafed by unknown perpetrators while already resting in their respective tents,” Palabay said in condemning what she called a “brutal and brazen” attack.
Police identified the victims as Eglicerio Villegas, Anelife Arsenal, Dodong Laurencio, Nec Nec Dumaguit, Bingbing Bantigue, Marchel Sumikad, Jomarie Ughayon Jr., Morena Mendoza, and a certain “Pater.”
Two of the victims – Ughayon Jr. And Sumikad – were 17 years old, police said.
“We call on the Commission on Human Rights to conduct an independent and thorough investigation on the massacre,” Palabay said. “We are one with the kin of the victims in the Sagay massacre in their call for justice.”
The victims of the late Saturday night killings were from different villages near the hamlet where the incident occurred, Chief Inspector Robert Mansueto, the chief of police in Sagay, told radio station dyHB.
During the incident there may have been a shootout between the gunmen and the farmers in which at least two of the victims fired back, Mansueto said, according to the Associated Press.
“There are groups fighting over that land,” AP quoted him as saying. “Witnesses say they heard only a few initial shots. Apparently the victims were just being threatened.”
The National Federation of Sugar Workers immediately accused “goons” – a euphemism for private security personnel hired by plantation owners – of being behind the atrocity.
Sagay Mayor Alfredo Maranon III, expressed “shock” and condemned the killings “in the strongest possible terms.”
“Police were told to do everything possible to bring justice to the nine families that lost loved ones,” he said.
NFSW officer Danilo Tabora confirmed that some 75 members of the union had occupied the land on Saturday morning, a day after the harvest at the sugarcane plantation, as part of a campaign to till lands covered by the Philippine government’s agrarian reform program.
Mayor Maranon confirmed that the land was covered by the Department of Agrarian Reform’s land redistribution program. However, he said the process of redistributing the lands was still in its early stage.
The land reform program has been in place since the 1980s, but big land owners have refused to give up lands they have held for generations.
Froilan Gallardo and Karl Romano in Cagayan de Oro City and Dagupan City, Philippines contributed to this report.