As the Philippines prepares for national elections, victims of torture and abuse during the reign of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. are trying to derail the presidential candidacy of his son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., seen as the frontrunner in the May 9 vote.
“We are torture victims,” Danilo dela Fuente, 73, said as he walked with Santiago Matela, 66.
Both say they suffered brutal treatment during the Marcos regime. Marcos ruled the nation for two decades, almost half of that time under martial law.
“I experienced the mental torture of Russian roulette a .38-caliber revolver with one bullet was spun three times and pointed at me,” dela Fuente said.
“Live wires were connected to my middle fingers and my toes while I was standing on a wet surface. I could feel the surge through my arms,” he said.
Matela said he suffered electric shocks to his “private part,” adding that members of the country’s security forces beat him up and threw him into a dark cell.
When Marcos ruled from 1965 to 1986, thousands, including political opponents and activists, were tortured, killed, or disappeared, according to statistics compiled by local and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International. The family is accused of stealing $5 billion to $10 billion from the Philippine government while Marcos was in power.
The younger Marcos now holds a wide lead in the polls for the presidential election. He refuses to address the atrocities committed when his father was in power and has repeatedly dismissed questions from local reporters about the billions of dollars in unpaid estate taxes that the family owes the government.
His candidacy is bringing victims of his father’s era onto the streets.
“I’m trying to educate other people,” Matela said. “Get them to read about the atrocities during his father’s term,” he added.
Dela Fuente, a labor organizer when he was arrested and jailed for four years, said this is about setting the record straight and getting the Marcos family to answer for their past.
“Our main motive of going house-to-house to campaign [against Marcos] is to hold them accountable for their ill-gotten wealth, their attempt to tell historical lies in favor of their family and their record of stealing public funds.” dela Fuente said.
Dela Fuente and Matela do not always get a warm reception from people on the streets.
One person shouted from a distance that they could get hurt for telling their stories. Many people accept their leaflets with stone-cold faces.
Nerissa Roa Azana, a 54-year-old grandmother who runs a small stand selling snacks and cigarettes, played down dela Fuente’s and Matela’s talk about torture.
“For me it was fake news because I didn’t know anything about it.” Azana told VOA. “If I experienced it myself I would say that it’s true. But I didn’t so for me it’s fake news.”
Carlos Conde, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch said this opinion is not uncommon for many older Filipinos because the atrocity crimes did not necessarily happen in their communities and they weren’t informed about it by the press, which was under the control of the state at the time.
“They can look you in the eye and say we didn’t witness it,” Conde said.. “But that’s not to say nothing happened, that’s to say that it happened elsewhere,” he said.
Conde also pointed to the impact of massive social media disinformation campaigns in recent years on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube to change the narrative on what happened when the elder Marcos was in power. Conde said this has shaped the view of many younger voters born after the Marcos era.
“Much of the disinformation is flipping the story about the human rights violations, flipping the story about the corruption,” Conde said. “People are saying that the Marcos era was the golden years of the Philippines which is the opposite of what actually happened in those two decades that he was president and dictator.”