Partial Book Review:  Ambeth R. Ocampo’s (2010) DEATH BY GARROTE, Philippines:  Anvil Publishing, 100 pages. 


By Kevin Stoda

Many Filipinos are uneasy with the newly elected president of the country, Rodrigo Duterte.  He reminds many of a souped-up version of America’s Donald Trump.  He has a dangerous mouth, threatens journalists, and is not afraid of using inappropriate language and hate speech. Duterte won the presidential  election with about 42% of the national vote in the May 9, 2016 election.

Public ‘can kill’ criminals

More recently, this week, Duterte announced fairly directly that he is the country’s chief promoter of vigilantism and lynching in the Philippines, a tradition dating back centuries.  Specifically, Duterte stated that the “Public ‘can kill’ criminals!” However, until recently, many in the Philippines had hoped for and voted for Duterte  to be the nation’s potential great Law-and-Order Chief.

Like Donald Trump, Duterte often intentionally uses, chooses, and abuses the most inflammatory vocabulary. On the 9th  of May, the day he won the election,  Duterte announced that he would  “be a ‘dictator’ against evil and vowed to step down in six months if he failed to fulfill his promise to stamp out corruption.”

I hope the people of the country hold Duterte to his word, i.e. to resign, if he walks the talk.

Extrajudicial killings advocated

Last month, Duterte also said in one interview that he wants to empower security forces to “shoot to kill” anyone that resists arrest. Naturally, like Donald Trump, Duterte constantly claims to be misunderstood.  Interestingly, allegations have “also surfaced that he was connected to extrajudicial killings by a well-coordinated group of vigilantes, earning him the moniker ‘The Punisher‘ by Time Magazine. Duterte himself has confirmed [some of] the claims during a live TV show broadcast locally in the Philippines last year.”

Finally, in the last week of May, Duterte upped his ante on his competition with Donald Trump in his battle on free speech through attacking journalists.  Duterte stated publicly, “Even if you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” Duterte stated this in context of the killings of some journalists, whom he had claimed were  linked to media corruption. United Nations officials who learned of Duterte’s responded by stating that  it sounded like a permission slip from the president-elect for Filipinos to kill journalist–and Philippines is already in 3rd place as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists already–right behind Iraq and Syria.

Ambeth R. Ocampo & Today’s Philippines
One of the Philippines more popularly read journalists is the historian, Ambeth R. Ocampo. He is best known for his writings on Philippines’ national hero José Rizal and for Looking Back, his bi-weekly editorial page column published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
One of his most recent articles, “It’s us who repeat history”, which was related to the history of the presidency in the Philippines  He writes, “As the new president (Duterte) gazes on his predecessors it will be timely for him to remember the first [president of the Philippines in 1898]—the controversial Emilio Aguinaldo. It is not well-known that Aguinaldo, maligned as a power-hungry, power-grabbing president in history classes, considered resigning from the presidency and, in fact, offered his resignation in December 1898, asking his countrymen to accept it as a Christmas gift.”
In short, Rodrigo Duterte’s promise this week to quit the presidency or resign, i.e.  if he can’t beat-down corruption in the country, is not an unheard of practice in the Philippines.  Ocampo continues that part of  Emilio “Aguinaldo’s resignation is relevant to any new president.”

As far as electing a president of the land, Aguinaldo added, “[W]e can feign acquiescence and when the time for action comes, elect the one who deserves the office, for the choice must not fall on anyone by whom the country would be imperiled.”

Ocampo concludes his article, “We will never know what made Aguinaldo contemplate this drastic step of resigning, but from the text one can get a sense that his trust and optimism had been misplaced….History may seem irrelevant to millennials, but anyone who reads texts like the ones quoted above may be misled into believing that Aguinaldo foretold the future, because in the end history does not repeat itself, it is us who repeat it.”

The fact is that many Filipinos today remember Aguinaldo, in his later life, as a traitor to the country.  Hopefully that Duterte’s future? Many recall that Duterte’s father served under Ferdinand Marcos and Duterte is not averse to working with the son of the infamous dictator.

Death by Garrote

In 2010, Ocampo published a short reworked compilation of some of his previous newspaper articles.  He entitled the work: DEATH BY GARROTE. A “garrote” was the method of execution formerly practiced in Spain and the Philippines, in which a tightened iron collar was used to strangle or quickly break the neck of a condemned person.

The first two essays of the 24 articles in Ocampo’s short publication were specifically concerning the usage of the garrote in the period leading up to and shortly after the short independence of the Philippines in 1898, i.e. before the USA military took the country over from Spain. The third essay is on Aguinaldo’s breakfast–i.e. what the Filipino hero ate while he and his armed forces were on the run from the American occupiers. 

Like the guillotine before it, the garrote was intended to be efficient and more humane than hanging or shooting a man to death. “A metal bar is tightened around the victim’s neck and at the appointed time, with a quick twist of a handle, the neck of the victim is broken resulting in instant death.(p.3)”

Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora, Filipino Martyrs

GOMBURZA refers to three Filipino Catholic priests (Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora), who were executed by garrote on 17 February 1872 at Lunet in Bagumbayan by the Spanish authorities who had charged them with subversion arising from the 1872 Cavite Mutiny.   Ocampo discusses their executions by garrote and cites in the first essay famous descriptions of  garrotes in usage, which were commonplace executions at the time of the Gomburza  and event through the earliest period of American Occupation of the Philippines. The location of the three priests who were killed by garrote is marked in a neglected area of the famous Rizal Park in Manila.

Jose Rizal, for whom thousands of Rizal Parks are named across the Philippines, is the most famous national hero of the Philippines. Rizal was a doctor, a writer and the hero of all Filipinos–then and now.  Rizal was executed by the Spanish as were the Gomburza priests of Cavite, however, Rizal was not executed  by garrote.

The Malacañang Palace, which long since before the country’s independence in 1945 has served as the Philippine version of the White House, i.e. it is a presidential palace dating to Spanish control of the land. The Spanish Governors Generals lived there.  It is where the presidents (and dictators) of the land have also lived.  It is on the same Malacañang Palace steps where the author Ocampo finds himself in beginning his narration on the very first page of his first essay in DEATH BY GARROTE.

The public historian, Ocampo shares his thoughts and older memories on that stairwell as follows, “Presidents come and go but the Palace by the Pasag [first built in 1750] remains a historical landmark and seat of power in the Philippines. Ascending that staircase… I recounted that Manuel Luis Quezon never signed a death sentence sent him by the courts because of a legend associated with those steps. Quezon heard that in 1896, Jose Rizal’s mother climbed those steps on her knees to see the governor and plead for her son’s life.  Teodora Alonso’s appeal was ignored and Rizal was executed in Bagumbayan.[1]”

In short, Rizal was shot–even after his mother climbed the stairs at the Spanish Governor’s Malacañang Palace on her knees to beg for her son’s  life.  That memory on the steps of the Palace had led the first native Filipino president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines , Manuel Luis Quezon (1935 to 1944), to  avoid his hand in executions altogether.  Such are the ghosts of Malacañang that will or could haunt the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, if he takes his oath seriously.

Later, in his recounting the Gomburzo execution in DEATH BY GARROTE, the author Ocampo shares, “The execution of Gomburza was an inspiration to others who fought for freedom.  Rizal dedicated El Filibusterismo [his second novel which sealed his eventual death sentence under the Spanish] to them.  Bonifacio distributed  strips of black cloth , allegedly from the robes of Gomburza to Katipuneros.[4]” When Rizal had been deported from the Philippines in 1892 for publishing his first novel, Andres Bonifacio had helped in the formation of a band of followers and supporters of revolution, which was named the Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan  or “Highest and Most Respected Society of the Country’s Children”.  (This is what Ocampo has translated as Katipuneros above.)

It was Andres Bonifacio who in 1896 would kick “off the revolt [against Spain in the Philippines] by leading thousands of his followers to tear up their community tax certificates or cedulas. This signaled their refusal to pay any more taxes to the Spanish colonial regime. Bonifacio named himself President and commander-in-chief of the Philippines revolutionary government, declaring the nation’s independence from Spain on August 23. He issued a manifesto, dated August 28, 1896, calling for “all towns to rise simultaneously and attack Manila,” and sent generals to lead the rebel forces in this offensive.” 

Bonifacio, despise his low class birth, felt he should have been elected the first president instead of Aguinaldo.  Moreover, because Aguinaldo some 4 1/2 decades sided with the Japanese conquerors in its taking over of the Philippines from America, Bonifacio today is considered most Filipinos as the true major hero of the Katipuneros and their generation in the battle against Spain (and later against the Americans) after Rizal was executed.

A Cuisine and Culinary Book-ended History

Far from being a straight forward work of Filipino history by the popular Ocampo, his works, usually consisting of a series of reworked newspaper articles, are typically a hodgepodge .  In Death by Garrote, for example, he moves through a history of memories of presidents by looking at their food, the country’s popular staples, and popular dessert fads while bouncing from era to  era, but Ocampo seldom does this in a time-linear format. In short, Ocampo writes more in a free associative format bouncing from Spanish chorizo, to kamote (a local sweet potato variety of the archipelago) cooked in a variety of ways, to a visit to an ancient panciteria (Filipino noodle restaurant), or fluffy cupcakes, known as mamon in the Philippines.

In doing so, Ocampo introduces you to his memories and legends of the presidents of the nation, like the aforementioned Quezon and Aguinaldo as well as Cory Aquino, his troubles with Marcos and other presidents and educators he has known over the years.

Ocampo, himself is the same age as Barack Obama.  (He was born the same month as Obama in 1961.  At the same time that Obama was growing up in the neighboring Indonesian archipelago,  Ocampo writes that he was “a Martial Law baby”.  Ocampo declares that he did not know a single “good president” till after he a quarter of a century old, which was when EDSA occurred.  EDSA was in 1986 and is for Filipinos what 9-11 or the Kennedy Assassination mean to Americans.  EDSA is the memory that he and generations of Filipinos will not forget.

EDSA is the location on the highway when People Power took over and the Ferdinand Marcos regime collapsed.  Unlike in America where memories are often of violence, the Filipino memory-of-a-generation is of a peaceful movement toppling President Ferdinand Marcos after alleged cheating took place in the presidential election.

Soon Cory Aquino was in charge of the Philippines–and hope was everywhere. Ocampo shares his memories and regrets in this work published soon after Aquino’s death.

Death by Garrote 2 alludes to such imagery as EDSA 1986.   Ocampo does so by contrasting the Collapse of the Marco’s regime with the Twin Towers collapsing on 9-11. In his other essay, “Death by Garrote”, Ocampo had left the reader with the impression that, in contrast to hanging or  other forms of capital punishment, death by garrote was quick and clean.

However, in this second essay, Ocampo reveals how things can go wrong. Ocampo discovered this as he reviews Joseph Earle Stevens’ YESTERDAY IN THE PHILIPPINES, published in 1899 with photos.   In the work, there is presented an execution of two Filipino brothers. “The executioner, in a derby hat, black, coat, white breeches and no shoes, took his position behind the post at one side of the scaffold, and the first victim was carried up out of the cart and seated on the narrow bench.  He was too weak to help himself or make resistance; the black cloak was thrown over his shoulders, a rope tied around his waist, the hood drawn over his face, and the color [of the garrote] sprung around his neck.  Then the two priests.. held crucifixes before him, and sprinkled holy water over the hood and the long black death robes, the chief prison official waved  his sword, the executioner gave the big screw-handle a sudden twist till his arms crossed, and without a motion of any sort, except for the slight forward movement of the naked feet, the first of the condemned men had solved the great problem.(p. 8)”

However, Stevens related that something went awry with the second execution. “There was a mechanical failure, a worn or rusty screw-thread did not kill the victim with one turn of the handle.  Someone came up to help the executioner give the handle a second turn and for this act of mercy he was fined $20.  The confusion brought some comic relief to the scene, one of the candles held by an acolyte nearly set fire to the robe of one of the priests!”

Bitingly, Ocampo concludes, “In minute everything was over and everyone looked forward to the next execution.  I used to think the garrote was swift and relatively painless.  This account makes us realize that if something can go wrong, it sometimes does.”  I imagine this is a common warning given by most historians to all new generations seeking to takeover and claiming to desire to do better than their elders.

NOTE: President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to re-introduce the death penalty for a range of crimes including drugs, rape, murder and robbery.

Despite the seriousness of Ocampo’s writings at times, his scattered sketches –of history, of food, of heroes, of traditions,  and important memories of the Philippines and Filipinos gathered worldwide by the author, usually–are usually be a fun read.

I recommend this work, but suggest the author always undertake proper fact checking.  For example, in one chapter on “bastard sons” or illegitimate kids who became heroes and leaders, Ocampo claimed that Adolf Hitler was an illegitimate child.  However, a quick online search demonstrates that it was not the young Adolf–but Hitler’s father, named Alois Hitler, Sr. (born Alois Schicklgruber), who was what one calls an illegitimate child, i.e. born of an unwed mother in Austria.


Luckily, unlike in decades past, the Philippines now has  one of the better journalistic reputations in Asia.  On the other hand, “[w]hile the Philippine press is undoubtedly the liveliest and freest in Asia, deadline pressures, extreme competition and budgetary constraints make it difficult for many journalists to delve into the causes and broader meanings of news events.”  This was why in 1989, 3 years after EDSA, nine Filipino journalists founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Last week, the PCIJ responded to President-Elect Duterte’s downgrading of reporters by publishing the following:

THE CENTER for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) takes exception to President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s statement, made during his May 31st press conference in Davao City, that most of the journalists who have been killed in the Philippines for their work were slain because they’re corrupt.

While corruption is undoubtedly a continuing problem in the press and media, journalists have been killed for other reasons, among them for exposing corruption in government, as in the case of Tacurong City journalist Marlene Esperat, or for their advocacy in behalf of environmental protection, as in the case of Puerto Princesa’s Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega. Some have also been killed for exposing anomalies in local governments as well as for fighting criminality. A 2006 CMFR study in fact found that an overwhelming number of those killed since 1986 were exposing corruption and criminal syndicates in the communities. Because a significant number of those accused of killing journalists are local officials, as well as police and military personnel, the killings also suggest that the slain had been successful in exposing official wrongdoing and collusion with criminal groups.

Nevertheless, CMFR has never discounted the possibility that some of the journalists killed since 1986 were corrupt, or had been irresponsible. But we have always held that no one deserves to be killed for either offense, and that, if a journalist has offended the subject of his reports or commentary, the latter has a number of options for redress, among them bringing the offense to the attention of the media organization concerned, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) or the Press Councils, or, as legal resort, the filing of a libel complaint before the courts. Since the KBP and the Press Council are hounded with failed responses, we have to acknowledge libel as a legitimate recourse even though we object to its criminalization.

President- elect Duterte was correct in saying that irresponsible, biased, paid-for reporting and comment do lead to a journalist’s being killed. But the killing of anyone is nevertheless still a crime, and it doesn’t matter whether the victim is a journalist or not. Everyone, including journalists, is entitled to, and deserves the protection of the State. Far from suggesting that nothing can be done about the killing of journalists, we have made policy recommendations that could help to stop such violence, steps which call on law enforcement agencies to do a better job of protecting citizens and which could help to end the culture of impunity.

Although he has said in some instances that some of his statements are said in jest, it did not seem that he was joking in this instance. CMFR hopes that the President-elect’s statements are not interpreted by those who would silence journalists for whatever reason—whether they feel they have been abused by the media, or whether they have something to hide from the public—as a license to kill journalists.

Was he still speaking as Mayor of Davao City, thinking only of the particular case of Jun Pala about which he has strong opinions? As President of the Philippines, Mayor Duterte would hopefully be more circumspect. The killing of journalists is after all not something to be made light of, having earned the attention and condemnation not only of advocate organizations in the Philippines, but also of international press freedom watch groups, the United Nations and the European Community.

CMFR has established that 152 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1986. This number is a stain on our claim as a democratic society and exposes our boast about press freedom in the country as a sham. Despite some of its practitioners’ admitted flaws, the killing of journalists cannot be dismissed simply as something that cannot be helped.

A democratically elected president must value the free press as essential to the democratic system that has elected him. Rodrigo Duterte, freely elected by the people, whose campaign relied on the free press to report his candidacy owes the Philippine press more than just this glib response.

Only two days ago has Duterte, under duress from the media, admitted that his statement was totally inaccurate and he states he does not desire any  open season on reporters. “About 175 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986. The country ranks 138th among 180 nations in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders.”

Filipinos must demand better of their new president in all matters of truth and reporting.  They must be vigilant and support a free press and demand more safety for its journalists. This means that the age of irresponsible language must also be squelched–in the Philippines, in the USA, and elsewhere.






About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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