The common folk of Zamboanga del Norte loved human rights lawyer Zorro Aguilar because they could always count on him to take up the cases of poor people, especially those who suffered from oppression or were victims of persons in power.
They knew him as a simple man, “a far cry from the elegantly dressed, English-speaking lawyers of Makati.” His friends said: “He did not even have a typewriter, or a vehicle, and he lived in a dilapidated house.”
Yet it was Aguilar who consistently attended rallies, who was never too busy to go to the far-flung barrios when he was needed, and who gave free legal assistance to those who needed it. Of all the lawyers in Zamboanga del Norte at the time, he was known to have handled most of the cases of human rights violations, serving without discriminating the poor from the rich.
Although he was frequently invited to speak at protest actions even outside Dipolog (in Cagayan de Oro, Ozamiz, Pagadian, for example), he had no political ambition. He believed that elections would only legitimize the Marcos regime, and would not solve the nation’s problems.
Before martial law, Aguilar was already editing a local paper in Dipolog City, called Nandau (“Today’s News,” in the Subanon language), which often published articles criticizing the Marcos administration. For a time, he was also employed as a government social worker, mainly serving remote barrio communities.
Upon becoming a lawyer, Aguilar concentrated on human rights cases. He worked fulltime with the Free Legal Assistance Group, defending political prisoners and helping people assert their rights under martial law.
Aguilar joined the protest movement that erupted after the 1983 assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
He became chair of the Zamboanga del Norte chapter of the Coalition for Restoration of Democracy (CORD). He led a protest march (Lakbayan) that went around Zamboanga del Norte in May 1984. Three days before being killed, he was the main speaker at a Dipolog rally, where once more he denounced the militarization of his province.
At the time of his death, Aguilar was set to join a fact-finding mission that would look into the killing in July 1984 of a human rights researcher in Tampilisan town. The mission was also set to document the existence of seven “strategic hamlets” in Godod town.
Aguilar began getting anonymous threats to his life, which he shrugged off. “I’m prepared” to die, he told a friend. Until then, he said, “we can continue our service to the poor and exploited people.”
On the night of Sept. 23, 1984, Aguilar was walking home with fellow human rights lawyer Jacobo Amatong when two men came up to them and shot them both at close range. Aguilar was hit twice in the chest and once in the nape, and died instantly. Amatong died in hospital eight hours later, but not before identifying their attackers as belonging to the military. Two soldiers were subsequently named as suspects by the National Bureau of Investigation. This was confirmed by the driver of the getaway vehicle, but he himself was killed by unidentified men one year later. Despite many appeals from family and friends, no hearings were conducted on the case.
About 10,000 people attended the funeral held for the two lawyers, an attendance unprecedented in Dipolog history.