Rodrigo Mordeno worked at the Catholic parish in the town of Sta. Josefa, Agusan Del Sur, in northeastern Mindanao. He had just been designated area coordinator of the relief and rehabilitation program of the local diocese, helping in the distribution of relief goods and processing of interest-free loans for local residents.
Mordeno, known to all as Diego, had only been at his job for a few weeks, doing it with much enthusiasm, when he was killed by Armalite-wielding gunmen.
There was no logical reason for anyone to murder Mordeno, a well-liked young man in his early 20s who had grown up in Sta. Josefa.
Except that it was martial law, and Sta. Josefa, like many other towns in Mindanao, was under the rule of the gun. At the time, an Airborne Unit of the Philippine Air Force and a unit of the Philippine Army’s Engineering Brigade were based in the town, aside from the Integrated National Police and paramilitary Civilian Home Defense Force.
And maybe the reason why he was killed, his friends said, was because he was helping the displaced people in the “strategic hamlets” that the military had been setting up in Sta. Josefa. These “hamlets” were an idea borrowed by the Philippine military from the US effort to control the civilian population during the war in Vietnam. The objective was to deprive rebel guerrillas of the support of the people living in outlying areas, by forcing them to live instead in virtual concentration camps where they were strictly monitored and unable to work on their farms.
Human-rights networks, both local and international, were increasingly aware of the existence of the hamlets, and they helped bring public attention to the miserable conditions and the abuses to which the people there were being subjected. Of course such publicity did not make the dictatorship happy.
One day, a group of human-rights workers, including some affiliated with the church and others who were journalists, arrived in Sta. Josefa intending to visit the hamlets. Mordeno was assigned to be their guide. But soldiers stopped the group from meeting with the villagers, and blamed Mordeno for taking them there.
Not long after that, on the night of August 7, Mordeno was heading home from a wedding party with his brother Richard, 13, when they met two armed men on the street. As the two brothers continued to walk, bursts of gunfire came from behind, and Richard saw Diego fall clasping his neck. With bullets whistling over his own head, Richard ran for his life and hid in a canal beside the road. The two armed men left after failing to find him.
Next morning Diego Mordeno’s body was recovered, riddled with bullets. The crime had happened in the vicinity of military detachments.
Churchworkers from all over Agusan, Surigao and Davao provinces came to bury Mordeno, in a funeral march that was the longest that the people of Sta. Josefa town ever saw.