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Duped into being a drug mule

Cesar and Celia Veloso

Cesar and Celia Veloso, the parents of Mary Jane. © Iris Gonzales

It was a suitcase full of dreams and hope, bursting at the seams with the fervent desire for a better future. It was also the same suitcase that would shatter such dreams.

This is a story we hear all too often. A woman, a mother, a single mother of two; she is the youngest of five children, born to a mother who once left her family, too, to earn a living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The woman is jobless, has done odd jobs, and like her mother before her, left her country to feed her two little boys.

Once, she went to Dubai to find work, but after 10 months had to leave because someone in the scorching city wanted to rape her.

She went back home and was jobless once more. She knocked on the doors of recruitment agencies but was turned down.

One day, a family friend, the one with the long hair and a warm smile who was out of the country often and would give shampoos and lotions to the village people whenever she came back home, said there was a job waiting for her in Malaysia. The family friend said she would work as a domestic helper, earn more than she did in Dubai, more than enough for her two sons, for her to buy them new shoes and toys and new clothes for her, too.

And so off she went, in April 2010, leaving once more her two boys with the promise that she would be back and never again leave them behind.

But there was no job waiting in Malaysia.

Instead there was 2.6 kilograms of heroin sewn and hidden in the lining of a brand-new suitcase given to her by the contacts of the same family friend who recruited her.

On 25 April 2010, she was caught at Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto airport in Indonesia on an AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur with the drugs in her suitcase.

This is the story of Mary Jane Veloso, the 30-year-old Filipina domestic helper who, at the crack of dawn on 29 April was supposed to be executed by firing squad but narrowly escaped the death penalty in Indonesia – at least for now. In her own words, she says, was duped into carrying the drugs.  

It is a story shared by many of the 10 million overseas Filipinos. Every day, some 5,000 Filipinos leave the country to work abroad. They say they have no choice. There aren’t enough gainful opportunities in the country.

But the risks are as endless as they are varied. Many have been duped into carrying drugs. Some are guilty, too, and have been executed in different countries – from China to Singapore.

The dangers of rape, sexual abuse, forced labour and human trafficking are also among the risks faced by the millions of Filipinos abroad.

And the separation to their families is also a struggle they face every single day that they are away from their loved ones.

‘Five years ago, we tried to stop her from leaving. I knew life abroad was so hard,’ says Celia, Mary Jane’s 55-year-old mother.

On the day of her daughter’s scheduled execution, Celia led the family as they braved the expected death of Mary Jane. They travelled to Indonesia and were on their way to Jakarta, supposedly to wait for Mary Jane’s remains, when they heard the news that the Indonesian government had given her a reprieve.

‘It was a miracle of miracles,’ she says.

Celia wears a rosary around her neck. She prays the Novena to Mother Mary every night from 7pm to 2am, with her seven grandchildren, since Mary Jane’s reprieve.

‘The battle isn’t over,’ she says. Her daughter is awaiting trial and is still imprisoned. But the family and Mary Jane’s lawyers insist on her innocence.

Mary Jane comes from a poor family in Nueva Ecija, in a village in the northern part of the country. Their family is so poor that they can hardly get by, her mother says.

Every morning, Celia and her husband would wake up and have coffee. They would then go around the village in a borrowed motorcycle and sell plastic wares – an assortment of tubs, pails, plates and what-have-yous – to anyone in need. They would spend the whole day until every piece is sold.

‘Or at least we would try to,’ she says.

Looking at the creases on their sunburnt faces and the lines on their foreheads, one can see a life of hardship – they would earn roughly $6 a day.

This, Celia says, is enough proof that Mary Jane is not part of an international drug ring.

‘Just look at us. Look at our home. Anyone is welcome to visit our home to see,’ says Celia. Home, she says, is a makeshift hodgepodge of scrap wood and recycled materials.

Veloso was the only one among a group of convicted drug traffickers, including the so-called Bali 9 – a group of alleged drug traffickers, who were spared Death Row after Maria Kristina Sergio (Veloso’s recruiter, the family friend who offered her a job in Malaysia) surrendered to authorities, citing ‘security reasons’.

According to local reports from Indonesia published after Veloso’s reprieve, Tony Spontana, the spokesperson for Indonesia’s Attorney General said: ‘There was a request from the Philippine president regarding the perpetrator who’s suspected of committing human trafficking and surrendered in the Philippines. MJ is needed for her testimony.’

Veloso has testified during her five-year trial that Sergio had duped her into flying to Indonesia and gave her a suitcase to bring to the Southeast Asian country.

‘I decided to come back to Philippines on December 31, 2009 but my money not enough because my son already go to school. I need a work again,’ Veloso said in a personal, unedited narrative of her case supplied by her parents and published by Philippine online news site Rappler.

During the trial, Philippine authorities appealed Veloso’s case. However, in January 2015, Indonesian president Joko Widodo, who won election on an anti-drug platform, rejected Veloso’s appeal.

The National Union of Peoples Lawyer (NUPL) and the Philippine private lawyer of the Veloso family, brought global attention to the case.

Lawyer Edre Olalia, NUPL Secretary-General, said Veloso’s death sentence should be stopped – or at least stayed – because she was denied her basic right to due process and the death penalty is too harsh given her disputable participation in the crime.

International experts and lawyers have volunteered to help Veloso, citing in particular a case of human trafficking. Migrants group Migrante International is leading the group that is helping Veloso.

One human trafficking expert, who has volunteered to help in Veloso’s case, says Veloso is clearly a victim of human trafficking because she was duped into travelling to Malaysia for a job as a domestic helper but ended up being used as a drug mule.

‘The challenge now is to bring her home,’ says Felicity Gerry QC, a British lawyer.

Indeed, Veloso’s battle isn’t finished yet.

Gerry says that Mary Jane should be sent straight home on legal grounds. Indonesian law on human trafficking, Gerry says, is better than most other countries on this topic and it appears that the legal issues may not have been properly raised before.

Moving forward, Gerry says, there should be a way for the government to bring people out of poverty so that they are not forced into working abroad.

‘Clearly, this is a person that is exploited and there has to be a new way of doing things to lift people out of poverty and exploitation,’ she says. ‘That’s what the research on human trafficking is about. It’s more than human trafficking, it’s exploitation.’

The next campaign should be to bring her home.

Her parents agree. And this comes with a promise that they would never again allow her to leave the country.

‘We will do everything to survive. We will make do with what we have. Never again will we allow her to leave,’ says Celia. The prayers will continue, she says. Miracles happen. ‘We will keep on praying and we will pray hard, because my daughter is innocent,’ she explains. 

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