The story of Paco Larrañaga
By Cristina DC Pastor
There is something Kennedyesque about the story of Paco Larrañaga, a Filipino-Spanish man who, at 19, was charged in the double murder and rape of two Filipino-Chinese sisters in Cebu in 1997. “Give up Tomorrow,” currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival captures every chilling detail of his conviction as well as the haphazard investigation into the killing of Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong.
The Larrañagas, a landowning family in Cebu, are related to the powerful Osmena political clan. The Cebuanos, the media and the courts wanted so bad for someone to take the heat for the brutal killing of the sisters, they decided to cast the son of a ‘hacendero’ as the villain based on flimsy fact that Paco was quite the troublemaker in school.
But there’s a hitch. Paco was not in Cebu when the grisly crime was committed. He was attending culinary school in Quezon City and was taking an exam on the same day. There were photos of him with his classmates relaxing over drinks. In fact, 35 of his classmates and teachers testified that they saw Paco in school, but the judge rejected their testimonies because they were from “friends of Paco.”
What the investigators failed to look into, according to the film, was the girls’ father, a trucking company executive, who was supposed to testify against a powerful drug lord named Peter Lim. He decided against going to court after his daughters went missing. The police and prosecutors did not pursue this lead. When an ex-convict named Davidson Rusia emerged with testimony that he was with Paco’s friends when the killing spree occurred, they concluded this was the eyewitness that would tie the loose ends to the case. Rusia was widely hailed a hero, although it would later be revealed that he was tortured by the police into giving the false testimony.
The case caught national and international attention because of many bizarre twists and turns, including the suicide of the judge who handed down the sentence, the involvement of Amnesty International and the government of Spain, the abolition of the death penalty by the Philippine government, and Paco’s extradition to Spain, the country of his father.
Paco was sentenced to life by a Cebu court. The Supreme Court elevated the decision to death four years after it reviewed the case. Having kin in the right places played a role in both decisions. The Larrañagas may boast the affluence of an old rich ‘ilustrado’ family, but the Chiongs are related to a Supreme Court justice and also to a key adviser of then president Joseph Estrada. Political “connection” sealed Paco’s fate. He and his six friends were thrown into the National Bilibid Prisons along with hardened criminals, joined a gang for survival, and are still in jail more than 14 years after the crime was committed.
The only difference is that Paco is now in a Spanish prison where, according to his mother Margarita, he is studying and reading a lot of books.
“In Spain,” she told me, “the prison is really to rehabilitate the person, whereas in the Philippines, the prison is to punish the person.”
How Paco got to where he is now? Credit the probing ingenuity of a group of Filipino human rights lawyers — Felicitas Aquino Arroyo, William Chua and Sandra Marie Olaso Coronel — who took on the case. Having exhausted all legal remedies in the Philippines, they decided to bring the case to the attention of Spain. Paco’s father Manuel remains a Spanish citizen. A Spanish newspaper advocated for Paco’s release, Amnesty International and Fair Trials International gave it more than time of day, the European Union is believed to have tied it to future aid to Manila, and the Spanish foreign minister got then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to commit that “While I’m president, Paco Larrañaga will not get the death penalty.” Several months after she said that, Arroyo abolished capital punishment in the Philippines.
Paco’s sister Mimi admitted her faith was tested by the tragedy. She was beginning to question why the trials keep piling up on her family, until a Filipino priest revisited the case and declared Paco’s innocence. The priest and Paco’s 35 friends from the culinary school who offered their testimonies organized a marathon, unwavering in their belief that Paco could not have been the killer/rapist the public and the media made him out to be.
At Pangea on Second Avenue, the viewers of mostly Filipinos and Europeans gathered for the afterparty to toast directors Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco for their well-made film. Syjuco’s brother is married to Mimi Larrañaga. Many in the crowd wore ‘Free Paco Now’ buttons. I was seated with friends and a French couple who had a lot of questions about the Philippine judicial system: Why is no one investigating Peter Lim? Why is there no DNA testing? Why would the judge commit suicide? What will finally free Paco from jail? An executive clemency courtesy of President Benigno Aquino is what’s going around the restaurant as the next best possible legal option. Exhausted but gratified by the overwhelming support from around the world, the Larrañaga family is moving on the next chapter of the case and on to their third Philippine president.
“Faith,” said Margarita Larrañaga as we held hands, two strangers who just met at the lobby after watching a film, “that’s what keeps me strong.”
The film’s title is from Paco willing himself to live every single day and not to give up. If you need to give up, he said, “Give up tomorrow” but don’t give up today. Tribeca founder Robert De Niro gave Paco, a fan, an autographed baseball cap.
Cristina DC Pastor is the founding editor of The FilAm.