The story of Paco Larrañaga

Photo: Tribeca Film Festival

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.

Mariejoy and Jacqueline Chiong. Photo: Metro

Paco's parents Margarita and Manuel Larrañaga. TF photo

Filmmakers Marty Syjuco (left) and Michael Collins. TF photo

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.



16 Comments

  1. Yolanda Lelis Punsalan wrote:

    Hmm, anything can happen, look where Hubert Webb is now, basking in glory and sunshine and limelight.

  2. Cebuano wrote:

    Very great post. I love reading your stories.

  3. Quan T. wrote:

    Your website is wonderful, let alone the content material!

  4. [...] so plainly crooked and incestuous it almost feels contrived.While the hapless and clearly innocent Paco Larrañaga struggles to survive in a dark, overcrowded maximum security prison on two life sentences, a band [...]

  5. The conviction of these people were already affirmed by the highest court of the land, they were proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This is propaganda paid for by their families, They should have been hanged a long time ago.

    • Cal L wrote:

      This film is biased and Not really true!! Only my question is that.. Did this filmmakers have spoken to the suspect turned witness “Rusia.” they said also that Rusia was turtured by the police?? That’s a big lie!! Rusia admitted the crime because of conscience… If they just have spoken to Rusia.. Then the story will be different..This film happened because the Larranagas are rich..

      • Viewer wrote:

        During one of the interviews, the film makers said that they were looking for Rusia even to the point of hiring private investigators and still can’t found any trace of him. Also in the film, on one of the interviews with Thelma Chiong, she said that after Rusia was released, they helped him and gave him a job. And you know what, the greatest question in this case? What are the Chiongs hiding? Why did Mr. Chiong refused to testify against Peter Lim when he was already scheduled to do so before the girls went missing? Another thing, why did Mrs Chiong told the people that Paco kept on following her daughter in school on Cebu when Paco was studying at Manila? Any kids with enough common sense can see something’s off with that statement.

    • irene wrote:

      Your post simply shows your ignorance and hatred. The people who convicted him are actual the criminals by putting 8 innocent people into jail, and would have killed them, too. You disgust me!

  6. PinoyDado wrote:

    This film was possible because the guilty party is rich and affluent! The filmmakers were obviously biased! there are lots of good journalists in the philippines, not biased and not related to the larranagas, and their investigative journalism all agreed to paco’s conviction! For journalism’s sake – hear both sides!

    • Name * wrote:

      My condolences goes out to the family of the girls, but it was very clear that an injustice was done to those boys . If their money & influence is what you & others portray it to be, then why & how did they get double life & the death penalty in a country that’s judicial system is obviously flawed in many ways. The sad part is watching how wickedly sick & sinister like Mrs. Chiong was behaving considering she lost two daughters. Let’s not forget, she’s related to & has connections to people in power also, so its bewildering that she wouldn’t have a proper investigation done instead of paying a known convicted criminal whom got kicked out of the US, to lie on them boys & steal their youth! No respectful, self dignified human being would ever go as far as signing their soul to the devil for such deeds which makes it more the obvious that there’s more to the story. Mrs. Chiong needs to shame the devil & tell the truth! No good is going to come from this because of the injustice that has been done. Wake up people, this is a modern day linching.

      • irene wrote:

        I agree with your post. Mrs. Chiong gives me the creeps, and there is no proof the 2 daughters are actually dead

  7. diego.watawat wrote:

    …nice story. I still stand by behind my Philippine government. We have enough of Spanish rule.

    • Stormshadow wrote:

      So, the fact that Spain conquered the Philippines hundreds of years ago justifies for framing and a staged trial that violates the suspects’ constitutional rights and only takes into consideration flawed evidence from the prosecution side??
      Your logic is twisted to say the least.

      • Stormshadow, I myself couldn’t believe some of the comments. Our country’s justice system is as twisted as a knotty tree, our judges and justices are the most corrupt in the world, same with our politicians. This is a country where you can go to jail for accidentally running over a pedestrian even if it is not your fault. Something virtually unheard of in the United States and Canada. What we need is a complete overhaul of our laws and a re-training of all our law makers. I feel so sad for our country.

        An alibi as in the case of Paco wherein dozens of people attested to his whereabouts at the time of the murder(s) is acceptable at the police investigation stage and in most cases police eliminates a suspect after an alibi is verified. As simple as that.

  8. anonym wrote:

    Pinoy Dado, neither you nor I will probably ever know if Paco and his friends were truly guilty or not. So in the same way you cannot freely pass judgment by calling him guilty, neither can we attest that he is really innnocent.
    What i know for a fact, because I was born and grew up in the Phil., studied PolSci. there, is that everything there is downright CORRUPT. ( by God, we even have had presidents who have propagated and supported crime to enrich themselves) But I agree with you, everyone should hear both sides. So, I understand Mrs. Chiong in her pain, and that she desperately wants to find and punish the perpetrators of the crime, but if she truly wants the truth she cannot turn back on the testimonies that Paco was elsewhere. Neither should she deny the fact that the judicial trial and procedure was an outright violation of constitutional rights, esepcially considering the testimony against the boys came from an ex-convict who was buying his freedom by confessing*. how can you trust such a testimony? the whole procedure was blatantly irregular , not to say suspicious.
    But I suppose it is too much to ask a mother, who must have suffered to no end, to be objective.
    * I have asked myself tho- if Paco & friends are innocent, why did Rustia pinpoint them? why them? (just being objective here) i truly would appreciate if someone could explain the connection, and the twists and turns in the obscure business connections mentioned.

  9. Jun Jun wrote:

    Did you remember the person you beat up out side Padis bar in Ayala before?Why you like beating people?

Leave a Reply