She was trouble.
But authorities could only do so much about Trinidad Herrera.
After all, she was good at what she did. She was able to lead and organize anti-government demonstrations not just before and after but during Martial Law, a period when it was dangerous and difficult to do so. [See: Trinidad Herrera]
When the Philippines was placed under military rule, most civil rights were suspended, allowing the military and the police to arrest persons arbitrarily, detain them without due process, and even torture and/or murder them in cold blood. (As a result, anywhere from 60,000-70,000 persons were picked-up and locked-up-often on trumped-up charges; some 10,000 were tortured, and 3,000 others were killed.)
But these failed to deter Herrera.
Herrera holds anti-govt demonstrations during Martial Law
Starting 1973, just a year after Martial Law, she was able to gather at least one thousand protesters and hold rallies on four separate occasions. (Once, she even misled authorities into thinking she and her group were attending the wake of a popular actor who died in the mid-seventies because they all wore black. But they were holding a demonstration at that time.)
Herrera, who was arrested ten times, organized these protest actions to demand the provision of basic health and educational services in communities in Tondo—where she lived—and the implementation of Republic Act 1959.
Passed in 1950, the Tondo Foreshore Land Law mandated that parts of the 185-hectare government-owned reclaimed property should already be sold to informal settlers occupying them. [See: Tondo Foreshore land]
Twenty years later, the law had yet to be implemented, no thanks to the lack of national government support and lukewarm cooperation from the Manila City Hall.
But the problems weren’t just the government’s own doing.
Since there was no established system of managing these communities as political units—the barangay system had yet to be introduced by Marcos—Tondo’s areas were divided into informal districts, each one headed by a leader (usually male) who was neither elected nor appointed.
Under the arrangement, these leaders took advantage of their positions by, among others, “selling” members of their organizations to politicians, who promised them land ownership, especially during elections.
Once the polls were over, nothing changed, Herrera said in an interview. Herrera later helped fix all that.
Herrera and the Philippines’ first squatter invasion
In the late sixties, she met Dennis Murphy, an American priest who said mass every Saturdays and Sundays at seven in the morning at a small chapel in her district called Slip Zero. (Much later, Murphy would settle in the Philippines and become the head of the Urban Poor Associates, a non-government organization.) [See: Urban Poor Associates]
With Murphy’s help, Herrera began to attend training under the Philippine Ecunemical Council for Community Organizations, which used methods introduced by Saul Alinsky, an unconventional American community organizer who wrote the book Rules for Radicals. [See: Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals]
In October 1970, the training paid off—Herrera was able to establish the Zone One Tondo Organization (Zoto), which represented the interests of 60,000 residents in the Tondo Foreshoreland and demanded what was due them under the law.
Herrera and her group’s mettle was further tested less than a year later.
The government—through the then-Bureau of Public Works—began to build a warehouse and a depot on Tondo Foreshore land, a move presumably aimed to affirm government ownership of the land and prepare the property to be used as originally intended—as a port and an industrial complex, and not as housing for informal settlers as indicated in the law.
Zoto immediately stymied the government’s construction, undertaking what a US law journal said was “the Philippines’ first organized squatter invasion.”
“Access lanes were laid out in a gridiron pattern; lots measuring six by six meters were staked out and registered in the organization’s records; and, in order to establish possession [under the Tondo Foreshore Land Law], construction of houses were at least started on most lots,” an article in the Washington University Law Review, Volume 1975.
Entitled Law, Urban Development, and the Poor in Developing Countries, the article written by James Magavern, John Thomas, and Myra Stuart also cited a report written by Aprodicio Laquian, who would much later become President Joseph Estrada’s short-lived Chief of Staff. [See: Aprodicio Laquian]
“In the two years between the organization of [Zoto] and the declaration of martial law, the organization successfully confronted and negotiated with a remarkable variety of private, national, and international officials and agencies involved in plans for development of Tondo Foreshore Land,” the article continued. “These included congress, the president, the People’s Homesite and Housing Corp. [now the National Housing Authority], the Bureau of Customs, the Department of Public Works and Communication, the mayor of Manila, the San Miguel Corp., the Cement Association of the Philippines Corp., the Catholic Church, a German international development agency, and the United Nations Development Program.”
During one of these protest actions, Herrera was able to gather 5,000 people who marched to the Department of Agrarian Reform, under then-Secretary Conrado Estrella.
“Our bargain was that the government should give us in-city relocation if Tondo Foreshore land was going to be made into an international port,” she said.
Her efforts to improve living conditions of urban poor dwellers were recognized the world over, including one arrangement that exempted paramedics in Tondo from the curfew imposed during Martial Law.
Herrera takes the back door and escapes
In 1976, she was invited to attend as a judge the International Competition for the Urban Environment of Developing Countries, which was to be held in Vancouver. She then paid a visit to Gaudencio V. Tobias, a military general and then-general manager of the National Housing Authority (NHA), who was also invited to the event. Herrera said she wanted to coordinate with Tobias regarding tickets and the scheduled date of their departure.
“Ang sabi niya, sasama ka sa akin papuntang Vancouver [He told me that I would be going with him to Vancouver],” Herrera said.
During that visit, someone told her that she would be arrested again using the Arrest, Seizure, and Search Order (Asso), a document whose signatories included Marcos’ defense minister—and now Senate President-Juan Ponce Enrile.
Herrera, who had by then grown tired of being arrested, knew that the Asso would keep her behind bars for the long term.
On June 5, 1976, a day she would never forget, she decided slipped through the back door of that NHA office and escaped.
For two years, she was in hiding, occasionally emerging from the woodwork whenever she felt safe to attend and even speak at some meetings in several communities.
In April 1977, they got her.
“During that time, I already felt that there was someone following me, a woman,” she said. This prompted her to go somewhere else—to a friend’s place in Xavierville.
“Meron akong ibang dinaanan,” she recounted. “Sumakay ako ng jeep, tapos tumuloy ako sa Project 2. (I took a different route. I rode a jeep and then proceeded to Project 2).”
She added: “Nasundan ako noong galing sa Rosario sa Pasig. Nagsalita ako sa mga workers (I was followed from Rosario in Pasig where I spoke to workers).”
Before she entered the place in Xavierville, three intelligence officers of the Manila police accosted her.
But Herrera wasn’t about to go down without a fight.
As she was being apprehended, she shouted and asked neighbors to call up the nuns of Religious of the Good Shepherd, who helped her out in her advocacy. She created such a commotion that neighbors were forced to come out of their houses.
Much later, the head of the police unit that arrested her told her that had she surrendered quietly, it would have meant her summary execution.
“The officer made this confession years later when he asked me to help him get a lot in Dagat-Dagatan,” Trinidad said.
‘I was temporarily incoherent’
After spending a day at the Manila Police headquarters, she was turned over to the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group (MISG) and placed under the custody of a military official whom she can now only remember by his nickname, “One-eyed Jack.”
“He had a glass eye,” Herrera said.
Once she was ushered into a room with four men, two electric wires—connected to a device that looked like a military field telephone—were wrapped around her thumbs, she said.
She was then asked questions. Was she involved in the Left movement? Was she a communist? Did she meet up with communists?
“They were asking me whether I was a member of the CPP [Communist Party of the Philippines] and whether I knew anyone who was a member of the CPP,” she said. “I said no.”
Herrera added: “I also told them that if someone I didn’t know paid a visit to our community, I wouldn’t confront them and ask, “Are you a communist?”
Her answers failed to satisfy her interrogators. They fiddled with the knobs on the device, which gave her a shock. These shocks became so frequent that her thumbs bled.
Her interrogators then took off her shoes and placed a wet cloth on her feet, making the shocks stronger.
Still dissatisfied with her replies, they took the wires off her thumbs and placed them around her breasts.
“Masyado akong na-degrade. Nawala ako sa sarili ko,” Herrera said, trying but failing to ward off her tears. [I felt so degraded. I lost my mind.] This went on for three or four hours until she heard a knock on the door that—strangely enough—abruptly ended her ordeal.
The next day, she was brought to Bicutan where she and her fellow inmates found out that she had become temporarily “incoherent.”
During her first few days in detention, she was met by her lawyer, Jose Diokno, a former senator and human-rights lawyer who would later become the founding chair of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights under President Corazon Aquino. [See: Jose Diokno]
Owing to her condition, Diokno brought in Dr. Raul Fores of St. Luke’s Hospital to see her. He recommended that she should take baths of three to four times a day, a chore that beauty queen, activist, and fellow prisoner Nelia Sancho dutifully took to.
She was released a week later after then-US Ambassador to the Philippines Stephen Bosworth paid her a visit and handed her a letter from then-First Lady Rosalind Carter, who told her to be strong.
She has lost a copy of the letter, saying—without a tinge of regret—that it must have been swept away by one of the many floods that have engulfed her district.
To this day, 35 years later after suffering so much from the hands of her captors, Herrera remains resolute.
“Dapat huwag na ulit magkaroon ng Martial Law,” she said. “Ayokong maranasan ng susunod na henerasyon ang mga naranasan namin noon.” (Martial Law should never be repeated. I don’t want the next generation to go through what I’ve been through.)
Now 71, Herrera still lives in an urban poor settlement in Caloocan, perhaps no different from her district more than four decades ago when she was young and fiery.
However, she refuses to allow her experience to make her bitter or cynical. She still looks forward to a brighter, more equitable future.
“There will come a time when something good will come of this,” Herrera said.
(Parts of this piece, originally published September 15, 2012, were corrected and edited for style and grammar on September 2, 2015.)