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MANILA, Philippines – His little hands and feet and gaunt body would make one think he is harmless. But it’s exactly his fragile look that makes him fit to become a burglar.
The 11-year-old-boy from Tondo, Manila known as “Kwatog” looks like five but has the guilty eyes of an adult. He could be squeezed through the windows and other small openings of houses to swiftly take away the valuables of victims.
He is a poster boy for the cracks in the juvenile justice system, where a rash of crimes involving minors recently sparked calls to lower the age of criminal liability --- a solution that will only shift further the burden on children brutalized at an early age, without getting the adult criminals who commit such heinous crime on them and on society. (READ RELATED ARTICLE: Children in crime: Cracks in the country's juvenile justice system)
It’s only been a year since Kwatog became involved in akyat-bahay. Last October, with the help of two other children and an adult companion, Kwatog was able to climb the second floor of the junk shop of Kagawad Danilo Tanael in Barangay 20 Tondo’s Parola Compound and slip into the window. He then snatched P8, 500 from the shop, which he gave to his coddler who in turn gave Kwatog a miserable P100.
“Tinuruan po kami ni Roger…[It was Roger who taught us…],” Kuwatog says of his 27-year-old coddler who “handles” over a dozen children, aged seven to 13, including four girls who like Kwatog are involved in theft, robbery and selling solvent.
“Dati nangangarton lang ako sa Divisoria. Tapos nakilala ko si Roger. Di ko alam na magnanakaw siya [I used to just gather cartons in Divisoria. Then I met Roger. I didn’t know he was a thief], “ Kwatog says.
From shoplifting to solvent selling
Kwatog and the other kids’ “training” with Roger started with shoplifting – stealing merchandise like slippers, clothes, pots, and pans in Divisoria - that they would sell at lower prices, mostly to poor vegetable and fish vendors in the same area. The proceeds are turned over to Roger, who then gives a portion of the money to Adora, his crippled 50-something mother on crutches who is also part of the pack.
Later, the kids learned to steal metal scraps until they were taught how to repack, sell, and sniff solvent, before finally carrying out the more daring crime of burglary.
“Tumitira muna kami ng solvent bago magnakaw [We sniff solvent first before we steal],” says Kwatog. explaining how the substance numbs his conscience.
Like any other good trader, Kwatog knows the details of their “product.” He says a supplier from Gate 10 of the Parola Compound sells to Roger solvent contained in a big mineral water bottle for P600, which is repacked into smaller bottles of alcohol for P150, then poured into tiny bottles of cough syrup that sell for P20 and P15, and finally to small plastic bags for P10 and P5.
“Sa Sto. Cristo, sa Divisoria namin binebenta sa gabi hanggang madaling araw. Binibili ng bata at matanda. Umuuwi kami kina Roger madaling araw, mga 5:30. Natutulog tapos gumigising ng alas-dos para magtakal uli ng solben” Kwatog explains.
[We sell the solvent in Sto. Cristo, Divisoria from night to dawn. It is bought by children and adults. We then go back to Roger’s house at about 5:30 a.m. to sleep. We wake up at 2 p.m. to again repack solvent.]
Kwatog doesn’t earn much from Roger’s thriving business. “Binibigyan n’ya ko sampung piso araw-raw pang-almusal. Minsan tira-tira lang ang kinakain. Pag wala talaga, tiis na lang. Sabi n’ya masama daw umabuso.”
[Roger only gives me P10 every day for breakfast. There are times that I eat leftovers. When there’s no food I just endure hunger. He tells me it’s bad to be greedy.]
Perhaps, Kwatog’s only consolation from his “job” is an extra supply of free solvent that takes away his hunger and pain. “Siguro mga tatlong beses isang linggo akong nagso-solben. Yung ibang kasama ko, araw-araw. Parang nasa ere,” he says.
[I sniff solvent about three times a week. The other kids do it every day. We feel like we’re floating in the air.]
Kwatog tried to escape from Roger’s clutches for several times. But every attempt was a failure.
“Binubugbog nila ko. Si Adora, sinusuntok ako, binabato ng damit. Binubuhat nila ko tapos hinagahis ako sa pader [They beat me up. Adora punches me and throws clothes at me. They carry me and then throw me against the wall.]
And even when he isn’t threatened or hurt by his coddlers, Kwatog always finds himself going back to Roger and Adora, for he has practically no one to turn to.
Kwatog’s mother Rosanna sells pineapples in Divisoria with five-year-old Nica, her third child with her second partner whom she left and replaced with another partner, a pedicab driver who lives in Baseco, Tondo.
“Iniwan kami ni Tatay. Ang Nanay ko nag-asawa uli pero binubugbog niya ang panganay kong kapatid. Iniwan siya ng Nanay ko sumama sa iba [My father left us. My mother got a second partner who beat up my eldest sibling. My mother left him and found another man],” Kwatog says.
Kwatog tried living with his mother and her partner in a rickety and crowded house in Baseco, where he witnessed several crimes.
"May Bumbay, nanaksak ng Muslim kasi hindi nakabayad. Meron ding sinasalbage pagkatapos ng holdapan sa may tulay. Ang daming pinapatay doon. Siguro mga sampung patayan na nakita ko,” says Kuwatog.
[I saw an Indian man who stabbed a Muslim man because he failed to pay his debt. There are also those who were summarily executed after they were robbed near the bridge. There are lots of killings there. I witnessed about 10 killings.]
Kwatog also tried living with his grandmother and her second husband in Sta. Mesa, Manila. But it also did not work. His grandmother was later imprisoned for possessing and using shabu.
Rescue and arrest
Officials of Barangay 20 rescued Kwatog and apprehended Roger a day after they looted the junk shop of Kagawad Tanael. The following day, at 5:30 a.m., authorities led by a barangay official and his tanods (guards) carried out operations to rescue Kwatog’s companions and arrest Adora.
The barangay was able to rescue five of Roger’s and Adora’s wards from a cramped room in Parola’s Gate 10 that was rented by their coddlers. Being older and more “expert,” not one of the children admitted the claims of Kwatog.
“Bawal ang informer, pinapatay [Informers are prohibited, they will be killed],” 13-year-old Paulo told Kwatog while they were at the barangay hall.
Roger, while being held at the hall, warned Kwatog, “Pag nakalaya ako, bubugbugin kita [If I get out, I will beat you up].”
Two days later, the children were turned over to social workers from the government of Manila and the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Roger and Adora were taken to the police and charged with child trafficking.
According to the social workers, Kwatog and the other kids, who will testify against their coddlers, will be brought to Manila’s Rescue and Action Center for assessment before they are housed at one of the government’ rehabilitation centers serving children in conflict with the law.
Rosanna visited Kwatog while he was at the barangay hall. But she wasn’t there when her son was taken by the social workers from the barangay.
“Siguro nagtitinda pa ng pinya [Maybe she’s still selling pineapples],” says the teary-eyed Kwatog who had eaten chicken afritada and rice and even left portions of his lunch for his mother and sister.
Fear and hope
Kwatog knows it would take time before he sees Rosanna and his siblings again. He was told by the social workers that he would be taken to a better place where he can study and live a normal and much better life. But Kwatog became more fearful than excited.
Earlier, Kwatog had been taken to the Boys Town in Marikina City after the barangay caught him sniffing solvent.
He said his experience there was a nightmare “Pinapatay nila ang ilaw pag gabi tapos binubugbog nila ako [They turn off the lights at night and then beat me up], says Kwatog of his companions at the youth center, a supposed safe haven for disadvantaged children.
After he was taken by the social workers, Kwatog was not told where he would be specifically housed. He only hopes that it won’t be at the Boys Town again, but in a better place where he can make his dreams come true.
“Tinuruan kaming magbasa ng libro noong Grade Two. Gusto ko uling mag-aral, mag-ipon ng pambili ng notebook . Ayoko nang maging masama. Pupunta ko kay Willie, hihingi ng tulong para kay Nanay at sa mga kapatid ko,” says Kwatog.
[We were taught how to read books while in Grade Two. I want to study again, save money to buy notebooks. I don’t want to be bad again. I’ll go to Willie Revillame and ask help for my mother and siblings.]
(For their protection, the names of the children in the story were changed as well as the names of the alleged perpetrators while the cases against them are ongoing.)