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Beside buried cases house buried truths in the Filipino true crime scene

True crime is often shrouded by the dark air of mystery—but where there is mystery, there are those who aim to expose the truth, whether through podcasts or journalistic reporting.

There is something to be said about the sharp skills of fictional super sleuths and the ease at which they solve their cases; the demonstrations of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes have elicited no less than complete awe from audiences. In the real world, people’s own sleuthing skills are put to the test through the circulating theories behind unsolved cases, a genre known as “true crime”.

True crime is described by Derek Astra, host of the podcast Stories After Dark, as “the examination of actual criminal cases with or without a resolution.” The genre covers facts and details that encompass crimes that happened in real life, especially those that have left cold trails.

Rappler journalist Rambo Talabong ventures that heinous crimes are often featured in the genre due to their inherent mystery—compelling audiences to get more engrossed in these cases. But missing person cases, cults, and man-made disasters are also part of the genre and hold just as much of the macabre thrall.

Opening the case folder

Having grown up around stories that expose crimes not often talked about, yet deserve just as much attention, Lagim podcast host Christine Abrigana took on the challenge of becoming a storyteller herself. Her main objective lies in making the audience discover true crime cases beyond those analyzed time and again, especially highlighting those from the underrepresented Global South. She suggests, “If you want a true crime injected with a bit of Southeast Asian—specifically Filipino culture—then that would be my podcast.”

Similarly, Astra started his journey by consuming crime TV shows with his family and listening to podcasts that featured different crimes. “I realized there weren’t any true crime podcasts that discussed only Philippine true crime cases…so I decided to start a podcast in the style and format that I prefer true crime podcasts to be,” he recalls. From books, podcasts, and documentaries, the variety of media at the audiences’ disposal make for a truly immersive experience and affect their perception of the crime being discussed.

But these distinctions are not and should never be hindrances to the true purpose of the genre: opening the masses’ eyes to these very real, very alarming events. “The common denominator that anybody will find is that all these media will highlight everything that is problematic about the case [and] everything that went wrong,” describes Abrigana. “It will give you the feeling of [outrage]…unfairness…and [anger].”

However, increased exposure to the gruesome events of history comes at a cost: a lingering possibility of excessive sensationalism. People sometimes forget that these cases aren’t mere plots of a crime fiction novel; these are real events that still need to be solved.

While it’s not wrong to try helping as an ordinary citizen, all three believe that limits must be established to avoid sensationalism, to the point where misinformation could lead to harassment toward the innocent. “It’s so much easier now with the Internet and social media for people to go one step further and [to] think [of] themselves [as] amateur sleuths who can solve particular cases themselves,” Astra opines.

True crime storytellers can also lend a hand in this. “Just as anybody deserves, their stories need to be treated with respect,” Talabong stresses. Abrigana also emphasizes that when tackling crime cases, it should always be victim-centered, reminding the audience that many families have yet to earn justice or closure for the crimes that took away their loved ones.

Gap-toothed truths

Ultimately, no matter how alluringly mystifying an unsolved case is, it brings upon a harsh and disturbing realization: that the justice system lacks the ability to resolve these long-standing transgressions. If anything, the Philippine justice system’s systematic flaws are exposed and on display to the public.

Families who can’t afford the exorbitant fees that come with legal representation and assistance find it more difficult to attain justice for their loved ones. “There needs to be a serious discussion about legal aid or any type of fund [or] trust that can help poor families hire good lawyers to fight civil cases or to privately prosecute criminal cases,” Abrigana argues.

In some cases, Talabong maintains that “police incompetence” is also to blame. There are matters of inefficient training, lacking proper forensic resources, and a saddening yet all-too-present issue: corruption between and within authorities. People in power can choose to interfere—either tilting things in their favor or halting the investigations altogether.

This was particularly evident during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s fear-driven campaign against drugs, which only increased government-sponsored killings that left the nation bereft and frightened, despite the campaign’s goal of lessening crime in the country. As Astra laments, “It’s one thing to be wary of being murdered while walking alone in a dark alley somewhere, and another to experience the same thing while knowing such acts are sanctioned by the government.”

Case closed?

Podcasts like Lagim and Stories After Dark can’t cover every single crime. But their determination to bring cases like Kian delos Santos’ and Martial Law victims’ deaths, and the Calabarzon raids out to the world is already a step toward enabling the public to call for reforms beneath these faulty systems.

“Police need better training so that they can expertly and concisely solve crimes, but we also need more people on the ground,” Talabong states. He implores the government to collaborate with constitutional bodies and investigation groups to examine these cases from all possible angles. Similarly, Abrigana reiterates the importance of a criminal law reform that is “pro-Filipino, pro-poor, and not discriminative,” created by formidable policymakers and supported by a strong lobby from authorities and citizens alike.

True crime is indeed an enrapturing genre that sparks the inner detective within each person, but one must always remember to set aside their metaphorical monocles and remember that behind these cases are actual victims whose families have yet to discover the truth. “I would urge those who consume crime content to also call for accountability from authorities to do their jobs and [to] solve the crimes they encounter,” Talabong reminds.

There is no full guarantee that an unsolved case will receive the closure it deserves, but if there is even the slightest possibility of removing the prefix, Filipinos must do all they can to bring these cases to a just finish.

By Alessandra Pauleen Gomez

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