1. Eglicerio Villegas

2. Angelife Arsenal

3. Paterno Baron

4. Rene Laurencio

5. Morena Mendoza

6. Marcelina 'Necnec' Dumaguit

7. Rannel Bantigue

8. Jomarie Ugyahon Jr., 16

9. Marchtel Sumicad, 17

I ask you, if you care about justice and the sanctity of life, to remember these nine names.

These are the names of the nine persons gunned down Saturday night, October 20, in a field in Hacienda Nene, Purok Fire Tree, Barangay Bulanon, Sagay City.

The dead were among 14 members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) who had opted to stay overnight in a tent they had erected earlier in the day at the start of their “bungkalan,” a campaign to till land covered by the agrarian reform program but which has yet to be distributed to farmer-beneficiaries.

In the case of Hacienda Nene, according to NFSW, the plantation is under a notice of coverage, meaning the process of distributing it to the farmers has already begun. Never mind that it is 2018 and the original Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law was enacted in 1988.

All the victims bored shots to the head – indicating that the gunmen wanted to make sure they were dead – and three of them had also been set on fire.

It does not really matter on whose orders the killers – the NFSW suspects either private security personnel or members of the Revolutionary Proletarian Army, who are everything but “revolutionary” and “proletarian,” or even an “army” – carried out their evil deed. The message was clear: The tillers of the soil have no right to own the soil. If they persisted, it would be at the cost of their lives.

This is why Negros – and the whole country for that matter – remains what the late, great Bishop Antonio Fortich called a “social volcano,” a simmering cauldron of tensions fueled by the huge disparities between the small elite that controls most of the land and resources and the teeming masses whose toil produces what we eat but who are deprived not just of the fruit of their labor but the means as well, in this case, the land itself.

Consider this. The NFSW says 34 percent of the province’s 424,130 hectares planted to sugarcane is owned by only 1,860 landlords owning 50 hectares or more. Another 30 percent of the land is owned by 6,820 medium and small landlords with holdings of 10 to 50 hectares.

The remaining 35 percent is distributed among 53,320 workers, roughly 18 percent of the estimated 300,000 workforce of the sugar industry.

It has not helped, of course, that ever since it was founded just before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and plunged the country into 14 years of strongman rule the NFSW has openly and regularly been branded by the government and its security forces a “legal front” of the communist revolutionary movement.

In fact, as the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura, of which the NFSW is an affiliate, reminded us, in April 20 this year, the Army’s 303rd Infantry Brigade claimed that the Komiteng Rehiyonal of the Communist Party of the Philippines was maintaining communal farms on Negros when, in fact, these were tilled by members of the NFSW and the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas as a countermeasure to the annual “Tiempo Muerto,” the lean months between the planting of a new crop and the harvest, when there is hardly any work to be found on the haciendas.

More recently, just last month, KMP members in Barangay Bi-ao, Binalbagan said some 60 farmers were invited to what they were made to believe was a meeting with officers of the Department of Agrarian Reform only to be tagged by the 62nd Infantry Battalion as rebels and made to “surrender.”

Such baseless and irresponsible claims not only serve to lay down the basis, if not the moral or legal justification, for the persecution of farmers and farm workers struggling to survive and build a better lot for themselves but also effectively criminalize poverty or, rather, any means to free oneself from its grip.

It is good that Sagay Mayor Alfredo Marañon III and his father, Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr., have vowed justice to the victims. We will hold them to their word.

We have lived far too long with blood in our sugar.