by Jimmy K. Laking
The owner of a liquor bar along the Halsema Highway has been meted the penalty of life imprisonment for forcing a 14-year-old girl to work in the bar against her will in 2009, in what is believed to be the first case of anti-trafficking promulgated in Benguet.
In a 13-page decision, Regional Trial Court Branch 9 Presiding Judge Francis A. Buliyat declared Jennifer A. Cortes guilty beyond reason able doubt for violation of Republic Act 9208, or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.
Cortes was ordered to pay P2 million, in addition to P100,000 in damages awarded to the victim, Rose Marie.
The daughter of a vegetable packer, Rose Marie was with a younger sister and two cousins at a municipal park on the day she failed to return home in May 14, 2009.
Her mother reported her missing to the police. Two days later, the victim contacted her mother and was told she was in Abatan, Buguias. Her mother went to Abatan and with the help of the police went the rounds of some 50 bar houses but could not locate her.
With the help of the police, her mother eventually traced her to a liquor bar in Sayangan, Atok, surrounded by six customers. Her daughter recovered, the mother filed a complaint against Cortes.
Cortes testified she met Rose Marie at the park and that the latter was looking for a job. After they struck an agreement, she brought her to Sayangan where she worked as a waitress until her mother came to claim her.
The victim testified she was offered to work as server in a restaurant by Cortes as she needed helpers. She added after Cortes bought her a pair of pants, they boarded the van bound for Abatan. Upon arrival, she was ordered to sit with customers inside a liquor bar and was promised a monthly pay of P1,700. She added customers would often touch her, although it was not part of the agreement.
It was only when her mother and the police located her that she came to know she was in Sayangan, Atok.
A police officer testified Cortes admitted bringing the victim to Sayangan.
The court was convinced the law on anti-trafficking was violated considering that the victim who was underage at the time she was brought to the liquor bar to work through fraud and deception “for the purpose of forced labor and slavery.”
The court summed it up bluntly: “The record showed that Cortes coerced the victim to work in her bar, which deprived her of her freedom. Moreover, Cortes extracted her to work through deceit when she offered her a job as server. As the victim was young and immature, she did not bother to ask and as far as she was concerned she just thought of serving in a restaurant so she gave her consent. Eventually, she ended up as a waitress and an entertainer and was required to sit with customers.”
The court added that while Cortes had a propensity to lie and could only offer the defense of denial, the victim’s testimony was worthy of full faith and credit and bore the hallmark of truth.