The past 18 months have seen the surfing town of San Juan in the Philippines return to the silence of sleepy years past, before social media and new highways turned it into a holiday mecca for urban dwellers.
Caught up in lockdowns in a country ranked as among the worst to live during the pandemic, the once-packed bars and cafés of San Juan, some 270km north of Manila in La Union province, are now often empty. The resorts and hostels where guests used to squeeze in, always fully booked, now advertise vacancies. Many establishments that opened and flourished in recent years have been shuttered, some for good.
The town’s surfers have the waves all to themselves again, while some still wait on the beach for the few tourists who still come and pay good money to take lessons.
It was in this atmosphere that internationally acclaimed Filipino visual artist Bree Jonson and her boyfriend Julian Ongpin moved to San Juan on September 17. But before dawn the next day, she was found unconscious in their hostel room and later declared dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. She was 30 years old.
“The timing of all this is a little more painful because she’s been wanting to move there for a long time, and on her first night of the actual move, this happened,” artist and activist Cian Dayrit, Jonson’s friend, told VICE World News.
The details around her death remain mysterious.
Ongpin told local authorities that Jonson died by suicide, and he had tried to save her.
Jonson’s mother Sally disputes Ongpin’s claim. The family’s lawyers point to the medico-legal report that said Jonson’s body “showed signs of struggle” and had bruises besides what the alleged method of suicide would have caused.
CCTV footage from the hostel released by police showed Jonson and Ongpin apparently arguing outside their room shortly before her death. Appearing before the National Bureau of Investigation, Ongpin denied that he and Jonson argued that night.
Further complicating the incident were the drugs found on the scene.
An autopsy revealed Jonson died of asphyxia, and drugs were found in her system, police said. Investigators found 12.6 grams of suspected cocaine in the room and arrested Ongpin, who was also found to have drugs in his system.
Under current President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has engaged in a drug war since 2016 that has seen the widespread killing of drug suspects—some 6,000 people according to the official body count, or as many as 30,000 according to activists and rights watchdogs—at the hands of authorities. Majority of those are poor Filipinos.
Despite the illegal drugs, Ongpin, a billionaire’s son, was later released from detention, pending an investigation, with the government putting him on a watchlist in case he tries to leave the country.
Whether tragic accident or foul play, Jonson’s death has touched a raw nerve across the country and, particularly, in the tight-knit San Juan surf town community.
While details of what happened that evening are murky, one thing that’s certain is Ongpin remains free despite having tested positive for drugs and illegal substances being found in the room. This, amid the government’s bloody war on drugs that has otherwise been carried out with ruthless efficiency, has led locals to question what they see as impunity surrounding the incident.
“I thought they were strict about the war on drugs. What’s the reason [Ongpin] was let go, and what’s the follow-up on that?” San Juan resident Airwind Bautista, a representative from the Association of Tourism Industries and Networks in La Union, told VICE World News. “Will it leave an impression that if you belong to high society, you can escape accountability?”
Although the incident was not the first time drugs have been found in a San Juan establishment, the high-profile nature of the incident and the apparent preferential treatment afforded to Ongpin has affected the morale of some local residents, and has business owners worried about the economic impact on their tourism-dependent community, especially against the backdrop of Duterte’s drug war.
“Its negative impact is the tarnishing of our image as people might say, ‘Oh my gosh, La Union has become a haven for influential people to do some illegal activities,’ right?” Bautista said.
This is of particular concern in La Union, since it was local police that let Ongpin go, and now it is the Department of Justice that is pursuing further investigation after Jonson’s family expressed doubts about the police probe.
“That a famous billionaire could so quickly evade consequence for possession of illegal drugs is offensive, confusing, and a betrayal of public trust. The handling of the incident adds to the suspicion people already feel toward authorities, but are afraid to say for fear of backlash,” one member of the surf town community told VICE World News on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The community member noted how, in contrast to Ongpin, ordinary people in La Union who came under suspicion of drug possession were “unjustly incarcerated” in recent years.
The son of one of the Philippines’ most influential billionaires, Ongpin is an art patron and angel investor. His father is Roberto Ongpin, a property development mogul with a net worth of $1.1 billion, according to Forbes. The older Ongpin was the Philippine trade minister during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986.
A lawyer for Jonson’s family told local press that the amount of drugs found in his possession should have kept Ongpin in jail if the law were followed.
Ongpin’s lawyers could not be reached for comment.
La Union province began drawing surfers in the late 1990s and steadily grew in popularity. In 2006, the annual surf and music festival La Union Surfing Break was launched in San Juan, earning it the moniker “Surfing Capital of the Northern Philippines.”
Social media and the opening of an expressway that cut the six-hour drive from Manila by half made San Juan even more popular. City folk yearning for alternative lifestyles moved in, opening establishments that blended rustic and urban sensibilities. It is now home to a tight-knit community of artists and creatives, all of which attracted Jonson.
Felimon Dines, a local personality popularly known among surfing circles as Lemon Surfstar, had witnessed his town’s evolution, one that’s given him a shot at a more comfortable life. He owns and runs a hostel, but the pandemic hit his business hard.
“Zero. We’re not getting any business because [people from Manila] can’t come here nowadays. They make up 75 percent of our clientele,” Dines told VICE World News.
Just when the lockdown in Manila eased in late September, San Juan itself and its neighboring towns were placed on lockdown because of a rise in COVID-19 infections in the area.
Now, the tragic death of Jonson and the languid pace of the investigation has further dampened spirits in the struggling surf town community. The association with impunity is not a stigma the community can afford amid the pandemic and the drug war.
“As if things weren’t bad enough, this happened,” Dines said. “That’s a person’s life that was lost, and we don’t really know what happened.”
There is also concern from some locals that there would unfairly be closer scrutiny by authorities on San Juan.
“The community doesn’t deserve to suffer backlash from authorities because a famous billionaire was caught in possession of, and tested positive for use of illegal drugs,” the community member said.
Dines and Bautista are hoping for a speedy and impartial investigation to bring closure for Jonson’s family and the community. The justice department concluded a preliminary hearing of the drug possession charge against Ongpin on Oct. 8, but is yet to decide whether the case will proceed to trial.
“People are clamoring to dig deeper into the incident so as to clear La Union’s reputation—that it is not a haven for those activities,” Bautista said.
“We know that a rich guy is involved,” Dines said. “But I hope [the case] gets resolved, and I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
While the community grapples with the impact of Jonson’s mysterious death, its own members know the issue speaks of a far greater issue beyond just Jonson and the town of San Juan.
The hesitancy to detain Ongpin speaks of the wider issue of inequality in the country’s justice system, said the community member.
“The issue around the tragic loss of Bree Jonson is less about the local community, who will carry on, as they should. The focus should be on the justice system, and its relationship with the wealthy and powerful.”
Even Jonson’s mother Sally, at the very least, is asking authorities to pursue the drug case against Ongpin, conceding in a media interview that “murder is very hard to prove” and will mean “the investigation will just continue.”
For Dayrit, Jonson’s artist and activist friend, the incident and the investigation “just crystallizes the pattern of impunity” and other systemic problems plaguing the Philippines.
Systemic issues were something Jonson herself was interested in, and it informed her art.
“She’d always sort of randomly ask me about systemic things like environment issues or peasant issues. Quite actively, actually,” Dayrit said.
“What she really wanted to do was offer her own very raw and intimate reading of things that are beyond the personal.”
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If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.