Agatep would be able to return to parishwork but continued his advocacies for small farmers. Taking-up the cause of the tobacco farmers in Ilocos Sur, he became one of their staunchest spokespersons against unequal local and foreign controls over the industry. He later joined the Christians for National Liberation (CNL), which had been founded by fellow FFF leader and former priest Edicio de la Torre. Tasked with helping poor farmers and fisher folk in Caoayan, Fr. Agatep found himself within the line of sight of Marcos’s security forces.
Towards the end of the 1970’s, resistance to an ongoing development project in the northern Philippines was revitalized and reinforced with the help of local parish priests. The people of Abra resisted the Cellophil Resources Corporation with the help of Nilo Valerio, Bruno Ortega, Cirilo Ortega, and Conrado Balweg. By 1980, with non-violent and legal means of opposing the project exhausted, the four priests, branded subversives by the government, found themselves bearing arms and actively joining the armed struggle. The crackdown would only expanded upon more activist priests, allegedly for being part of the communist movement.
This trend was not spared from Fr. Agatep’s life. Some time in the last week of August 1980, a stranger by the name of “Victor” sought accommodations at the priest’s convent as it had been getting dark. While he did not usually accept strangers in the convent, the priest allowed him to stay after requesting for an ID. Victor would leave early the next morning. On the night of 28 August 1980, Philippine Constabulary forces raided his parish convent and informed fr. Agatep that he was to be arrested. One of the state agents informed their leader that he found a fully-loaded pistol in Agatep’s room.
Charged with subversion and illegal possession of firearms, he was put in a small detention cell before being interrogated by a certain Vincent, the man who took shelter in the convent now presented as a military informer, on the next day. Vincent said that Agatep had shown him his gun and bragged about his marksmanship. The priest remained silent.
The priest was eventually moved from Ilocos Sur to Benguet, and finally incarcerated at Camp Bagong Diwa (the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center). Here, Agatep would learn that some of the detainees inside were farmers accused of being rebels. All of them happened to have been fighting for a 75/25 sharing system in the harvest in favor of the farmers, and believed that this was the real reason for their detainment. They too appeared to have been framed-up and detained for what they believed in.
The Priest ministered to fellow prisoners until he was freed on December 24, 1980, as Marcos prepared for the visit of the then Pope Paul II. Outcrying his confinement as a frame-up, he wrote in a letter addressed to the President – being a fellow Ilocano. He wrote: “If this is the kind of justice we get from the so-called guardians of the New Society, then there is no wonder why there are some people who go to the hills to fight the government.”
Death and Memory
On October 10, 1982, the Defense Ministry released a new list of designated rebels. Rewards for their capture, or for information thereto, were also posted. Among those placed in this list was Rev. Balweg of Abra and Agatep. According to authorities, both men were among the top 16 communist officials on the government’s most wanted list, each having a $15,300 bounty on them. This list, including the bounties, was published and carried by the national dailies the following day.
Later that same day, October 11, elements of the Philippine Constabulary killed Agatep, along with Alfredo Cesar, a deacon who had been assisting him, in Salcedo, Ilocos Sur in an alleged encounter. The military, through the government-owned Philippine News Agency, reported that Cesar was a member of the New People’s Army and was with two others, whom they captured, when the shootout occurred. Agatep was reportedly armed with an armalite rifle, which was recovered from the scene along with a carbine.
Doubts were abound as to the veracity of this claim. On one hand, an article titled “The Heroic Death of Apo Zacarias Agatep” seems to corroborate that Fr. Agatep and Cesar were both in a camp at Barrio Baybading, Salcedo when it was raided by the military. As other NPA members in the camp left, Agatep and another leader (presumably Cesar) stayed behind to engage the military units to help the others escape. Other sources however would find that Agatep was killed by four gunshot wounds, all of which were from behind.
Agatep’s sister, Sr. Ma. Fe, DSP, would also write in response to the military press release. The slain priest’s “immorality” had allegedly been floated among the press at the time. She decried that the declassification of information surrounding Agatep may have been used to deflect attention from the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Her statement, penned on Christmas Day 1982, claimed that her brother’s face and nape were found to have been swollen, and hand and fingers were crushed. While other contemporary sources imply that the bounty placed on Agatep was put up hours before his death, she would state that it had been increased two days prior to his killing.
Military representatives would insist that such crackdowns were only part of its standard campaigns against underground leaders and not an organized attack against the clergy. However, the continued raid on religious institutions and arrests of active figures within the church became increasingly problematic. Rev. Benigno Mayo, SJ, recalled that Pope John Paul II, during his visit in 1981, encouraged the priests to involve themselves with the problems of the people but not to take up political causes. Mayo lamented that this was an impossibility. Ultimately, the problems of the people were inherently and systematically political in nature. Dodgie Osabel, of the justice and peace commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, also believed that the military’s drive to purge the subversives within the clergy has stifled the latter’s effort to help the people, as they inevitably come into contact with other activists also involved in the same endeavors.
The second half of 1982 marked the arrests of notable religious figures, such as Fr. Edicio de la Torre of Manila, Fr. Orlando Tizon in Davao on September 20, Fr. Brian Gore of Negros on September 24, and Fr. Edgardo Kangleon of Samar in October, around the day of Fr. Agatep’s death. In most of these cases, their place of residency or the Church where they were working were raided, after which the military would discover subversive materials warranting their captures. The intensification of the military crackdown eventually got to Fr. Agatep himself.
With these circumstances aside, the deaths of Fr. Agatep and his companion Cesar were denounced across different religious groups. Sponsored by the newly-formed Committee for the Protection of Church People’s Rights, a memorial service was held at the chapel of the Daughters of St. Paul in Manila. Twenty-seven priests, Filipinos as well as foreigners, concelebrated, and about 500 persons, including Protestants, attended the mass.
Years later, Fr. Agatep would be honored by the Bantayog ng mga Bayani as a hero/martyr of the struggle against the dictatorship, and his name engraved in its Wall of Remembrance. He was included in the initial roster of sixty-five names engraved in 1992, and the first name etched in the alphabetical list. He would further be recognized by the Philippine government as a Martial Law Human Rights Violations Victim in November 2017.