The Atimonan massacre should worry us all

The massacre of 13 people by the police and army troopers at a checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon on January 6 should worry us all. Consider the following scenario:
You’re traveling with a group on the road in some province. You made it a point to travel in daylight, just to be safe. Then at about 3 p.m., you see a police checkpoint, but you’re not worried at all.

Why, your vehicle even has a Philippine National Police Academy commemorative license plate and a genuine decal of the “Office of the President, Malacañan Palace.” And of course the brand-new Mitsubishi Montero you’re riding in should send the signal to the police manning the checkpoints that you’re respectable well-to-do citizens, not some criminal gang who’d likely be using an old FX or even a beat up Safari. A policeman gestures for your SUV to stop, and as it slows down, there’s a volley of gunfire, and you fall into oblivion.

From the information that has slowly emerged, that probably would have been the last thoughts of those killed in the Atimonan massacre.

The police involved in the massacre have been trying to portray it as a legitimate firefight by making two broad allegations, which, however, a formal investigation by the Philippine National Police completed the other day, has debunked. Let’s go over these two to show how incredible these are, which only show how stupid they think Filipinos are.

FIRST ALLEGATION. It was an operation against a well-armed criminal gang led by one Victor Siman.

As Lt. Col. Monico Abang who commanded the army platoon that participated in the incident claimed: “We were provoked by a group of armed aggressors who fired at us first.” The Philippine National Police’s Quezon provincial chief Val de Leon repeated the same line: “As soon as troops and police flagged down the first vehicle, the gunmen aboard started shooting at our people.” Police superintendent (i.e., colonel) Hansel Marantan was even wounded in the leg and in the forearm.

Marantan is deputy chief of police intelligence of the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) region who has emerged as the brains of the entire operation from the start, and who was at the forefront of the alleged firefight.

The facts. All the windows of the two Monteros (which seem to be recent models or even brand new, as one still didn’t have the regular plates) were not rolled down, unbelievably stupid for alleged shooters in the SUVs not to do so. One Montero had 174 bullet holes, the second 54. Only four empty bullet shells have been found in the vehicles. The slugs purportedly fired from the guns of the fatalities have not been found, except one that Mantaran claims was taken out of his leg, although he had refused to allow PNP medical personnel to check his wounds and to submit to them the spent bullet. Paraffin tests showed that only two of those killed could have fired their guns, while unverified reports claim that two were shot at very close range. One photograph of a 45 pistol lying beside one fatality was obviously unfired: The tip of its barrel was wrapped in an undamaged masking tape, as policemen’s firearms were sealed before the New Year’s Eve.

The most damning evidence: 11 of the 13 were shot in the head.

The questions. How could a shooter in a tall Montero, whose pistol or rifle would have been at a height of 1.5 meters, hit Mantaran at his leg? Were the criminals in the sports utility vehicle so stupid as to engage an obviously bigger force that had blocked the road, which clearly precluded the kind of escape you only see in the movies? Can you imagine how difficult it is to pull out a gun in an SUV packed like a sardine can with seven people? A major firefight and all 13 of those in the SUVs were killed, eleven hit in the head – not even one just wounded yet surviving — with only one of their opponents shot, and in the leg? Why were the policemen in civilian clothes?

SECOND ALLEGATION: The police and the army troopers manning the checkpoint in fact were expecting a firefight. They were informed by, who else, Marantan, that, as Col. Generoso Bolina, Armed Forces Southern Luzon Command spokesman put it, a “group of drug lords would be passing by, armed with high-caliber gangs.” Bolina in a recent radio interview would revise that to “private armed group”. Marantan on the other hand described them as a “jueteng and gun-for-hire gang.”

The facts: Among those killed was police superintendent Alfredo Consemino who headed the Support Group of Police Regional Office 4-B, and who was given full military honors at his burial. Two were policeman whom he had asked to accompany him in that trip, one was an airforce 1st lieutenant, and another a former Army staff sergeant. One fatality was Tirso Lontok, known in the region as an activist in an environmentalist group protecting Mount Banahaw, and two Quezon province congressmen from opposing parties vouched for his integrity. Siman’s cousin Gerry with the same surname was shot between the eyes, and another relative Victorino Siman was shot in the head.

Marantan and the army spokesman claimed that Siman, their target, was a jueteng lord and led a “gun-for-hire” gang. But true or not, he doesn’t have a pending arrest warrant, nor any past criminal case or conviction. Whether his money came from illegal gambling or not, he seems to have been a respected member of the community living in a posh house in a subdivision in Calamba City, and his brothers are barangay officials. He wasn’t in the PNP’s list of wanted criminals. In fact not one of the 13 killed had criminal convictions. It certainly would take a particular type of hardened criminal, or rogue soldiers, to engage a police and military checkpoint in a firefight. None of those killed –- even those purportedly Siman’s bodyguards – had that profile.

It would have been certainly appropriate for the police to be on combat alert and call for an army platoon as a back-up force to prepare for a possible encounter with an Abu Sayaff or NPA group, or bank robbers fleeing after their raid. But to be in full-battle gear and trigger-ready based on an “intelligence” report that a “private armed group” would be passing by, whose members weren’t identified, and who were not in any PNP or military order of battle?

The questions. Is it just a big coincidence that Mantaran, the brains of the operation, had figured in firefights in the last seven years in which thirty alleged criminals were killed? This included the killing of four young men in Ortigas Center — which was even video taped — for which Marantan and his associates still have pending murder charges. Does he have a sister who operates a small town lottery that is a front for jueteng operations that competed with that

of Siman? Is it a coincidence that one of those killed, Siman’s cousin Gerry was reported to have only recently filed a multiple-murder charge against Marantan?

It was Marantan who allegedly stepped in front of the Montero’s path to order it to stop. But why has he refused to be interrogated by the PNP investigators? What happened to a red suitcase allegedly Siman or his group had with them that contained P30 million from a wealthy miner they were transporting for safekeeping?

Think about the Atimonan massacre: The police can just riddle your car with over 200 bullets at a checkpoint, and later on claim you were a criminal. If they’re proven wrong, they’ll say it wasn’t your fault as you didn’t stop, and didn’t roll down your windows. (And if you did roll them down, they’d claim they thought they saw rifle barrels being stuck out.)

The implications are equally frightening if one interpretation of the massacre turns out true: That it was a gang war between two rival jueteng syndicates, with Mantaran a hit man who duped the police and the military into firing at the two vehicles where the leader of the rival gang was. The chilling implication: Underneath the happy tuwid na daan are massive jueteng operations in our country that have become so lucrative that a police colonel protecting one gang would be so brutal as to massacre 13 people to wipe out the other.

It is certainly admirable that Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, who’s just easing into his chair as the commander of the PNP, has shown surprising guts by defying police officials who defended their own, insisting it was a legitimate firefight. It was Roxas in fact who first raised in media crucial questions on the massacre, and who advised President Aquino to have it probed by the civilian National Bureau of Investigation. His handling of the Atimonan massacre could even be a make-or-break episode for his presidential ambitions.

Mantaran’s recent statement though is intriguing: That he is merely a collateral damage in this incident.

One interpretation of that statement would be that he was merely executing an order to neutralize by whatever means all jueteng operators. That would explain why he claims the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa gave him P100,000 to fund the operation he proposed against Siman. (Ochoa claims Mantaran’s proposal was rejected though.)

But now that there is an outrage over the massacre—would there have been if no police officials, no environmentalist were killed? – he has become what he terms as “collateral damage,” the scapegoat.

Involved in so many firefights that resulted in the deaths of thirty civilians, Mantaran was described by his peers as the “policeman with balls” and “a determined police officer.” Could he be the new version of Marcos’ dreaded Col. Rolando Abadilla?