The Philippine Army has be come another institution among many that has been debased—wittingly or unwittingly—under President Aquino’s administration.
International media, from the Washington Post to huffingtonpost.com carried the following headline over the killing of 13 people in a checkpoint in Atimonan on January 6: “Philippine army, police kill 13 suspects in clash”.
I myself when I first read the headline thought it was a firefight between the Army and the communist-led New People’s Army. Now, witnesses’ testimony and physical evidence are fast concluding that it was nothing else but a massacre, and the global community, going by that kind of headlines, would have the image of our army as a gang of rampaging killers.
Even during the height of martial law, atrocities and human rights abuses were mostly—if not all—attributed to the Philippine Constabulary, or to the dreaded death squads said to be directly under his chief security Gen. Fabian Ver. The Philippine Army through martial law and after had stood above the fray, with NPA guerillas even respecting them as professional warriors.
The Atimonan massacre has shattered the Army’s prestige. Worse, the rogue—or plainly stupid—Army unit involved came from its elite unit: the Special Forces, our equivalent of the American “Green Berets” which in any army in the world are considered the crème de la crème of the modern warrior class. The Special Forces Command even brags that former President Fidel Ramos, now Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and two Armed Forces Chiefs of Staff had been commanders of this elite force.
In the previous decade, the Special Forces was the army’s vanguard that took on the New People’s Army and decimated the Abu Sayaff terrorists, hunting down through thick jungles and killing its leaders Khadafi Janjalani, Abu Sabaya and Abu Sulaiman.
This month it helped massacre eight civilians, one police colonel, and four other other police and military personnel at a checkpoint in a highway in Quezon.
How things have changed. TV video footage caught the soldiers of the Army’s special forces involved in the Atimonan massacre covering their faces in shame, like some gang of criminals. Why should they be ashamed of their victory in combat, unless it was instead a massacre of hapless people?
There are many incidents of policemen summarily executing suspects, which even ranking police officials justify as a necessary evil in a country where the rule of a law is feeble. I do not remember any incident in which the Philippine Army, especially, its Special Forces were involved in, or even just accused, of massacring civilians.
The complicity of the commander of the Special Forces troopers involved in the massacre, Lt. Col. Monico Abang, has become obvious in the statements he made hours after the killing. In fact, it was strange for Abang to have been practically the first spokesman on the incident, instead of officials of the police whose operation after all it was. He even made it appear as an Army operation. Was that deliberate in order to exploit the Army’s prestige in the cover-up? Check out Abang’s statements made hours after the massacre, as reported by the respected international news service, the Associated Press, datelined January 6, or just hours after the incident:
“The gunmen opened fire on more than 50 army soldiers and police when they were flagged down a the checkpoint.” ”They rolled down their windows and started firing, so had to retaliate.” “They were outgunned,” Abang even boasted “Two gunmen jumped one of he SUVs and fired from a roadside canal.
Those statements have emerged as outright lies, based not just on actual witnesses’ statements but also on physical evidence:
“Gunmen Opened fire? “ Investigators found only two bullet casings in one of the victims’ vehicles. Pistols and rifles were planted on the victims, as even one photo showed. “Rolled down their windows”? But the windows had so many bullet holes from guns fired from outside. “Outgunned”? Totally helpless would be more accurate: Eleven of the 13 dead were shot in the head, most at close range.
And the most reckless, cruel lie: that “two gunmen” got out of the vehicles and fired at the troopers. One of the two corpses found outside the vehicles was that of environmentalist Tirso Lontok, with 14 gunshot wounds one to the head and another to the throat. Witnesses testified that Lontok with a companion were raising their hands, when a soldier and a second gunman in civilian clothes fired at them. Do they teach that in the Special Forces’ purported rigorous training programs?
Why would Abang out of his way to fabricate such lies? Was he aware that, according to unverified reports, Vic Siman, allegedly the target of the police operations, together with the police colonel killed in the incident, were carrying P30 million a miner asked them to transport for safekeeping somewhere?
Worse, even in the face of witnesses’ testimonies made and physical evidence found days after the massacre, Abang still claims it was a legitimate firefight, that his “troops fired in the air”.
And worse, his superiors could have kept mum on the incident—after all they were not eyewitnesses — and just waited for the final report of the National Bureau Investigation, which was tasked by their commander-in-chief to investigate it. Instead, Maj. Gen. Alan Luga, the military commander in Southern Luzon, as well as the Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, the new Armed Forces chief, backed up Abang’s claims. Why did they do so? As Luga put it, “That’s what the soldiers said.”
They’ve become the “Special Massacre Forces”, one justice department official quipped.
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The Palace has been linked, one way or another, with the Atimonan massacre. It can clear itself only if it makes public a crucial document.
This is what Police Superintendent Hansel Marantan, who led the police in the incident, submitted to the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOC): the “case operation plan” inanely code-named “Armado”, which led to the Atimonan massacre. Chief Superintendent James Melad head of the Calabarzon Police endorsed the operation.
Melad and then PAOCC executive director Reginald Villasanta claimed that “Armado” was never approved, and that just like many proposals it receives, it was just shelved. They had to change their tune though when Marantan himself claimed that the PAOCC released P100,000 for the operations. Villasanta pivoted to claim it was just for “intelligence purposes” and not for the actual operations.
The actual document “Coplan Armado” would reveal how much the PAOCC, and the executive secretary new about the operation, and their involvement. Why would the PAOCC provide funding for an operation targeting somebody, Siman, who even if “police intelligence” claimed was a jueteng lord, did not have a single case filed against him?
Other important intriguing questions have emerged over the Atimonan massacre.
Did Marantan sucker Interior and Local Government secretary Mar Roxas, who has boasted that he will eradicate jueteng, so that he was given a license-to-kill authority? After submitting his plan did Marantan go around boasting that he is being backed by Malacanang to hoodwink the Special Forces to join his ambush?
Did deputy spokesman Abigail Valte hours after the incident claim that “it was a legitimate operation” because her superiors said so, as they were all the while monitoring “Coplan Armado”? Shouldn’t Justice Secretary Justice de Lima—who is in charge of the NBI that is investigating the case—demand that St. Luke’s Medical Center disclose who is paying for Marantan’s bills at that five-star hospital?
Is the Atimonan massacre the deadly result of a government in disarray, without strong leadership that leads to breakdown of discipline in the police and the military?