Slay suspect bares motive for killing of Fr. PopsBy Inquirer Mindanao, Julie Alipala, Marlon Ramos, Williamor Magbanua
Italian priest Fausto “Fr. Pops” Tentorio was killed allegedly for his strong objection to a proposed hydropower project in the Arakan part of Pulangui River, a military officer said Thursday.
Colonel Leopoldo Galon, spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command based in Davao City, said this was the initial confession of the suspect who was arrested yesterday for the murder of Tentorio in October.
“Alleged masterminds are wealthy landowners in Arakan who stand to profit from the hydropower project, which Fr. Pops alongside his ‘lumad’ organizations and other left-leaning groups are actively opposing,” Galon said in a text message.
Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra, who belongs to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (Pime), said he would reserve his comments on the arrest of the supposed suspect.
He doubted claims that Ato had been identified by witnesses as the one who shot and killed Tentorio, a member of Pime.
“As far as I know there was no clear witness to the crime. Unlike Tulio (Favali) who was killed in front of many witnesses, Tentorio was killed with hardly a witness,” D’Ambra, who is based in Zamboanga City, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by text message.
National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents arrested a Jimmy Ato during a police-backed operation in Kulaman Valley village in Arakan, North Cotabato, at around 3 a.m. on Thursday, said Senior Superintendent Cornelio Salinas, North Cotabato police chief.
A military officer privy to the arrest said Ato was captured at around 5 a.m.
The military officer, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak on the matter, said the suspect had been brought to Cagayan de Oro City and then flown to Manila on the same day.
Galon said Ato’s brother, identified as Robert, had eluded arrest when NBI agents chanced upon the duo in Iwak-iwak sub-village.
Tentorio was preparing to leave for a clergy meeting in Kidapawan City on the morning of October 17 when attacked by a masked man.
Although Ato was wearing a crash helmet at the time of the shooting, he was seen by witnesses near Tentorio’s parish church before and after the killing, said Virgilio Mendez, chief of the NBI in Region 12.
“In fact, one of our witnesses was able to talk to him before Tentorio was murdered,” Mendez said.
Fr. Peter Geremia, a Pime missionary based in Central Mindanao, thanked authorities for the arrest of the suspected killer of Tentorio.
He said it was a positive development in the Tentorio murder case.
“The next great task is to identify who planned and masterminded Tentorio’s killing; and those who tried to cover up the case,” Geremia told the Inquirer by phone.
He said the arrest could shed light on Tentorio’s killing and encourage more witnesses to surface.
Bishop Modesto Villasanta, convenor of the Exodus for Justice and Peace, said Ato’s arrest was a piece of good news.
“Good because we will know the motive of his killing. We hope this will bring us closer to justice for Fr. Pops [Tentorio],” Villasanta said in a text message to the Inquirer.
Brief gun battle
Mendez said Robert fled on foot after engaging the arresting team in a brief gun battle.
“He was able to run away from the area after he shot at us,” Mendez said in a mobile phone interview.
Mendez said Jimmy was arrested based on a standing warrant of arrest issued by a Cotabato RTC in connection with another case for destructive arson with homicide.
He said the NBI would file a murder case next week against Jimmy and his brother in connection with Tentorio’s killing.
“There had actually been several operations before this. We just wanted an airtight case before filing the case against the suspects,” he said.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the arrest of Ato was a “concrete sign” that the Aquino administration had been making gains in putting an end to the culture of impunity that had abetted extrajudicial killings in the country the past several years.
“It’s gratifying to note that the landscape is now changing,” De Lima said in a text message.
She added: “I believe that this development is yet another concrete sign that we’re starting to break the culture of impunity that has long pervaded our country, thanks to the steadfast, concerted and collaborative actions among relevant law enforcement agencies.”
The justice secretary said investigators were looking at “local politics” behind Tentorio’s murder, but declined to give further details so as not to jeopardize ongoing operations against the suspect’s accomplices, including the mastermind.
“We’re also looking at the victim’s involvement in environment issues as another possible motive (in the killing),” she said.
De Lima said witnesses had pointed to Robert as the driver of the parked motorcycle which the gunman used after the fatal shooting.
Gun for hire
De Lima said the Ato brothers were suspected members of a gun-for-hire syndicate in the area.
“We’re fortunate now because of witnesses’ confidence. I believe… that in most extrajudicial killings, including those in the past, witnesses (were) unwilling to cooperate due to fear of and/or distrust in authorities,” De Lima said.
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo welcomed the arrest of the alleged gunman but said authorities should not stop in hunting down the mastermind.
“This is not ‘case closed’ until the mastermind is not revealed. We want to know the motive behind the murder. We want to know who’s the mastermind so that we can fight the culture of impunity,” Pabillo, chair of the Episcopal Commission on Social Action, Justice and Peace, told reporters.
Pabillo thanked the NBI for the capture of the suspect. The prelate also said that he had prayed that Tentorio should be the last missionary killed in the Philippines.
“My prayer is for the mastermind to be caught so that all those thinking to commit the same crime would think twice before doing it since the government is serious [in fighting extrajudicial killings] and that government will not allow the mastermind to remain scot-free. I wish this would be the last [killing of a priest],” Pabillo said.
D’Ambra noted that more than two months after the murder, the motive remained unclear, at least to those who loved him. “We don’t know if the killing was related to mining, communist or personal vendetta because sometimes he cannot please everybody,” he said.
Suspected Red backer
The Justice for Pops Movement, which is made up of religious and cause-oriented groups, earlier expressed apprehension about a possible whitewash of the Tentorio murder case.
The group said there were indications that the military was behind Tentorio’s murder, a charge that the Armed Forces of the Philippines had repeatedly denied.
But Galon once said that Tentorio had been a suspected communist supporter.
Priests perceived as defenders of the poor and the oppressed have been tagged as suspected communists, which put their lives in danger, according to Geremia. With reports from Germelina Lacorte and Nico Alconaba, Inquirer Mindanao; and Jerome Aning in Manila