The military said Leonard Co, a consultant to the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp. (EDC), company forest guard Sofronio G. Cortez and Co’s guide Julius Borromeo were reportedly caught in the crossfire between troops of the Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion (IB) and communist rebels in Upper Mahiao, Barangay (village) Lim-ao.
When the purported fire fight took place, Co, along with his team, were collecting seedling specimens for an EDC project. He died from three gunshots on the back.
Co’s other guide, Policarpio Balute, and Roniño Gibe, a contractual forester with EDC’s corporate responsibility department, survived the shooting.
Two days after the incident, Balute said in an interview that Co and his team might have been mistaken for members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA). He said there was no indication of a fire fight between soldiers and rebels, as the military claimed.
Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th IB, asserted that an encounter happened and that it was only when the troops searched the area that they found the victims and the two survivors.
On Dec. 8, 2010, a team of scientists that looked into the incident found that there was no fire fight, much less crossfire, and the shots, which came from where the soldiers were positioned, were aimed directly at the area where Co and his team were working.
The fact-finding team, which visited the Kananga forest and spoke with the survivors, also said that the military failed to provide immediate medical aid to Borromeo after the shooting despite the pleas of Gibe.
The team filed murder charges against the soldiers in the Department of Justice (DOJ).
DOJ cleared military
In January 2011, a fact-finding team formed by the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) concluded a two-month investigation and cleared the military of any liability for the deaths.
The three-man body instead blamed the communist rebels for the incident, and said EDC was liable for failing to take extra precautions for the victims.
The DOJ-NBI report was met with disbelief and dismay, as well as allegations of a cover-up.
A week after the DOJ-NBI panel released its findings, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Chair Etta Rosales said physical evidence presented during a CHR hearing on the incident tended to show Co and his companions did not die in crossfire between soldiers and rebels.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima later ordered a panel of state prosecutors to conduct a preliminary investigation of a case filed by the parents and wife of Co against Army 1st Lt. Ronald Odchimar and 37 soldiers for Co’s murder. Inquirer Research
Source: Inquirer Archives