President Aquino on Wednesday voiced doubts that the clash between government security forces and an alleged criminal gang in Atimonan town, Quezon province, in which 13 people were killed on Sunday, was a shootout.
Mr. Aquino said he found inconsistencies in the initial police report on the clash that happened at an alleged security checkpoint in a sparsely populated stretch of Maharlika Highway in Atimonan.
The President said that because of those inconsistencies, he ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the alleged shootout. The Palace said the NBI was the designated sole investigator.
Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima on Wednesday ordered the suspension of the Quezon police chief, Senior Supt. Valeriano de Leon, and Supt. Hansel Marantan, the leader of the police team at the Atimonan checkpoint who police said was hit in the hands and foot in the exchange of gunfire with the alleged criminals.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said Marantan’s team violated procedures and Marantan may be facing administrative sanctions.
President Aquino promised that “there will be justice” for the families of those who were killed.
Violations of procedures
Roxas said the initial PNP investigation found that 16 of the policemen at the checkpoint were not in uniform, a violation of checkpoint procedures.
He said that while uniformed officers were stationed 500 meters from the checkpoint, the checkpoint itself was not marked with police signs.
There also was no police vehicle at the checkpoint, Roxas said.
He said the checkpoint was manned by 16 policemen and 25 Army soldiers led by Lt. Col. Monico Abang. All the soldiers were in military camouflage.
Roxas said 13 of the 14 firearms recovered from the slain men were registered but only seven of the owners had permits to carry.
He said he met with President Aquino on Tuesday and they discussed an independent investigation of the alleged shootout by the Department of Justice and the NBI.
Too early for conclusions
Mr. Aquino said that despite his doubts, he believed it was too early for him to draw conclusions, because he might be misinterpreted as trying to influence the direction of the investigation.
“There will be justice. But as to where [the investigation] will lead to, I cannot tell,” Mr. Aquino said.
“Some of those who died were supposed to be involved in illegal activities, isn’t it? They were with members of law enforcement agencies and authorities [so] perhaps associations [must] be explained,” he said.
Philippine Daily Inquirer sources in the PNP said rivalry for turf between two syndicates involved in the numbers racket “jueteng” led to the alleged shootout, which was actually an ambush intended by one group protected by police to get rid of competition from the other.
Antijueteng crusaders said the alleged shootout was only the beginning of a potentially big scandal.
“When jueteng kills, it kills quietly,” said retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, leader of Krusada ng Bayan Laban sa Jueteng. “But this one is so scandalous” and “this was not wholly illegal gambling. It [also] has political content.”
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Wednesday said the NBI investigation would look into the jueteng angle.
“We don’t think we can just really focus on whether it’s a shootout or a rubout,” De Lima told reporters. “It cannot be avoided because you have to answer the question of what was that operation all about.”
President Aquino noted that 13 were killed on the side of the group that the police in Quezon reported as guns for hire.
“[T]he use of deadly force is authorized only in self-defense or defense of others,” Mr. Aquino said, adding that the NBI investigation would include establishing whether the security forces used excessive force on the alleged criminals.
PNP’s probe limited
The PNP’s investigation will be limited to the examination of the firearms used and the vehicles that figured in the clash, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said.
President Aquino made it clear that he still trusted the PNP, but since the police could not investigate themselves, he ordered the NBI to carry out the investigation.
“There is no [question] of trust [involved],” Mr. Aquino said. “The PNP is competent to investigate, but there are those who say, ‘Why will you let those being investigated to conduct an investigation of themselves?” he said.
“So to preclude any bias, favoritism, factionalism, etc., let’s tap [a body] that will be [seen as a] much clearer independent agency,” he said.
The President also shielded Purisima from criticism, asking critics to allow him to “warm his [seat] first.”
“He has actually been very proactive. The PNP chief has not been in office for about a month or so. And, of course, his focus has to be on the preparations for the elections, among other things,” Mr. Aquino said.
The Quezon police reported that police and Army Special Forces set up the checkpoint after the police had been tipped off that members of a criminal syndicate would pass through Atimonan on Sunday.
Three SUVs came but when the security forces flagged them down, the occupants of the vehicles rolled down their windows and opened fire, hitting Marantan on the hands and foot and prompting the authorities to return fire.
The policemen and soldiers raked the first two SUVs with gunfire. The third SUV turned back and fled.
Eleven of the alleged criminals died on the spot. Two died on the way to the hospital, the Quezon police said.
De Lima said the NBI would look into what exactly was the tip received by the police, who gave the clearance for the operation, whether the alleged criminals were indeed guns for hire.
The NBI’s objective, De Lima said, is to find out what really happened in Atimonan on Sunday.
De Lima said she was glad that Purisima had suspended De Leon and Marantan. The suspension would give the NBI “easy access” to the officers involved, she said.
Also relieved were Supt. Ramon Balauag, Quezon police intelligence chief; Chief Insp. Grant Gollod, Atimonan police chief; and 14 police intelligence agents.
Marantan was relieved as deputy intelligence chief of the Calabarzon (Calamba, Laguna, Batangas, Aurora and Quezon) police.
Quezon police chief De Leon accepted his relief, but insisted he was not at the scene of Sunday’s alleged shootout.
No sacred cows
“I’m duty-bound to follow the order. I accept that,” De Leon told the Inquirer by phone.
But he added: “I was not there. I was not involved. There should be justice for all.”
The NBI promised the investigation would spare no one.
“There will be no sacred cows,” said Virgilio Mendez, NBI deputy director for regional operations services. “The investigation will go where it will take us.”
The investigation, involving at least six divisions, has begun, Mendez said.
A technical team and agents are now in Quezon gathering information, but have yet to arrive at a reason for the alleged shootout, he said.
Mendez said the investigation would retrace the steps of the group led by Senior Supt. Alfredo Perez Consemino to find the people it had contacted before it reached Atimonan and its end on Sunday.
Mendez said some of those killed would be autopsied anew on the request of relatives.
NBI medicolegal officers will handle the new autopsies to determine how the victims died.
Mendez said the NBI was not given a deadline to complete the investigation, but the bureau would work fast to “ferret out the truth.”
No comment on rivalry
“We will determine the truth behind this and I assure you that there will be no whitewash or cover-up,” Roxas told reporters.
Roxas and Purisima declined to comment on reports that rivalry for turf between two jueteng syndicates in Laguna and Batangas is behind the alleged shootout.
“We do not want to be speculating or concluding because the report of the fact-finding team is not yet finished. What we are saying now [is] based only on facts,” Purisima said.
Vic Siman’s group was carrying P5 million when it got into the alleged shootout, according to a daughter of Consemino.
Among those killed in the alleged shootout were Siman, who Inquirer police sources said was a known jueteng operator and “godfather” of small town lottery (STL) bookies in Southern Tagalog, and Consemino, acting group director of the PNP Regional Headquaters Support Group in Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan) region.
Cristine Consemino, an accounting clerk at Siman’s Glendor Security Agency, told reporters at the NBI Wednesday that the money was intended for the bond that New Marc Agency needed to put up to get a security contract from Ayala Greenfields in Laguna province.
New Marc Agency is owned by one Ronnie Habitan and Siman and Consemino were “industrial partners” in the business, she said.
She said she had knowledge of the money because it was she who handled the paperwork for the contract.
She said her father traveled to Bicol on the invitation of Habitan, a mining operator in Camarines Norte province, to discuss the Ayala Greenfields contract. Siman’s group was to get the money for the bond, she added.
“My father’s trip to Bicol was legitimate. I’m calling on Mr. Ronnie Habitan to give a statement. Acknowledge that you invited my dad and the group of [Siman] to your house in Panganiban that weekend,” she said.
Public not being told all
Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez on Wednesday called on the leadership of the House of Representatives to open an investigation into the alleged shootout, saying the clash was “alarming” and may have implications on public security during the campaign for midterm elections in May.
“Who can say that you are safe and will be protected now that those who are powerful are being killed?” Suarez said.
Suarez said he believed there was more to the story that what the public was being told. With reports from Leila Salaverria and Nancy C. Carvajal in Manila; and Delfin T. Mallari Jr. and Maricar Cinco, Inquirer Southern Luzon
Originally posted at 09:03 pm | Wednesday, January 09, 2012