No more than six of the 13 people slain in a supposed gun battle between government security forces and alleged criminals in Atimonan town, Quezon province, on Jan. 6 may have had guns in their hands during the shootout, a ranking government official told the Inquirer Sunday.
It is possible that there was no exchange of gunfire and that the guns reportedly recovered from the scene were planted to make it appear that those killed were armed, according to the official.
Investigators are piecing the facts together and it looks like the leader of the police team at the joint police-military checkpoint in Atimonan where the killings took place has a lot to explain, the source said.
The source, who was familiar with the investigation of the killings, said the fact-finding team created by the Philippine National Police noted “glaring inconsistencies” in the initial statements given by the policemen who took part in the Atimonan operation.
The inconsistencies in the initial police report and claims by relatives of those slain that the victims were summarily executed prompted President Aquino to order the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the supposed shootout to determine what really happened.
On Sunday, Malacañang said the investigation would include the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC), which knew about but disapproved the plan for the police operation that led to the supposed shootout in Atimonan.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the PAOCC would be investigated, but it was up to the investigators to determine where the buck stopped after the commission.
In a talk with reporters on Thursday, President Aquino said he expected to receive the results of the investigation “very, very soon.”
Police and military personnel involved in the supposed gun battle would be held liable for any violations of the law, Mr. Aquino said.
The initial police report said the 13 men aboard two sports utility vehicles opened fire when flagged down at a joint police-military checkpoint along Maharlika Highway in Barangay (village) Lumutan, Atimonan, prompting the security forces to return fire.
Police said the 13 men were members of a gun-for-hire gang and tests showed them positive for gunpowder, meaning they fired guns.
But as the Inquirer source explained it, it is possible that no exchange of gunfire happened at the checkpoint.
“There’s a reason to believe that not more than six of those killed were holding guns at the time of the alleged shootout,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was in progress.
Asked to elaborate, the source said some of the policemen who went to the scene disclosed that most of the guns taken from the slain men were actually found in the back of the two SUVs the group used.
The source said that while several of the slain men tested positive for gunpowder, it did not mean they fired guns.
Shot at close range
“It’s actually possible that they tested positive for gunpowder because they were shot at close range,” the source said.
“What the NBI and the PNP should do now is to find witnesses who could testify that the guns were really found in the back of the vehicles and that not all of the 13 had guns as initially reported by Marantan,” he said, referring to Supt. Hansel Marantan, leader of the police team at the checkpoint.
Marantan was the only one wounded among the 50 policemen and Army special forces involved in the supposed fire fight. He was reportedly hit in the left arm and leg.
The source said the PNP fact-finding team was able to secure photographs showing that two of the slain men did not have firearms.
“But in another set of pictures taken by Soco (scene of the crime operatives), it appeared that they had guns. So it’s possible that the guns were just placed near the bodies to make it appear that they traded shots with Marantan’s group,” the source said.
“It’s also possible that the pictures showing they had guns were taken before the Soco collected the guns and other pieces of evidence from the scene,” the source added.
“It’s now certain that Marantan will have a lot of explaining to do,” the source said.
The source said the policemen who took part in the operation also gave “conflicting versions” of how the supposed shootout started when the fact-finding team went to the site for a “reconstruction” of the incident.
“The policemen had different versions of what actually transpired,” the source said.
For instance, some of them claimed it was Chief Insp. Grant Gollod, the sacked Atimonan police chief, who flagged down the vehicles.
But others said it was actually Marantan who ordered the two vehicles to stop, the source added.
“That supposedly explains why only Marantan was hit in the exchange of gunfire,” the source said. “But if he really was standing that close to the vehicles, how did he avoid being fatally shot? There has to be an explanation for that.”
In the initial report, the police said the 13 killed were members of a gun-for-hire group in Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon), but it turned out that three of them were policemen and two were Air Force soldiers.
One of the slain policemen was Supt. Alfredo Consemino, deputy director of the Headquarters Support Group of the Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan) police.
Inquirer sources said the supposed shootout was the culmination of a three-month police operation called “Coplan Armado,” proposed by the intelligence unit of the Calabarzon police.
The coplan was submitted to the PAOCC. But the agency claimed it found the coplan potentially bloody and disapproved it.
The target of “Armado” was Victor “Vic” Siman, an alleged operator of the numbers racket “jueteng” in provinces south of Manila.
Siman was among the 13 killed in the supposed shootout in Atimonan.
The PAOCC, a body under the Office of the President, is headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.
Even without PAOCC approval and funding, however, the Calabarzon police intelligence unit went ahead with the operation, getting Siman but also killing 12 others not all of whom may be linked to his illegal business.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, head of the Senate defense committee, on Sunday said the NBI investigation should determine whether there was “excessive use of force or violation of the rules of engagement” in the supposed shootout.
But there is one thing clear, Lacson said in an interview on radio, and that is the PAOCC was not involved in the police operation.
The PAOCC is a funding agency for such operations, but it does not take part in those operations, Lacson explained.
Also on Sunday, Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. urged the “appropriate Senate committees” to inquire into the supposed shootout “in aid of legislation.”
“It must be determined whether the incident was a culmination of a three-month police operation under Coplan Armado, a case operational plan against organized crime groups in Calabarzon, or a rubout as asserted by the families of those who were killed,” Revilla said in an e-mailed statement.
Revilla said the number of those killed “makes an investigation imperative,” adding that the “initial findings” of the NBI “contradict the reports and findings of the Philippine National Police.”
The senator also expressed concern about the supposed shootout’s reported link to another such incident in Calamba City, which happened in November last year. Six people were killed in that reported shootout.
The Senate inquiry, Revilla said, should establish “if certain standard operating procedures in police operations were violated or [whether] there are loopholes in the existing SOPs.”
Police probers’ report
Chief Supt. Generoso Cerbo Jr., PNP spokesperson, said the report of the fact-finding team would not be made public.
Instead, the findings of the team, headed by Chief Supt. Federico Castro, would be directly submitted to the NBI, Cerbo told the Inquirer by phone.
“From what I know, the report will not be presented in a press conference. It’s up to the NBI to [review] the findings contained in the report,” Cerbo said. With reports from TJ Burgonio and Cathy Yamsuan