ATIMONAN, Quezon—Environmentalist Tirso Lontok Jr. stepped out of the second vehicle, hands raised. A companion also got off, raising his hands. If they were thinking that following orders to get off would save their lives, they were wrong. Gunfire ripped the air and they fell into a roadside canal, dead.
Two witnesses described to government investigators how the two men were cut down after policemen and Army Special Forces raked the first vehicle with gunfire.
With Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and National Bureau of Investigation officials watching, the two witnesses, wearing masks for security, helped the investigators on Thursday in reenacting the events of Jan. 6 that led to the gunslaying of 13 people, including Lontok, on a stretch of Maharlika Highway in Atimonan town, Quezon province.
“They are eyewitnesses. They actually saw what really happened. They witnessed almost the entire incident so we believe this is what really happened,” De Lima told reporters on the roadside after the reenactment. “This is a big breakthrough.”
De Lima described the two witnesses as “neutral,” meaning they were neither police nor soldiers. They were there on that Sunday afternoon and saw the killings that local and regional police officials wanted the public to believe was a “shootout” between a combined police and military security force and a group of criminals led by Victor “Vic” Siman, alleged operator of the numbers racket “jueteng” in southern Luzon.
But with the testimony of the witnesses and the reenactment of the events, De Lima said what happened was not a shootout.
“Definitely it was not a shootout,” she said. But she did not describe what it was, saying the NBI wanted to dig deeper.
De Lima said the testimony of the witnesses was “very vital” and “explosive” and could bolster initial findings that there was no shootout at the joint police-military checkpoint in Barangay (village) Lumutan where the slayings happened.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has put the two witnesses, whom De Lima said had been under NBI custody for several days, on the government’s witness protection program.
De Lima declined to disclose the identities of the witnesses. “There is now confidentiality involved,” she said.
“At first they were afraid to talk, but when the NBI assured them [that they and their families would be safe], they eventually agreed to talk,” De Lima said.
She stressed that the witnesses were “neutral civilians” and so had “no motive to invent what they [said they] had witnessed.”
How it happened
The Jan. 6 killings happened at the second of three checkpoints set up along Maharlika Highway.
An NBI source interviewed by the Philippine Daily Inquirer earlier said the two sports utility vehicles carrying Siman’s group were waived through the first checkpoint in Plaridel town by uniformed officers from the Atimonan police.
At the third checkpoint, near an Iglesia Ni Cristo church on the highway, uniformed police detoured traffic away from Atimonan. The source said Siman’s group was “lured into a trap.”
There were no police signs at the second checkpoint manned by policemen in civvies, with Army Special Forces in full battle gear for backup.
De Lima said a checkpoint sign was placed on the middle of the road only as Siman’s group approached.
As the sign was being set up, she said, a military truck drove to the center of the road and blocked passage, apparently to prevent Siman’s group from fleeing.
Recounting the testimony of the witnesses, De Lima said two soldiers approached each vehicle and ordered the occupants to get off.
Single shot from 1st SUV
“When they refused to go down, the soldiers retreated to the line of soldiers and policemen and then a man in civilian clothes leading the group shouted, ‘Fire,’” De Lima said.
Policemen and soldiers peppered the first vehicle with bullets.
De Lima said that according to the witnesses, a single shot was fired from inside the first vehicle.
“The witnesses said they even saw the [spent case fly] out the window from the driver’s side of the first vehicle. “Then it was followed by another order to fire from the same person in civilian clothes at the checkpoint,” she said.
De Lima said the first burst of gunfire lasted about 20 seconds and the second, about eight seconds.
Then from the second vehicle, she said, Lontok and another man stepped out, their hands raised.
But “a uniformed soldier with a rifle and a civilian with a handgun” shot the two men, De Lima said.
She said Lontok’s body was found in a roadside ditch, where it rolled after the environmentalist was shot.
Police records showed Lontok was hit 14 times. He took one shot to the head, one to the throat, one to the chest, two to the back, and nine to the legs.
She said the witnesses could not describe the policeman in civvies who gave the order to fire.
The policeman was described as wearing an olive drab jacket over an orange striped shirt.
The leader of the police team at the checkpoint was Supt. Hansel Marantan, deputy chief of intelligence of the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon) police, who was reportedly hit in the hands and foot during the supposed shootout.
Sources at a local hospital where Marantan was first taken for treatment said he was wearing “orange striped shirt and blue denim pants” when he was brought in.
6 meters away
NBI Deputy Director Virgilio Mendez said the witnesses were positioned about 6 meters from the two vehicles when the shooting happened.
De Lima said the witnesses, who were aboard a 10-wheeler truck, were not harmed because they left after being told by a soldier to “leave immediately.”
The truck of the witnesses was in the middle of the road, in front of the vehicles of Siman’s group. On the other side were the security forces.
“They were really close and could see and hear what was happening,” Mendez said.
The reenactment was performed by uniformed Army soldiers, NBI agents and residents of Barangay Lumutan, where the second checkpoint was set up.
Asked why the policemen and soldiers who took part in the actual operation on Jan. 6 were not present during the reenactment, De Lima replied that they were not invited because they still had to submit their statements to the investigators.
De Lima noted that the report of the Philippine National Police fact-finding commission submitted to the NBI on Wednesday did not mention any witnesses to the incident to show that what happened was a shootout.
She said the NBI would question key officials of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) on the commission’s role in the police operation that led to the Jan. 6 killings.
“There are questions that need to be asked and whatever else, even confidential aspects of the operation,” De Lima said.
The Calabarzon police submitted the proposal for the operation to the PAOCC for approval and funding in October last year.
PAOCC officials said the proposal, “Coplan Armado,” was disapproved. But sacked Calabarzon police director, Chief Supt. James Melad, told reporters on Wednesday that the disapproval was only on funding. The operation itself was approved, he said.
Marantan also said that the operation had PAOCC approval and that he received P100,000 of the P900,000 requested funding. He said he still had the receiving copy of the approval for funding.
The PAOCC is headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, who denied that Malacañang approved Coplan Armado.
De Lima said NBI Director Nonnatus Rojas himself would do the questioning of the PAOCC officials.