Sacked Calabarzon police chief says Atimonan killings surprised him
A case operation plan (coplan) involves only intelligence activity to build up a case against a target. There is nothing criminal about a coplan, according to Chief Supt. James Melad, the sacked chief of the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon) police.
Setting up checkpoints is not part of a coplan. That is a job for law enforcement, Melad told the Inquirer on Thursday.
But he said he was surprised when he learned that a checkpoint had been set up in Barangay Lumutan in Atimonan, Quezon province, as part of the execution of “Coplan Armado,” the plan to dismantle the operations of Victor “Vic” Siman, alleged financier of the numbers racket “jueteng” in the Southern Tagalog region.
Melad said, however, that as a superior officer, he presumed the checkpoint was regular, as Supt. Hansel Marantan, leader of the police team that carried out Coplan Armado, was able to prove to him that the occupants of two sports utility vehicles headed for the checkpoint were armed.
But the identities of the vehicles’ occupants became known only after the supposed shootout between the group and the combined police and military forces at the checkpoint, Melad said.
Siman was killed in the supposed shootout, but so were 12 others who turned out to be “collateral damage” in the execution of Coplan Armado.
Quezon police reported that Siman’s group fired on the security forces at the checkpoint, hitting Marantan in the hands and foot. That prompted the security forces to fire back, killing the 13 men in the two SUVs. The report mentioned a third vehicle whose occupants also fired on the security forces then fled.
Relatives of the slain men refused to believe the police report and claimed that Siman and his group were summarily executed.
Inconsistencies in the police report prompted President Aquino to order the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate and find out what really happened.
Melad said his role in Coplan Armado was “ministerial” and that he knew nothing about the the police operation in Atimonan until he received a call from the Quezon police and was informed that officers from the intelligence unit under his command were involved in a shootout in Atimonan.
“I knew nothing about it. I was surprised when the Quezon provincial police director called me up and told me that Marantan’s unit figured in a shootout with an armed group in Atimonan,” Melad said in Filipino. “I said that was quite far. How did they get there? What was Marantan doing there?”
Melad said he was at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame in Quezon City on that day, participating in the Game of the Generals, a traditional shooting competition among military generals and high-ranking police officers. The PNP chief, Director General Alan Purisima, was there and so was President Aquino, who outscored more than 100 military and police officers and won the competition.
Melad said he was not sure what time Quezon Provincial Police Director Valeriano de Leon called him, but it must have been 3:30 p.m. or 3:45 p.m. but could not have been after 4 p.m.
De Leon was sacked on Jan. 9 and Melad on Tuesday but not over Coplan Armado but over the killing of Fernando “Pandoy” Morales, an alleged hit man with links to Siman, in another shootout with police in San Juan town in Batangas province on Monday.
Melad said the initial information he got was about the supposed shootout and that Marantan was wounded and taken to hospital in Lucena City.
The information from De Leon, Melad said, was that 11 people were killed, two severely wounded and taken to hospital but died along the way.
Ten firearms were recovered from the two vehicles used by Siman’s group. But after the arrival of crime scene investigators, Melad said, the report was revised and the number of recovered firearms rose to 13.
Melad said he left the shooting competition without saying goodbye to Purisima and told De Leon that he was on his way to Quezon to inspect the scene of the supposed shootout.
Talk with Marantan
“I was really surprised. Why Quezon? Marantan never went that far on intelligence and surveillance work,” Melad said in Filipino.
“But instinctively, of course, I had to talk to the team leader, Marantan. He was in a Lucena hospital when I talked to him that night,” he said.
Melad said the Atimonan operation was “legitimate.” Every commander, he said, presumes regularity when an incident is reported to him, he said. When De Leon called him to inform him about the supposed shootout in Atimonan he took it as just that.
In their conversation in the Lucena hospital, Melad said Marantan told him that he had received !A-1 information” that a group of guns for hire was on the road and that he immediately acted on it.
“It was a judgment call on his part as an intelligence officer and I took his word for it,” Melad said. “I was concerned about his condition because [he] was wounded,” he added.
Melad said Marantan never cleared the checkpoint with him, but maintained the coplan that Marantan had submitted to him was “legitimate.”
Coplan Armado was signed by Melad, Marantan, and Supt. Glenn Dumlao, commander of the Regional Public Safety Battalion of the Calabarzon police.
The plan was submitted to the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) for approval and funding, but was disapproved because it was a potentially bloody business, according to an Inquirer source.
Melad said Marantan submitted Coplan Armado to him and he signed it because the subject of the operation, groups used as guns for hire, could be used as private armies during elections.
The PAOCC, headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, had expressed the same concern, Melad said, explaining why he approved the coplan.
He said Marantan submitted the coplan to him in October last year. PAOCC officials said they received the coplan a month later.
Dedication to duty
Melad praised Marantan’s dedication to duty. “I know nothing about the information about him that’s surfacing only now,” he said, referring to information, much of it from the police, that Marantan was the protector of an illegal gambling group fighting Siman for turf in the Southern Tagalog region.
“What I know about him is what I have seen in him, a dedicated officer,” Melad said in Filipino.
But if Marantan did not clear the checkpoint with Melad, who approved it?
Melad said that if Marantan cleared the checkpoint with a superior officer, he was not that officer.
He added that having seen Marantan’s dedication to duty, it never occurred to him that Marantan could have had ulterior motives in carrying out the Atimonan operation.
Whether Marantan personally knew any of the victims, especially Siman, Melad said he had no idea. That’s up to Marantan to explain, he said.
Melad said he was not saying all this to save himself but to give the facts from his point of view as a regional commander who learned about the supposed shootout in Quezon only after it had already happened.
But does he think Marantan kept him in the dark and used Coplan Armado as cover for an illegitimate operation?
“I will not add to the speculations,” Melad replied. “Let us all trust that even with seemingly conclusive statements at this point, the NBI will come up with a comprehensive and credible investigation.”