President Aquino on Monday ordered the police and the military to dismantle New People’s Army (NPA) checkpoints and protect politicians campaigning in areas controlled by the communist insurgents.
Aquino issued the order two days after NPA guerrillas attacked and wounded Gingoog City Mayor Ruth de Lara Guingona, wife of former Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., at a makeshift checkpoint in the hinterland village of Alatagan in Misamis Oriental province.
The President, campaigning in Misamis Oriental with his senatorial candidates in May’s midterm elections, said he was saddened by the attack on Mayor Guingona, a member of the ruling Liberal Party.
Aquino took time out from the campaign and visited the mayor at Capitol University Medical City (CUMC) in Cagayan de Oro City.
He issued the order after the mayor’s son, Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, questioned the NPA’s authority to set up checkpoints and enforce its will on a country that has only “one government” and governed by just “one President.”
“I pledge, within my power and abilities (as President), and in the name of the law, to exact accountability from those responsible for this,” Aquino said in a speech during a rally in Jose Pelaez Roa Park in Balingasag, Misamis Oriental.
Police said Mayor Guingona was returning from a village fiesta with a six-member escort when a group of about 50 NPA guerrillas attacked her entourage in the remote village of Alatagan in Barangay (village) Upper Kapitulangan, Gingoog City, late Saturday.
Mayor Guingona, 78, survived a hail of bullets and grenade blasts, but two of her civilian bodyguards, who shielded her with their bodies, were killed.
A policeman in her entourage and another civilian bodyguard were wounded.
The rebels withdrew after a 10-minute exchange of fire with policemen in the mayor’s group.
Mayor Guingona suffered bullet wounds in the arms and legs. She was also wounded by shrapnel from a grenade blast.
Chief Supt. Catalino Rodriquez Jr., police chief for Northern Mindanao, said the police would bring criminal and war crimes charges against the NPA rebels who carried out the attack on the mayor.
The military’s Human Rights Office said the communist rebels violated nine human rights laws as well as election rules.
Senator Guingona told reporters Monday that his mother was in stable condition after undergoing surgery at CUMC.
A bullet shattered the bone in Mayor Guingona’s right arm. Doctors removed the fragments and used metal to link the two ends of the arm bone, the senator said.
The doctors also successfully extracted slugs from the mayor’s body, but the “numerous shrapnel” from the grenade blast would be removed later, the senator said.
Dr. Jesus Jardin, CUMC medical director, said the mayor was recovering from the operation.
Government security forces went after the NPA band that attacked Mayor Guingona.
Maj. Gen. Ricardo Rainier Cruz, who took over the leadership of the military in Eastern Mindanao on Monday, said government troops caught up with and engaged the guerrillas in a place near the site where the mayor was attacked in Barangay Upper Kapitulangan.
“The NPA rebels were the same ones who ambushed Mayor Guingona. It was near the (ambush) site,” Cruz said.
There was no report of a body count, but Cruz said the security forces found matèriel in the area.
Military and police officials called the attack on Mayor Guingona an “ambush,” but the NPA said its fighters were only forced to return fire when the mayor’s group tried to shoot its way through a roadblock the rebels had set up to enforce a prohibition on firearms in the area.
The insurgents prohibit candidates from campaigning in areas under their control without permit, for which they must pay. The rebels also forbid candidates to bring armed bodyguards or carry firearms except if the weapons are for protection against bandits. But the candidates must have NPA gun permits, which they must also pay for.
Malacañang on Monday advised candidates in May’s midterm elections not to pay protection money to the NPA and instead seek help from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) if they are campaigning in rebel-infested areas.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters that the Palace had ordered the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to explain why the NPA could freely set up checkpoints in areas the rebels supposedly controlled.
Lacierda said the Army’s 58th Infantry Battalion was spearheading an investigation into NPA checkpoints.
Local candidates may report NPA checkpoints to the DILG and the military would take care of dismantling them, he said.
Lacierda said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas had ordered the police to provide security to local candidates campaigning in areas influenced by the NPA.
Lt. Gen. Allan Luga, AFP vice chief of staff, said the military would send one Army battalion to Misamis Oriental within the week to intensify security operations.
Luga said two Army battalions were already in the province helping the police keep the peace during the campaign for the local elections.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) said it might include Gingoog City on the list of election hot spots after the attack on Mayor Guingona.
Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes told reporters that the election watchdog may tag areas where NPA attacks occurred recently as “areas of immediate concern.”
He said seven more areas would be added to the 15 provinces the police had listed as areas of concern and election hot spots.
The National Democratic Front (NDF) in Mindanao apologized to the Guingonas for the injuries and deaths in Alatagan and promised to extend medical assistance to the civilians wounded and indemnify the families of those killed.
But Jorge Madlos, a spokesman for the NDF, insisted that Mayor Guingona’s group had failed to secure NPA permission to campaign and to comply with the NPA prohibition on the carrying of firearms in areas controlled by the guerrillas.
Mayor Guingona is not a candidate, but her daughter Marie is running to take her place in Gingoog City Hall. Military and police officials said the mayor was not campaigning but was returning from a village fiesta when her group was attacked.
Not ready to forgive
Former Vice President Guingona said his family was not ready to forgive the NPA for the attack on his wife.
Speaking at a news conference in Cagayan de Oro City on Monday, Guingona said it would take some time before his family could forgive the rebels for the assault on the Gingoog mayor, whom the family described as “an elderly woman who was bowing out of public service.”
Guingona said his family was going through a “harrowing experience” and should be given time for healing.
“My heart is sorrowful and I am saddened very much by what happened,” Guingona said. “I thank God that my wife was able to survive.”
Senator Guingona called for a resumption of the peace negotiations between the government and the communist rebels.
“It is only when we have a genuine peace agreement that we can move forward,” the senator said.
He praised the military and the police for rescuing his mother, who was trapped inside her car and was recovered early on Sunday, seven hours after the attack.
The mayor was found under the lifeless bodies of brothers Nestor and Bartolome Velasco, civilian aides who took the bullets to save their boss’ life.
Bartolome Velasco had been the mayor’s driver-bodyguard for eight years. Nestor Velasco had been employed at the mayor’s office for just a month.
Rosalie Velasco, sister of the two men, said Bartolome was hit several times. Nestor was hit once in the head.
“When I was told that the mayor was found under their bodies, I could not help but think about their promise to protect her,” Rosalie said.
“Tome had always been saying he was ready to give up his life for the person who helped to feed his family,” she said, referring to Bartolome by his nickname.
The bodies of the brothers were taken to their parents’ home in Gingoog City Monday afternoon for the wake.
Cristy Velasco, Bartolome’s wife, could not look at the body of her slain husband. Instead of braving it, she called their daughter Cherry Mae and told her, “[Child], go take a look at your father.”
Then, turning to the Inquirer, she said, “I want justice for my husband.”—With reports from Bobby Lagsa and Cai Panlilio, Inquirer Mindanao