Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Wednesday warned police investigators that she would bring charges against them for disclosing the identities of two witnesses who were under government protection.
De Lima also insisted that the operations in the killings of two robbery gang leaders in Laguna province and in the recapture of a drug trafficker and his wife in San Juan City on July 12 were related, contrary to claims by the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG).
“I’m not going to confirm the identities of the witnesses, but on the premise that they got the names right, I will get back at them,” De Lima told reporters, referring to Senior Supt. Jose Mario Espino and his team.
De Lima explained that under the witness protection law, those who disclose the identities of witnesses under government protection are criminally liable.
Assuming that the CIDG got the names of the two witnesses right, “why are they burning our witnesses?” De Lima asked.
She said she was standing by the testimony of the two witnesses, adding that she had no reason to doubt the witnesses’ credibility.
“I may be wrong, but I will admit it (as) my mistake. I am not afraid to own up to my mistakes. I am not afraid to take responsibility,” she said.
Nineteen CIDG officers, sacked after being accused by two witnesses of stealing P15 million to P20 million and 80 kilos of shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride) from the house of recaptured drug trafficker Li Lan Yan, alias Jackson Dy, called a news conference on Wednesday and lashed out at De Lima for taking the witnesses’ statements as “gospel truth” and for “prejudging” them.
Espino, the sacked chief of the CIDG’s Antiorganized Crime Division and leader of the team that raided Dy’s apartment in San Juan City on July 13, said he and his agents would bring perjury charges against the two witnesses.
“We were expecting a spot promotion. Instead, we were placed under a spot investigation,” Espino said.
“Worse, our enemies now are our fellow government officials,” he added.
Espino maintained that the CIDG officers did not find drugs and money from Li’s apartment, saying the two witnesses who were interviewed by ABS-CBN reporter Anthony Taberna last week were “lying.”
He also denied that the first man who spoke to Taberna was a policeman.
Espino identified one of the witnesses as a security guard in the gated subdivision in San Juan where Li rented an apartment.
The second witness, Espino said, was a gardener in the subdivision who he said “moonlighted as garbage collector.”
The disclosure of the identities of the witnesses angered De Lima.
She found them
De Lima admitted that she had a hand in convincing the witnesses to testify, adding that the witnesses were earlier hesitant and afraid to come forward.
Asked whether reports were true that one of the witnesses was offered “livelihood” by the CIDG, De Lima replied, “True.”
Again, she asked, “Why are they now turning the tables on them?”
Told that the CIDG was sore with her, De Lima asked, “Why?”
“They will have the chance to disprove the allegations of these witnesses,” she said.
If the National Bureau of Investigation ignored “information of such a sensitive nature,” that would be tantamount to “abdicating or shirking its duty,” De Lima said.
Trying to discredit NBI
She said she had heard there were attempts to discredit the NBI in another case.
She did not elaborate, but she could be referring to the investigation of the killings of Ozamiz robbery gang leaders Ricky Cadavero and Wilfredo Panogalinga Jr. in San Pedro town, Laguna province, on July 15.
Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima admitted on Tuesday that the killings of the two men by their police escorts were a “rubout” and said administrative charges would be brought against the 14 policemen involved.
De Lima welcomed Purisima’s decision, and said the NBI would bring charges against the killers after its own investigation of the case.
Ferdinand Lavin, chief of the NBI Death Investigation Division, on Wednesday said the investigation of the case would continue despite Purisima’s admission that it was a rubout.
Lavin said the killings of Cadavero and Panogalinga and the operation against Dy and his wife were related, as the slain men allegedly helped to spring the Chinese couple on their way to a court hearing in Cavite City under police escort in February.
“The two cases are [related] and we continue to investigate the criminal aspect of the incidents,” Lavin said.
But Espino maintained that Li’s recapture was not the result of the arrest on July 12 of Cadavero, who he said was held by the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Aurora, Quezon) police in Dasmariñas City.
He also played down reports that Cadavero’s gang was responsible for the escape of Li and his wife and another convicted Chinese drug trafficker, Li Tian Wa, on Feb. 16.
“The men who helped (Li) escape belonged to a different cell of the Ozamiz group … who were also involved in kidnapping and gun-for-hire activities,” Espino said.
Contradicting the chief
Espino’s statements contradicted Purisima’s statement at a news conference on July 15 that Cadavero’s arrest led the police to Li’s location.
“Cadavero was the first to be arrested. That’s why we got the information (on Li’s location),” Purisima said at the news conference in Camp Crame hours before Cadavero and Panogalinga were killed by their police escorts in San Pedro, Laguna.
Espino claimed the two NBI witnesses made up the stories against him and his men because he failed to give them “additional reward money.”
The two witnesses helped the CIDG agents identify the Chinese couple, Espino said.
“We initially gave them P5,000 each as reward for helping us in carrying out the operation. But they asked for more when they learned that the individuals we had arrested were big-time Chinese drug traffickers,” he said.
“He (the witness) is not a policeman as what our good justice secretary mentioned. If he lied in claiming to be a police officer, then all his statements will be all lies,” he said.
Espino maintained that only 19 CIDG agents took part in the early morning operation, which he described as a “highly sensitive.”
He said he and 11 other policemen entered the house while the rest of the agents positioned themselves outside.
Espino said the security guard did not enter the house and could not have seen the arrest of the convicted Chinese drug traffickers.
“The security guard and the gardener were used as informants only hours before the operation … to confirm the identities … of the Chinese drug lords. The two were not allowed to enter the compound,” Espino said.
Espino said Li’s drug sydicate may have “recruited” the security guard and the gardener to discredit the members of the raiding team.
Espino said it was also possible that the syndicate paid off some members of the media to peddle lies against the team.
“We have also been investigating this matter on our own. We have already put together the pieces of the puzzle. Who are our enemies? It’s the drug sydicate, which uses money and not just guns,” he said.
“Their money has reached all levels of the government and even up to some members of the media. We all know that. Some of our enemies are also from the government,” he added.
Espino did not hide his resentment over De Lima’s statements, saying: “We’re really disappointed because she had already prejudged the case. She said what the witnesses were believable.”
“What if they were not admitted by the WPP (Witness Protection Program) because they lied? What will happen to us? Our reputation has already been tainted. Our families are already affected,” he said.—With a report from Nancy C. Carvajal