The chiefs of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) on Thursday could not explain the gun battle between their operatives that left four people dead a day earlier, but they promised that those found responsible would be prosecuted.
A joint investigation by a board of inquiry with representatives from both the PNP and PDEA is ongoing to find out why police officers and PDEA agents engaged each other in a firefight close to a mall on Wednesday night.
Gunfire triggered panic among motorists and pedestrians and customers at a McDonald’s restaurant near Ever Gotesco Mall during the early evening rush hour on busy Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City.
Two police officers, a PDEA agent and a PDEA informer were killed. An officer and three PDEA agents were wounded.
Speaking at a press conference in Camp Crame alongside PNP chief Gen. Debold Sinas, PDEA Director General Wilkins Villanueva described the deadly clash as “the saddest day in the history of drug law enforcement.”
“It’s Murphy’s Law. If it will go bad, it will happen,” Villanueva said. “I don’t know how to call it but an unfortunate incident.”
He appealed to the public to give the inquiry board at least two weeks to complete its investigation, which he said they owed to those who died in the gunfight.
“We will do whatever is needed to come up with what is the truth of what happened. We will help in the joint board of inquiry to make sense of the death of three government agents,” he said. “I am staking my name here and my reputation of 19 years in antinarcotics operations.”
Sinas pointed out that both the PDEA’s special enforcement services agents and the officers from the Quezon City Police District’s special operating unit were conducting legitimate and duly-coordinated buybust operations.
What happened next was the big question mark and both Sinas and Villanueva refused to give any details, deferring to the official joint investigation.
Sinas said the board of inquiry would focus on looking for lapses, identifying culpable parties and making recommendations on how to improve coordination in operations.
“We will not cover for our people,” he said.
Those who were at fault and committed lapses would be sanctioned, Sinas said.
Villanueva said that before opening their joint investigation, “the first thing we talked about” was to “hold responsible those who should be held responsible” for the clash.
“Sir, we will investigate but at the end, whoever is found at fault would be made to answer … because several (operatives) were killed,” Villanueva said. He faced Sinas as if to get acknowledgment from the PNP chief of their agreement.
‘Toyed with before’
The PNP and PDEA chiefs asked the public to avoid speculations, including the possible machination by a drug syndicate to set up the clash between the antidrug units.
“We have been toyed with before (by drug syndicates),” Villanueva said, but stressed that he could not immediately say that this was what happened on Wednesday night.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has also ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a parallel investigation on the alleged “misencounter” between the police and the PDEA agents.
“This is separate and distinct from the probe to be conducted by an ad hoc joint PNP-PDEA Board of Inquiry earlier announced by PNP Chief Debold Sinas,” Guevarra told reporters in a Viber message.
President Duterte assured the public that “we will get to the bottom of this incident … and justice will be done,” according to his spokesperson Harry Roque.
Roque said that the President expressed “both sadness and concern” over the incident.
He said the President called on the PNP and the PDEA to “keep calm” so that the investigation could proceed smoothly.
Asked about his opinion on the incident, Roque said: “I think there needs to be closer coordination among the ranks of our law enforcers so that misencounters like this can be avoided.”
Despite big intel funds
Lawmakers also see the lack of coordination as one of the main reasons for the “misencounter” between the PNP and the PDEA.
Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, chair of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, said he would also launch the inquiry.
“If indeed there was proper coordination made by both camps, there was negligence in the proper dissemination of that coordination to the operating units,” Dela Rosa, a former PNP chief, said in a statement.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros also was dismayed at what she called “a dramatic lack of coordination” between the PNP and the PDEA which led to the shootout.
“Someone somewhere must have been grossly negligent,” she said in a statement. “They have been given huge intelligence funds but still something like this happened.”
She said the PNP was given P856 million and the PDEA P500 million in intelligence funds under the 2021 national budget.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the clash showed the “wisdom and ripeness” for the passage of Senate Bill No. 3, which he authored to establish a government antidrug “superbody.”
The proposed Presidential Drug Enforcement Authority Act puts together under one agency the functions of antidrug enforcement, prosecution, prevention, rehabilitation and policy formulation, Sotto said.
Rep. Robert Barbers said the House committee on dangerous drugs that he chairs would also open its own investigation of the firefight.
“Both police and PDEA claim their respective antidrug operations in Ever Gotesco yesterday are legitimate. If this is so, there could be no firefight because there should be coordination between them as required under Section 86 of Republic Act [No.] 9165 before any legitimate antidrug operation can be carried out,” Barbers said in a statement.
“Both claims of the police and PDEA that their antidrug operations last night (Wednesday) are legitimate are both highly questionable,” he added.
Barbers, quoting news reports, said the police officers were allegedly planning to “buy” drugs and that it appeared that the PDEA agents where the ones selling.
“If the news reports are to be believed, PDEA seems engaged in or conducting a ‘sell bust,’” he said.
He said a “sellbust” operation was illegal “because it borders on the illegal act of instigation and drug selling or trafficking.”
If PDEA was adopting this as a policy it would appear that it would be acting like a drug syndicate “for practicing and allowing drug trafficking,” Barbers said.
Villanueva, however, rejected such allegations.
“There was no sellbust here. It was both buybust,” he said.
PDEA should lead
Quezon City Rep. Precious Hipolito Castelo said she would file a resolution calling for an investigation that would focus “on the adequacy or inadequacy of the law, Republic Act No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.”
She said the law provides that PDEA should be the lead agency in the enforcement of the law and the PNP, NBI and other law enforcement agencies were to support the antidrug agency.
“Is the provision on coordination clear enough for our law enforcers to avoid incidents such as what happened in my district on Wednesday? Does Congress have to make it clearer by for instance requiring agencies to disclose the details of their intended antidrug operations?” Castelo asked.
“So why the misencounter? Were the two groups unaware that they would operate in the same area or place? And why did it take so long to stop the gunfight if there was prior coordination? These are additional questions we would like answered,” she said. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING, TINA G. SANTOS, MELVIN GASCON AND NESTOR CORRALES