MANILA, Philippines — Did the government’s antinarcotics agents fall prey to a two-faced tipster?
Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Saturday said the answer to this question may well explain the shootout between members of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) outside a mall in Quezon City, raising the possibility that the informant could have “set up” the gunfight.
“It was suspected that the PDEA and the QCPD (Quezon City Police District) operatives had the same asset. So apparently, they had been played,” Lacson told the Inquirer, citing information relayed to him by his own source.
One PDEA informant, who has not been publicly identified, was killed during the Wednesday night shootout outside Ever Gotesco Mall on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City. Two police officers and one PDEA agent were also killed.
Lacson did not clarify when asked whether the tipster he was referring to was the PDEA informant who was killed. It was possible, however, that the informant himself had a tipster.
Both PNP chief Gen. Debold Sinas, and PDEA Director General Wilkins Villanueva maintained that their men were deployed for a buy-bust operation in which undercover officers pose as drug buyers to catch narcotics dealers.
“If both were on a buy-bust operation, an obvious conclusion is that they were set up by their informant/s,” said Lacson, a former PNP chief. “There couldn’t be two drug buy-bust operations between the PDEA and PNP operatives.”
Latest black eye
It was the latest black eye on President Duterte’s war on drugs, arguably the country’s bloodiest law enforcement program in recent years marked by the killings of thousands of drug suspects in questionable antidrug operations and vigilante-style murders.
Lacson also said that either the PNP or the PDEA team may have carried out a “sell-bust” wherein narcotics agents sell illegal drugs to arrest drug personalities.
But this type of antidrug operation would have been illegal as it is outlawed under Republic Act No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, he said.
Law enforcers are prohibited from instigating a criminal act to catch criminals.
Lacson said the National Bureau of Investigation, which the President had designated as the sole agency that would look into the gunfight, should determine who among the law enforcers “provoked” the shooting.
“It is not just who fired first. I’d rather say, which side provoked first,” he said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the President met with Sinas and Villanueva at Malacañang on Friday night.
NBI Director Eric Distor also attended the meeting.
“The President was calm [during the meeting], but the concern on his face was palpable,” Guevarra told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
The justice secretary also asked the PNP and PDEA chiefs to ensure their units’ full cooperation in the investigation.
Guevarra said the NBI would primarily focus on the criminal liabilities of the state agents involved in the shootout.
“I have directed the NBI to give this investigation the highest priority in view of the public interest that the subject incident has generated and its impact on the government’s campaign against illegal drugs,” Guevarra said.
The gun battle that turned parts of Commonwealth Avenue into what some lawmakers called a war zone involved PDEA’s Special Enforcement Service (SES) and QCPD’s District Special Operations Unit (DSOU).
The PNP identified the two slain officers as Police Corporals Elvin Garado and Lauro de Guzman Jr. PDEA said it lost Rankin Gano, an intelligence officer, in the firefight. De Guzman and Gano were decorated antinarcotics operatives.
Garado was posthumously awarded the PNP Heroism Medal at his wake on Friday. The 36-year-old native of Eastern Samar has been with the QCPD since 2015. He joined the DSOU only late last year, about the same time that De Guzman, 32, was assigned to the unit.
De Guzman, a native of San Miguel, Bulacan, joined the force in 2016. During his stint, he received various service awards.
The 43-year-old Gano served at various PDEA units since he joined it in 2013, including its Special Weapons and Tactics unit and the Inter-Agency Drug Interdiction Task Group of Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
He served at PDEA’s Zamboanga regional office before his final posting at SES.
Gano had received certificates of commendation “in recognition of his courage in upholding public interest over and above personal interest.”
He also received a “Wagas na Paglilingkod” award for the arrest of a drug mule and “Natatanging Paglilingkod” award for a successful marijuana interdiction operation.
In a statement, PDEA commended Gano’s “bravery and dedication to public service.”
“He gave up his own life today for the sake of a better tomorrow. In our hearts and minds, your story will be retold and lived forever,” it added.
House, Senate step back
Sinas and Villanueva visited the wake of Garado on Friday night at St. Peter Chapels on Commonwealth Avenue—about 2 kilometers from the site where he was fatally shot.
The officials were also set to visit the wake of De Guzman in San Miguel on Saturday.
In deference to the NBI investigation, a separate inquiry into the shootout by the House of Representatives that was set to open on Monday has been called off by Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert “Ace” Barbers Jr., the chair of the committee on dangerous drugs.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the President appealed to Congress to “delay” its own investigation to allow the NBI to proceed with its probe.
“The President wants an impartial investigation to prevent wild speculations and for the peace of mind of the victims, who want a fair investigation,” Roque said at a press briefing on state-run PTV 4 on Saturday.
In a text message to the Inquirer, Barbers said the March 1 hearing he had called was “temporarily suspended—as a courtesy to, and in order not to hinder the ongoing investigation.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Saturday said a hearing that was called by Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, would focus on his proposed law that would establish a unified antidrug agency, not the shootout.
Sotto said he had called up Dela Rosa and told him that Tuesday’s hearing will seek to clarify the functions of PDEA, as he expressed dismay over how the agency has for many years been turned into a separate police force.
Dela Rosa did not respond to queries on whether he would push through with the investigation of the PNP-PDEA shootout.
But in a text message, his office issued a notice that the committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday was “postponed until further notice.”