Gunfight, car chase lead cops to Abra exec’s house
BAGUIO CITY, Benguet, Philippines — A gunfight involving police officers and companions of a vice mayor erupted on Tuesday in Pilar town, Abra, a province which had only recently overcome its reputation for violence during elections.
The incident was triggered by a heavily tinted Toyota Hi-Ace van that ignored an election checkpoint in Pilar, and sped off after bumping two members of the Cordillera Police Regional Mobile Force Battalion, said Capt. Ronaldo Eslabra, Pilar police chief, in a telephone interview.
Just as the police started chasing the van, a shot rang out, hitting the windshield near the front passenger seat of a police vehicle, “which could have hit me since I always take that side of the patrol [vehicle],” he said.
Eslabra said he was leading a dialogue with village officials about the elections when the incident happened.
The police returned fire, but the van drove straight to the house of Pilar Vice Mayor Jaja Josefina Somera Disono, sister of Mayor Mark Roland Somera. Their father, former Abra Vice Gov. Rolando Somera, was killed in Marikina City in 2017.
Disono, who served as Pilar’s mayor until 2019 and is seeking reelection as vice mayor, refused to come out after the police surrounded her home.
A 30-minute footage taken by security cameras was broadcast live over social media, purportedly showing a house being surrounded by what appeared to be police vehicles between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.
‘Not to harm’
“The police are there to secure the place because of that van, and they are not there to harm anyone. We need to determine if the vice mayor’s companions were security personnel approved by the police and the Commission on Elections,” Eslabra said.
He added: “We also need to establish if they were armed because an election gun ban is currently in place.”
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, negotiations were still ongoing to defuse the tension and end the standoff.
“I was invited to talk with them alone, but I decided to wait for a lawyer whom they also wanted to speak to, and local [reporters] so we could end this with no hard feelings,” he said, adding that they also expected Abra Gov. Jocelyn Bernos to help pacify the Pilar officials.
Eslabra said the mayor, who is seeking his second term in the May polls, was apparently holed up in his sister’s home.
“We asked them to bring out anyone who may have been wounded so we could take them to the hospital, but they did not respond,” Eslabra told the Inquirer. No doctors were asked to visit the Disono home, either.
Vice mayor’s account
But in a radio interview, Disono said they were ambushed as they made their way home from the town hall.
She said her van was allowed to pass through the checkpoint, but a second vehicle carrying her security escorts was held by men in civilian clothes.
The vice mayor said the gunfight led to the death of one of her “escorts.” Police had not released any information on supposed casualties.
Prior to the shootout, Disono’s campaign supporters filed blotter complaints about being harassed, and the vice mayor said she was convinced that the encounter with the police was “politically motivated” but did not elaborate.
At a press briefing on Monday, Lt. Col. Marcelo Polig, deputy director for operations of the Cordillera police, said seven areas in the region would remain in the “red” zone of potential election hot spots, including Tabuk City in Kalinga province.
Polig said 11 other localities were categorized as “yellow” because of their history of political violence, while two were classified as “orange” because of the presence of armed groups, and 57 others were given the “green” category for being safe zones. Pilar is under the yellow category.
A special police operations group oversees security in Abra, which had been associated with election violence and the emergence of private armed groups (PAG) several years ago, Polig said.
Abra had been relatively peaceful in previous elections, and the latest report from the police indicated that no PAG was operating there.
Polig said no election-related crimes have been recorded in any part of the Cordillera. One incident involving the killing of an aspiring provincial board member on March 7 in Mountain Province turned out to be a murder over a land dispute, he said.
—WITH A REPORT FROM KIMBERLIE QUITASOL