Something ‘fishy’: AFP hand suspect in Fr. Pops’ slay
ARAKAN, North Cotabato—Residents and church workers said Fr. Fausto Tentorio had been under constant threat and there were signs indicating elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines were involved.
Weeks before the Italian missionary was gunned down on Monday by a lone assassin, his church compound had been under surveillance, according to Leoncio Lubiano, head of the parish formation and catechism.
Lubiano said that since August several fish carts were seen around the Church’s compound. The fish vendors claimed they were from Digos City in Davao del Sur province and just wanted to know what was in the church.
“Sometimes, they slept here at night. They were still around last week but on the day Father Fausto was killed, they were gone,” said Lubiano.
On October 14, soldiers belonging to the 57th Infantry Battalion were asking Basic Ecclesiastical Community leaders in the village of Badiangon if they had Tentorio’s mobile phone number.
The following day, after Tentorio said Mass in Barangay Dalag, police confiscated a sack full of long firearms aboard a motorcycle driven by a civilian, Lubiano said.
Tentorio was already out of the area when the firearms, including two M-16 rifles, were held. When the police detained the civilian and confiscated the firearms, a military officer—a certain Captain Espiritu—texted the police claiming ownership.
On the eve of the attack on the priest, two military vehicles called Kennedy were seen patrolling the church area.
Rebels accuse military
Lubiano said some soldiers were taking part in a community development program in a nearby school but did not respond when the assassin wearing a motorcycle helmet shot Tentorio, who sustained 10 bullet wounds.
Chief Superintendent Lester O. Camba, head of the police task force, said investigations were being conducted and could not say if the murder was prompted by Tentorio’s stand against mining, illegal logging or land grabbing of ancestral homelands.
“We have a lead and we are continuing to gather evidence,” Camba said. “We appeal to the public to forward only correct information and refrain from sending us mere speculation because we want to catch the real culprit,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview.
Spokespersons of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the communist National Democratic Front (NDF) said the military was involved in Tentorio’s killing.
“We have information from the ground that an armed group that the military created was behind the killing,” said MILF’s Mohagher Iqbal. He did not give details.
NDF spokesperson Rubi del Mundo said the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division “masterminded, orchestrated and executed” the killing of the priest as part of its counterinsurgency operations.
Colonel Leopoldo Galon Jr., spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command, denied the allegation. “Let them prove this. We enjoin them to help us and the Philippine National Police gather all evidence to pinpoint this Godless murderer,” he told the Inquirer.
Church workers said Tentorio’s involvement in the struggle for Lumad rights also subjected them to military harassment.
Libunio recounted a raid on June 12, 2009, when soldiers in full battle gear went inside the church compound, looking for Tentorio.
That same day, Tentorio wrote a letter to Arakan Mayor Romulo Tapgos asking if it was normal for the military to enter private property without coordinating with its owner.
“I don’t have anything to hide and I assure the military they are welcome in our convent but I would appreciate it if they coordinate with me before scouring the church compound because I am the parish priest,” Tentorio wrote.
Tentorio used to sit in the Municipal Peace and Order Council but the military asked the group to drop him after he became so vocal against the intensifying military operations purportedly against the New People’s Army (NPA) but were targeting Lumad communities.
Residents, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said on July 29, 2009, soldiers of the 57th Infantry Battalion arrived in the villages of Tumanding, Sto Nino, Ma. Caridad and Salasang, and set up camps in barangay halls, near the school, the church and health and daycare centers.
The soldiers stayed for 16 days, causing fear after they conducted a census and tagged members of the Lumad group Tikulpa as NPA guerrillas, the residents said. The soldiers reportedly also asked the civilians to help them in their operations.
Premature to accuse
Fr. Peter Geremia, another Italian priest, said it was still too early to accuse the NPA of involvement in the murder, pointing out the investigation had hardly moved.
“The hen making a lot of noise is laying an egg,” Geremia quoted an old Italian saying after he heard officials blaming the NPA for the death of Tentorio.
“Even during the time of Favali, they had the same pronouncement but it was proven the opposite,” he said, recalling how on April 11, 1985, a paramilitary group led by Norberto Manero, killed Italian priest Fr. Tulio Favali in Tulunan, Cotabato province.
He said the killing of Tentorio, the third Italian missionary in the Philippines to be murdered, reminded him again of Favali.
“They were saying the same things again,” said the Italian priest who has spent 39 years, in the Philippines. With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem and Nico Alconaba, Inquirer Mindanao; and Riza T. Olchondra in Manila