Army admits lapses: Soldiers rushed to Sulu crime scene to check on their dead

JC Gotinga
The Army says the soldiers wanted to check if the victims were still alive and to secure intelligence equipment


SOLDIERS, NOT POLICE. Army soldiers, not policemen, figure in the crime scene where cops gunned down 4 soldiers in Jolo, Sulu, on June 29, 2020. Screenshot of CCTV footage from Ricardo Visaya's Facebook

MANILA, Philippines – It turns out, the men looking around and sifting through the scene of the recent shooting incident in Jolo, as seen in CCTV footage, were not policemen but soldiers, and the Philippine Army on Thursday, July 2, admitted “lapses” in the handling of the crime scene.

“There were lapses there because they shouldn’t have touched anything,” Army spokesperson Colonel Ramon Zagala told Rappler.

He was referring to the soldiers who reached the crime scene minutes after a group of policemen gunned down 4 Army intelligence soldiers near the Jolo municipal police station in Sulu on Monday, June 29. (READ: NBI: 1 Army soldier in Jolo deaths suffered 8 gunshot wounds)

On Wednesday, July 1, former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Ricardo Visaya shared a 2-minute clip of CCTV footage of the crime scene on his Facebook page. It showed men – some in plainclothes and others in fatigue uniforms – sifting through the victims’ bodies and peering into their SUV.

One of the men could be seen touching one of the bodies, taking something from its pants pockets, and doing something to its head. The same man opened the door to the car’s driver’s seat and took something from inside it.

Thinking the men in the video were cops, Visaya strongly criticized the Philippine National Police (PNP), accusing it of being unable to discipline its ranks. Visaya, current chief of the National Irrigation Administration, said the police were guilty of “many violations.”

The soldiers in the video were troops on standby to take down Abu Sayyaf bombers, including bomb expert Mundi Sawadjaan, who were the targets of the 4 victims’ signals intelligence tracking operation, Zagala explained.

They had been waiting to swoop in once the targets were located, but were alarmed when they heard the gunshots. The CCTV footage showed them arriving at the scene a few minutes after the cops who shot the 4 soldiers ran off.

Victim’s brother

The intent of the soldiers walking into the crime scene was to check whether the victims were their comrades and, if they were still alive, to rescue them, Zagala said.

Because the 4 victims were on an intelligence mission, the soldiers also had to secure sensitive equipment from the scene. For this, the Army unit’s top intelligence officer got clearance from Sulu police chief Colonel Michael Bawayan when both arrived on the scene.

The man who could be seen touching one of the bodies – that of Corporal Abdal Asula – was the dead man’s brother, Zagala added. Asula, following Muslim tradition, was buried right away. 

“Off the bat we admit that was a lapse, but it was his brother. Perhaps his instinct was to secure his brother’s things,” Zagala said. Asula’s brother is also an Army operative, he added.

The man placed a folded shirt under the corpse’s head. “It was a brother taking care of his dead brother,” said Zagala.

Army chief Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay wants the lapses in the incident studied, and troops be reminded of crime scene protocols.

“But for sure, there was no intent to tamper with evidence,” the Army spokesperson said.

In an official statement on Thursday afternoon, Zagala said, “There was no PNP personnel at the time the responding soldiers arrived. As a natural instinct, the soldiers went to the gunned vehicle to check for survivors. Their initial mission was to take down Mundi Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf leader, when the unfortunate incident happened.”

What happened?

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is probing the incident, which Gapay earlier called “murder” and a “rubout.” The AFP and the PNP had agreed to let the NBI handle the investigation to ensure impartiality and douse tensions between the two uniformed services.

Gapay on Tuesday scored the police for abandoning the crime scene.

On Monday afternoon, police at a checkpoint in Barangay Bus-Bus, Jolo, accosted the 4 soldiers who, in plainclothes, were trying to locate the Abu Sayyaf targets. Doubting their identities, a group of 9 cops escorted them to the municipal police station.

According to the police report, the 4 soldiers tried to speed away after getting past the police station. When cornered, the soldiers alighted and pointed firearms at the cops, who fired in self-defense. A gunbattle followed in which the soldiers were killed.

The military report states the 4 soldiers pulled over some 50 meters past the police station. One of them, Major Marvin Indammog, got off to speak with the cops, who then shot him. Hearing gunshots, Asula and Sergeant Jaime Velasco got off, and were then shot, too. The cops also shot Captain Irwin Managuelod, who was inside the car working on his laptop.

On Thursday, the NBI said an autopsy revealed Indammog, Managuelod, and Velasco sustained “3 to 8 gunshot wounds.” Asula had not been autopsied because he was buried right away in Sulu, in keeping with religious custom. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.