Command or advice? Senators say Purisima story ‘incredible’

Ayee Macaraig
'Despite the protestations and denials of [resigned PNP chief Alan] Purisima, it is clear he was in the loop. How did it happen that a suspended officer was in the chain of command?'

PRESENT. Resigned PNP chief Alan Purisima tells senators on February 9 he was present in two meetings to plan the January 25 anti-terror operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, when he was suspended, but insists he was only giving advice, not instructions. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Senators did not buy resigned police chief Alan Purisima’s explanation that he was merely giving “advice,” not orders, on the Mamasapano operation.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr said Purisima’s admission that he was present in two meetings to plan the deadly January 25 operation to arrest international terrorists in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, only raised more questions about his role in the incident.

“Despite the protestations and denials of Purisima, it is clear he was in the loop. He was in the chain of command. Now, how did it happen that a suspended officer was in the chain of command?” Marcos said after the first Senate hearing on the incident Monday, February 9.

“What exactly is the role he played, and why was he allowed to play it?”

The operation cost the lives of 44 elite cops, and at least 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is negotiating a peace process with the government. The biggest single-day loss of government forces in an operation, the incident threatens to derail the peace talks after a historic deal last year.

During the hearing, relieved Special Action Force (SAF) commander Getulio Napeñas said Purisima told him not to inform police officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, and military chief Gregorio Catapang Jr about the operation beforehand. 

Senator Teofisto Guingona III said Purisima’s insistence that the statement was just an “advice” was unacceptable considering the gravity of the instruction.

“In effect, he was telling Napeñas to break the chain of command, and he was suspended at that time so that carries a lot of weight…. If we make a statement that controversial, don’t tell me there is no motivation,” Guingona said.

The Ombudsman suspended Purisima over graft allegations in December. Yet Napeñas said in the hearing that he, Purisima, and police Intelligence Group Director Fernando Mendez went to the President’s Malacañang residence in Bahay Pangarap on January 9 for a “mission update” on the plan dubbed Oplan Exodus.

Napeñas said after he and Mendez stepped out, Purisima continued meeting Aquino, and it was when the suspended police chief came out that he told him, “Don’t tell the two (Espina and Roxas) first. Tell them when you are already there. I will take care of General Catapang.”

‘Impossible for Napeñas to act alone’

Marcos said that on the second day of the Senate investigation on Tuesday, he will ask Purisima about the general’s private conversation with the President.

“Were they talking about an unrelated matter or about this mission? If it was about the mission, the President himself recognizes that Purisima was part of the planning, part of the chain of command, and that’s a violation because he was suspended,” Marcos said.

Purisima is a close friend of Aquino, protecting him from coup attempts way back during the presidency of his mother, the late Corazon Aquino. Reports that Purisima was the one calling the shots in Mamasapano fanned public anger, and fuelled criticism of Aquino.

Senator Grace Poe, chair of the public order committee looking into the encounter, is not keen on inviting the President to shed light on the meeting, and another November 30 meeting with Aquino, Purisima and police officers at the Presidential Security Group Firing Range Compound in Malacañang.

“Not anymore, we won’t do that. We can ask the President, but maybe at another time. At this point, there is no need,” she said.

Poe said Aquino has no legal liability for meeting with Purisima because Napeñas said he did not hear the President give Purisima authority over the operation.

The senator though is convinced that Napeñas could not have launched the operation without a go signal from higher-ups.

“It’s impossible for him to act without an order,” said Poe. “The SAF only provides warm bodies but is not in charge of strategic [decisions]. I want to know until what level was the authority that gave him orders. I think he would not have acted without clearance from someone higher.”

Poe said the Malacañang meeting gave the impression that what Purisima told Napeñas was an order.

“If you are a soldier and you were brought to Malacañang, even if you did not directly hear the President but he was with someone who later gives you an instruction, of course, you will interpret that as an order,” she said.

Marcos said the Malacañang meeting was “indicative” of dynamics at the Palace.

“The chain of command is called into question, why it included a suspended officer. Now they are trying to characterize it as Purisima not issuing a command but why did Napeñas follow it? He considered it an order.”

Poe said more questions remain for the continuation of the hearing like when and how Aquino knew of the encounter, the intelligence packet on the location of the terrorists, and who gave information and participated in the operation. –