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President Aquino and the Mamasapano puzzle

Bea Cupin
President Aquino and the Mamasapano puzzle
What was the extent of the President's involvement? Cabinet officials are unable to give a clear answer; the resigned PNP chief asks for permission from the President before he can give an answer.

MANILA, Philippines – It’s been more than two weeks since a bloody police operation claimed the lives of at least 68, including 44 elite cops. And still one thing remains unclear: What was the extent of the President’s involvement in “Oplan Exodus”?

Top government officials, including 2 Cabinet members could not give a clear answer.

“Oplan Exodus” has been controversial for a lot of reasons. It shines light on the wrongs that happen when police and military forces don’t work together, endangers a long-awaited peace deal between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government, and puts President Benigno Aquino III in a sticky predicament.

The operation, launched on January 25, saw some 73 Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP SAF) troopers enter MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) territory in Mamasapano town to neutralize Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as “Marwan.”

The SAF commandos got their man but lost 44 of their comrades in what is proving to be a botched extraction plan.

During the Senate’s 3rd hearing on the bloody police operation, Senator Nancy Binay asked Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Defense Chief Voltaire Gazmin, and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Gregorio Catapang a seemingly simple question: Who told the President of the trouble that was brewing in Mamasapano?

Hindi naman puwedeng nagpulong-pulong kayo bigla doon kung walang isa sa inyo nagsabi sa Presidente na ganito ang nangyari (It’s unlikely you started meeting without one of you informing the President about what was happening). Who among you informed the president?” asked the newbie senator.

She was met with silence.

Wala ho (None of you)? Wala pa din ho (Still nobody)?” she added.

Zamboanga trip

All 3 were with the President in Zamboanga on January 25 to assess the security situation there, following a car bomb that killed two and injured at least 48. Roxas, who flew to Zamboanga with Aquino and Gazmin, said they left Manila at around 8:30 am and arrived in Zamboanga by around 10:30. Roxas said he was back in Manila by 9 pm.

AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang, Jr., GPH CCCH Brigadier General Carlito Galvez and Wesmincom Lt Gen Rustico Guerrero. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

According to Wesmincom chief Lt General Rustico Guerrero, the President gave guidance on how the AFP could send in help by around 5 pm, or more than 12 hours after the first SAF boot entered the area of operation.

During a meeting with SAF troopers on January 30 at Camp Bagong Diwa, Aquino said: “Umaga pa lang, sinabihan na ako kung ano naging resulta kay Marwan… habang sinisiyasat natin ang pagbobomba ng Zamboanga, unti-unting dumadating mga reports (I found out in the morning that SAF troopers had killed Marwan. While we were going around Zamboanga, more and more reports about Mamasapano were coming in).”

Neither Roxas nor Gazmin bothered to tell the President, they told Senators, since getting reports on skirmishes was nothing new to the two Cabinet chiefs.

May natanggap akong (I received a) text mga 8, or just before 8 na merong (about a) skirmish or firefight between MILF and SAF so it was in the ordinary course of business na text na ganito nangyayari. Wala naman akong alam na may operation na nangyayari sa araw o operation na iyon (I didn’t know anything was happening that day or that an operation was ongoing),” he said.

“To me, there was no sense of urgency kasi araw-araw nakakakuha ako ng ganoong report ng encounter (every day I get reports of encounters),” explained Gazmin, himself a former chief of the Armed Forces.

“Oplan Exodus” was so secret that only select people knew: the SAF command, led by its now-relieved commander Police Director Getulio Napeñas; resigned PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, who was then serving a suspension order; Senior Superintendent Fernando Mendez of the PNP’s Intelligence Group; and the President himself.

The President, Napeñas, Mendez and Purisima, after all, were the attendees of a January 9, 2015 briefing for the operation at Bahay Pangarap, the President’s official residence. To Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, this simply means the 4 men are ultimately responsible for the carnage on January 25.

Everyone else – Roxas, PNP OIC Deputy Director General Espina, and the military – were kept in the dark.

Purisima was then asked by Poe if he informed the President about the trouble in Mamasapano himself.

“May I be given time to seek clearance with the President to answer your question?” said Purisima. It was the same response he made to the House of Representatives when asked the same question

Here’s a list of roughly what time Cabinet, PNP, and AFP officials first found out about “Oplan Exodus” and the firefight between SAF troopers and the MILF:

  • Roxas: Around 8 am 
  • Gazmin: Around 11 am, when they arrived in Zamboanga
  • Catapang: 5:30 am, through a text message from Purisima 
  • Espina: 5:30 am, through Napeñas

Security officials first recieved reports of deaths – 11, to be exact – at around 3 pm. Rappler received intelligence reports of the same as early as 12 noon 

Implications on peace talks

Aquino’s alleged involvement in the clash, which broke a long-standing ceasefire between the government and the MILF, is threatening to endanger the peace deal that was eyed as the President’s legacy.

Both Napeñas and Purisima have “cleared” the President of direct involvement in the operation. The President had said the same in televised speeches, saying that he did not need to give a go-signal for a legitimate operation to serve existing arrest warrants.

But the Mamasapano incident has pushed back discussion on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, with many calling for its scrapping altogether.

MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

Emotions ran high at the Senate session hall on Thursday, February 12, after Senator Alan Peter Cayetano’s insistence on calling the MILF a “terrorist group” based on old documents.

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman held back tears as he rebuffed the senator’s claims. MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, in response, outlined the history of the Moros in the Philippines.

Cayetano used to be a co-author of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law but withdrew his support following the Mamasapano clash.

During the hearing and in a press conference held after, Iqbal reiterated the MILF’s commitment to talking peace with the government.

“We are not at war with the PNP. Right from the start, the MILF’s enemy was oppression, not the Armed Forces and the PNP,” Iqbal told reporters.

The Thursday hearing will be the last for at least the next 4 days or so. On Monday, February 16, the Senate resumes its probe but in an executive session with select resource persons including survivors from the SAF. – Rappler.com


DAY 3: Senate hearing on Mamasapano clash 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.