The many answers to: ‘Who led Oplan Exodus?’
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Until the last Senate hearing into the Mamasapano clash, resigned police chief Alan Purisima and relieved Special Action Force (SAF) commander Getulio Napeñas blamed each other for the costly mission known as Oplan Exodus.
Yet to senators and security officials, both of them bear responsibility for the January 25 mission that led to the death of 44 elite cops, 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), 3 civilians, and endangered the government-MILF peace process.
In the hearing on Tuesday, February 24, Senator Loren Legarda asked Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II to name who in their assessment was the “overall commander” of the mission to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan.
Gazmin said, “I would consider the head of Oplan Exodus to be Director Purisima, former Director General Purisima.”
Roxas, also known as the SILG after the acronym of his position, responded that both Purisima and Napeñas bear responsibility.
“I would just like to add that whether it was an advice or order, there was an overt attempt or effort to keep this away from [the police officer in charge] and from the SILG,” Roxas said.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang Jr said he prefers that the Philippine National Police (PNP) answer Legarda’s question “as there is still confusion on who really initiated the order to launch this.”
Gazmin, Roxas, and Catapang were all kept in the dark about the operation. The lack of coordination emerged as a crucial factor behind the heavy death toll.
When Legarda asked Purisima and Napeñas the same question, both owned up to the responsibility but later blamed each other.
Purisima’s answer went: “The responsibility, accountability of the Oplan Exodus rests on me. I have delegated that authority to the director of SAF. The planning, direction, and control of the operation [were] delegated to the PNP-SAF, but the accountability rests on me.”
As he had done since the first days after the encounter, Napeñas took the fall but this time also passed the blame to Purisima. He said the plan could not have started had not Purisima called him to a meeting in early November.
“I just like to point out that this Oplan Exodus only started when the intelligence was given to me when I was called by General Purisima sometime in the early part of November at 10 pm on a Sunday. My understanding is there is urgency to do the operation, being called on a Sunday at 10 pm. We started working,” Napeñas said.
Napeñas and Purisima are two key characters in the Mamasapano encounter, where details of operational and communication lapses emerged.
A close friend and former bodyguard of President Benigno Aquino III, Purisima became even more controversial because he issued orders even while on suspension over corruption allegations. He downplays the directives as “advice.”
‘I could have coordinated but…’
Both Purisima and Napeñas affirmed that, during a meeting at the President’s official residence in Malacañang on January 9, he ordered them to coordinate with the AFP.
Early on in the hearing on Tuesday, Purisima also confirmed that Aquino told him to loop in PNP Officer in Charge (OIC) Leonardo Espina. Yet the disgraced police chief admitted that he only informed Espina “on the morning of January 25.”
On coordinating with the AFP, Purisima said he already “facilitated” this by bringing Napeñas along with him during the AFP anniversary celebration in December.
“I brought Napeñas to the anniversary to introduce to them (AFP officials) on how to go about the operations, the plan. I facilitated that so they can talk directly because I cannot talk to them because I was suspended,” he said.
Napeñas took exception to this, saying the sequence of events showed that Purisima did not intend to use the AFP meeting to follow Aquino’s directive to coordinate with the military.
“Just to clarify, the meeting with the chief of staff was December 18 or 19 during AFP day. The meeting with the President was January 9. If such is the case, I don’t think [the AFP meeting was] in compliance with the order of the President,” he said.
Napeñas added that had not Purisima ordered him not to tell Espina and Roxas beforehand, he would have informed the PNP OIC, who is the one authorized to coordinate with Catapang.
Earlier, Napeñas quoted Purisima as saying: “Huwag mo munang sabihan 'yung dalawa, saka na 'pag nandoon na. Ako na bahala kay General Catapang." (Don't inform the two yet, just tell them when the troops are in the area. I'll tell General Catapang myself.)
Purisima countered that it was his “understanding” that it would be Napeñas’ responsibility to coordinate with Catapang beforehand. He repeated that he only meant to tell the AFP chief about the operation “time on target” or on the day itself.
Legarda responded: “There was a very clear misunderstanding.”
‘Not best persons to coordinate’
Senate President Franklin Drilon said that the testimonies absolved Aquino of responsibility, and showed Purisima disobeyed the President’s order.
“He really violated the order of the President to tell General Espina and coordinate with the AFP. He admitted that,” Drilon said.
When asked if Aquino should also be held liable for ordering the suspended police chief via SMS on January 25 not to let Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman get away, Drilon said, “I wasn’t around [when that was discussed].”
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara said both Purisima and Napeñas were "responsible officers," having both been "intimately involved" in planning or execution of Oplan Exodus.
"There is some 'passing the buck' now after the deaths of the SAF 44 but from what the committee heard, these two were clearly calling the shots," Angara told Rappler.
Senate public order committee chairperson Grace Poe said in a previous interview that the miscommunication between Purisima and Napeñas misled the President.
“Maybe the root of this is the coordination between Napeñas and Purisima. Maybe when we look back, they’re not the best persons to coordinate with this type of operation,” said Poe.
Poe's committee will release its findings through a committee report.
Who do you think should be held responsible for Oplan Exodus? Let us know in the comments section below. – Rappler.com