Tagaligtas: Pain, pride, and the PNP SAF

Bea Cupin
Tagaligtas: Pain, pride, and the PNP SAF
The PNP's Special Action Force, an elite police unit forged in the first years of a revolution and several coup tries, soldiers through its biggest crisis yet

MANILA, Philippines – Many years ago, a group of young men went through the toughest training course of their lives. At the end of months of commando training, they had a sign made and toted it proudly during their graduation picture taking: “There is nothing in this course but pain.”

It’s a story that retired Philippine National Police (PNP) chief and former Special Action Force (SAF) commander Avelino Razon remembers fondly. 

Founded in 1983, the SAF was – and continues to be – the national police force’s elite mobile unit, its premier striking force.

“From what I remember, SAF troopers were proud. They were proud to be SAF. They could brag that they were a breed apart because of the difficulty of the training,” he told Rappler in an interview.

SAF IN CRISIS. Chief Superintendent Moro Lazo (right) heads a SAF unit haunted by the memories of Mamasapano. File photo by Joseph Angan/Rappler

Newly-installed SAF commander Chief Superintendent Moro Lazo knows the toughness of SAF training all too well. Lazo, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) class of 1984, was among the SAF’s first recruits from the elite academy.

Typically a group that operates on the down-low, the SAF was thrust into the limelight after “Oplan Exodus,” a bloody January 25 police operation, claimed the lives of at least 65 people, including 44 police commandos.

Lazo also knows how painful it is to lose a SAF trooper.

“Most of them had so many questions,” said Lazo of how the SAF felt in the days after the bloody operation. During a meeting with Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, one SAF trooper wondered why the government was unable to rescue his comrades.

Fighting back tears, Senior Inspector Michael Melloria said the country was not worth fighting for if its protectors could not be protected too.

Parang kapatid ‘yan. Ang hirap (It’s like losing a brother. It’s difficult),” Lazo, holding back emotions, told reporters after his installation ceremony on Thursday, March 5.

Theirs is not an easy job. The SAF is sent where the situation is toughest and where they’re needed the most.

In its early days, that meant defending a fragile presidency from one coup d’ état after another. In recent years, the SAF has been involved in a wide range of operations – from anti-terrorism, to anti-insurgency, to disaster response.

GROUND ZERO. An aerial view of the Barangay Tukanalipao, where the 55th Special Action Company encountered MILF, BIFF and other armed fighters. Rappler file photo

After killing their target, top terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, SAF troopers from the 84th and 55th Special Action Companies (SAC) encountered fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and private armed groups (PAGs).

All but one of the 55th SAC never left Mamasapano town alive. Nine from the 84th Seaborne company lost their lives.

It’s the bloodiest one-day operation for a police unit that was witness and a key player to a revolution and several coups.

A ‘family’

There is always a hint of pride – some would say swagger – when a former SAF trooper recalls his glory days in the elite force.

“We were young and idealistic. It was for love of country,” one former SAF trooper, who is now a police general, told Rappler when asked why he joined the SAF.

Years after the EDSA Revolution, the Constabulary was abolished and merged with the Integrated National Police to form the civilian PNP. The shift was fairly difficult, Razon recalled, since it meant the SAF was now limited to purely police operations.

“But it still plays a big role in anti-terrorist operations,” added the former general. 

Troopers from the PMA Class of 1984 remember Razon fondly. They were the first graduates of the elite military school to join the brand-new unit that was the SAF.

It was 1983 when Razon, accompanied by then Colonel Renato de Villa, went up to Fort Gregorio del Pilar to speak to graduating cadets about the newly-formed elite squad.

It was nothing short of impressive, they said, when the two officers, donning the iconic SAF fatigues, spoke about the newly-formed unit. One year was all it took for Razon and the SAF’s founding officers to go from blueprint to an operational force.

Some 24 graduates from the Class of ’84 signed up to join the elite squad. Only 12 of the PMA graduates made the cut and officially joined the SAF in August 1984. Another classmate who studied at West Point signed up for the SAF a few months later.

It’s been almost 3 decades since the SAF troopers from PMA ’84 first donned the SAF combat uniform, but the bonds forged while hunting down and fighting off terrorists, insurgents, and coup plotters is something that time cannot erase.

The SAF as a family transcends age, rank, and the usual formalities in the PNP.

Anything but ordinary

Much has changed in the unit since Razon, alongside several foreign-trained officers, first drafted the paper that would lay the basis for the SAF.

When it was founded, the SAF was under the Philippine Constabulary, a gendarmerie force under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

The President Ferdinand Marcos wanted the AFP’s 4 major service commands to have their own special operations unit – the Army had the Scout Rangers; the Navy, the Special Warfare Group; the Marines, the Force Recon; the Airforce, the Aviation Security Command; and the Constabulary, the SAF.

Razon, under the orders of then-Constabulary chief Major General Fidel Ramos, was joined by officers who had undergone British Commando, Special Forces, and US Rangers training to make the plans for what would become the elite police force.

ELITE FORCE. SAF troopers in action during the 2013 Zamboanga siege. Rappler file photo

“SAF troopers then were not ordinary soldiers. Now it’s ‘not the ordinary policeman.’ You get special training in commando, special operations. [A SAF trooper] is able to jump from an airplane or do scuba diving. It’s the special training that sets him apart from the ordinary soldier or policeman,” Razon said.

The SAF’s ties with Ramos is why the former president’s detractors christened the elite police group “Special Army ni Fidel.”

The competition to enter SAF was cutthroat and intense. Out of 500 volunteers from the disbanded Constabulary brigades, only 148 made the cut. Of the 148, only 50 survived the first round of SAF training.

In its early years, the SAF was supposed to be a small, surgical unit. “Small, specially trained, specially equipped, but hard hitting,” is how Razon described their initial vision for SAF. When it was founded, the SAF was only a battalion-sized unit, with only 3 companies.

The SAF of 2015 has 9 battalions, making it a brigade-sized unit.

A SAF in crisis

Lazo himself admits that to this day, the ghosts of Mamasapano haunt him.

“I cried. Hanggang ngayon, pinipigilan ko pa (To this day, I tear up. I need to hold myself together). Why? Because we’re family here. You just do not know the relationship we have here [at the SAF]. Parang hindi ‘nyo maiintindihan (You won’t understand it) because you’re not part of it,” the SAF director told reporters.

The rapid expansion of the SAF, said Razon, was also because of its shift from being a military to a police unit.

Gone are the days, too, when one had to rise from the ranks to command the elite SAF. Lazo, Chief Superintendent Noli Taliño (the former SAF OIC), and Director Getulio Napeñas (the relieved commander of the SAF during the operation), are among the exceptions. 

All 3 were SAF troopers in their younger years.

Roxas, speaking to reporters after Lazo’s installation, said the police general’s days as a trooper himself were one of the reasons for his appointment. “Lumaki, tumagal siya dito. Sa panahong ito na napakalaking hamon ang hinaharap ng SAF, isang tunay na SAF trooper ang siyang mabuting mamuno dito,” he said.

(Lazo grew up, stayed in the SAF for a long time. At this trying time, the SAF needs a real SAF trooper to head it.)

After telling family, Lazo made sure to tell Razon of his new appointment, visiting him at the PNP Custodial Center, where the former PNP chief has been detained over corruption allegations.

If he had his way, Lazo said, Razon would be among his guests of honor during his installation.

During a meeting with President Benigno Aquino III, SAF battalion commanders and Mamasapano survivors voiced out their concerns – from hazard pay, equipment, rotation schedules, to promotions.

Police carry a body bag of their during a retrieval operation on January 26, 2015 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao Province. Rappler file photo

In the aftermath of Mamasapano, the SAF is a unit in mourning, a police force that is still hurting. On Friday, March 6, during a mass held for the 40th day since the death of the SAF 44, survivors from the mission broke down as they sang “Habang May Buhay” (As Long As We Live).

It’s a wound that is pulling the morale and the confidence of the SAF down, Lazo admitted. “These are intelligent people. You will have to motivate and encourage them again to do their mission,” said Lazo.

Lazo has no time to wax nostalgic over his return home. 

“I am so elated to be back home, excited to work again with you. Together, united and as one, let us continue to affirm our commitment to be vanguards of peace. The SAF, I believe, is now stronger, more united and solid, and will always live up to its name Tagaligtas (Savior), always ready to defend democracy,” said Lazo his speech during his installation.

The pain SAF troopers experience begins during the rigorous training courses and extends well into active duty, and even beyond. Difficult as it may be, the SAF will have to move forward.

“It’s very sad that we have to lose 44, pero talagang ganoon eh (but that’s how it is). It’s our sworn duty. We swore to give our life for the motherland,” said the general. – Rappler.com

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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.