Aquino: Napeñas ‘tricked me’ on Mamasapano

Natashya Gutierrez

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Aquino: Napeñas ‘tricked me’ on Mamasapano
In a blistering attack against dismissed Special Action Forces commander Getulio Napeñas, the President calls him an unprofessional cop caught 'in a lot of wishful thinking' who 'acted alone'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – What really happened in Mamasapano on January 25 that led to the killing of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos, 18 Moro rebels and 3 civilians?

On the day a police investigating body was supposed to finish its probe but ended up seeking an extension, President Benigno Aquino III offered an answer: it was the lack of professionalism by sacked SAF commander Getulio Napeñas.

Responding to a request for an explanation of the Mamasapano carnage during a gathering with religious leaders in Malacañang on Monday, March 9, Aquino took almost 30 minutes narrating the events before declaring that Napeñas is to blame for “acting alone.”  (READ: Full text: ‘Binola ako’ ni Napeñas – Aquino

The President did not, however, discuss why now resigned Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima, a close friend, was involved in the operation despite his being suspended at the time. (Purisima’s involvement prompted Aquino to accept his resignation.)

Instead, Aquino took the occasion to debunk insinuations that he was using Napeñas as a scapegoat. 

“No way. If I were at fault, why would I not take responsibility? If you saw the planning here, the Power Point presentation was very well done,” he said.

The President has come under fire for allowing Purisima to get involved in the operation and for not immediately acknowledging what he knew about it. It turned out that Aquino himself was privy to the details of “Oplan Exodus,” with Purisima and Napeñas briefing him on January 9 at his residence in Bahay Pangarap in Malacañang. 

On Monday, Aquino expressed doubt about Napeñas’ motivations in deciding to defy his orders to coordinate with the military and act alone, saying “it is very clear he was wrong.”

He then said that one lesson he learned from the incident was that if anyone ever deviated from his orders again without justification, they would be charged with insubordination and other appropriate charges.

“The most generous way of looking at it is that Napeñas had a lot of wishful thinking as opposed to reality. But it’s clear to me that he tricked me. Now what is my responsibility at this point in time?,” he said.

“There’s a saying: ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’ And I have no plans to be fooled twice. So those (who disobey me) better be ready,” he said. 

Below are 5 reasons why Aquino said Napeñas’ decisions led to the worst police operation in recent history even if it eventually killed top terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, or Marwan. The incident, which sparked intense gun battles between police commandos and rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, threatened to ruin Aquino’s peace legacy in Mindanao.

1. Napeñas did not follow Aquino’s orders

Aquino said that when the plan was presented to him, he did not ask for all the details such as which route would be taken, or how many would go through the route, because he said there is “presumption of regularity” followed in government, which respects the knowledge of those with expertise.

The President said the plan seemed well thought out, although he acknowledged that he was unhappy about the original plan that only 160 would be deployed since there were potentially 3,000 to 4,000 Moro rebels. 

Because of this, Aquino said he asked Napeñas to coordinate with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the OIC of the PNP, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, which Napeñas did not do. Aquino said Napeñas told him he would do so at jump-off, a suggestion that Aquino said he specifically said no to. But the President said Napeñas did not coordinate, and did not follow his orders.

Aquino recalled that when there was finally coordination, the military had to pull out Google Maps because they did not even know how to locate the SAF who were in trouble.

2. Napeñas did not plan the operation well

The President said that it was orginally established that there would be two exit routes for the troopers who would be executing the warrant of arrest, routes that would be guarded by fellow SAF. He said the problem was there was no foxhole.

“It turned out the SAF did not have an entrenching tool… there was no terrain to hide in after all,” he said.  

He also said that those tasked to guard the waypoints were further divided among themselves, 30 people among 3 waypoints.

“Had I know this part of the plan, I would not have approved it,” he said. “Because wait, how would they block it, how would they assist if they have no terrain advantage?”

Aquino said Napeñas had no excuse for the poor planning in relation to the terrain.

Ngayon, sana ho pwede kong masabing ‘tatanga-tanga si Napeñas, hindi niya alam ‘yung lugar’(Now I wish I could say ‘Napeñas was clueless because he doesn’t know the place),” he said. “The problem is he was the regional public safety battalion commander form 2007 to 2008. He knows the terrain, he knows the culture.”

3. Napeñas gave Aquino wrong information

The core of the problem, Aquino said, is that he was given innacurate information.

“The truth is I was given the wrong information by the people who knew most what was happening, and unfortunately, the others who did not know anything could not give me any further information rather than very raw information,” he said.

Aquino said that on the morning of January 25, he received two text messages. One from Purisima, who said the artillery and armor was already helping the SAF, and another from PNP Chief Leonardo Espina, a forwarded text from Napeñas. (READ: Text messages show Aquino knew details)

In that text, Aquino said he was told that “extraction was ongoing.”

“I reread those texts because I thought, ‘Why was there no sense of urgency that what was about to happen or was happening to the SAF 55 was dangerous?,'” said Aquino.

“Me, as Commander-in-Chief, if my subordinate tells me he will follow my orders… I thought the incident was done. When I got to Zamboanga City, that’s when it became clear. Barely anyone knew. It became clear there was no coordination. Where in actuality were those that needed help?”

4. Napeñas did not abort the operation when he should have

Aquino also said there were many opportunities when Napeñas should have aborted the operation but he did not.

He said that of the 38 who were deployed to serve the warrant of arrest, only 13 were able to cross the river, because the water was higher and current was stronger than anticipated. Despite this, Aquino said Napeñas did not abort the operation even if only a third was able to enter.

He also said that the original deployment plan was at 2:30 am, but they did not arrive until 3 hours later. Again, he said it should have been aborted then.

He added that the over 300 other SAF commandos who were assigned to guard waypoints were distributed as originally planned even when there was already an exchange of fire. 

“What he should have done, the 300 or more, 318 or 319, should have been gathered and stuck with each other as much as possible to help the SAF 55 (that were in position),” he said. “They were ordered, ‘Go to your waypoints.’ The plan was continued when the events and the conditions already changed.”

He added, “When the forces were divided, that’s when they thought, ‘It looks like we have the help the 55, let’s gather everyone. But of course time had already been wasted, there was already fighting. You split them up, put them back together. By the time that they were able to come near, the testimony to me is that the SAF 55 were already surrounded, they couldn’t come near anymore.”

5. Napeñas acted alone

The President expressed confidence that all the evidence, including cell phone records and witnesses would show “sinolo ni Napeñas (he acted alone).”

“He made the decisions… there were times he didn’t make any decisions, and other times that his decisions were failures. But as soon as he left our meeting in January 9 or thereabouts, it seems he had no intention to follow my orders to coordinate,” he said.

Aquino said Napeñas continued to try and fix the situation on his own, refusing to call artillery support right away, which he said worsened the situation further as time passed.

In the end, Aquino said Napeñas panicked but no one could help him – because only he knew the entire operation. –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.