MANILA, Philippines – In defending himself against the first charges filed against him after his presidency, Benigno Aquino III turned to a familiar explanation: former Special Action Force (SAF) chief Getulio Napeñas Jr, who led the planning and execution of the now-controversial operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, didn’t tell the truth.
After posting bail, Aquino held a news briefing in his family residence on Times Street, Quezon City, to dispute the charges, aided by a PowerPoint presentation.
The police operation on January 25, 2015, was meant to neutralize wanted terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan”, and involved over 400 SAF, the Philippine National Police (PNP) elite surgical striking force. It ended in the death of Marwan, 44 SAF troopers, over 18 local armed persons, and over 5 civilians. It would be the bloodiest one-day operation in the PNP’s history.
Aquino is being charged for allegedly allowing Purisima to commit graft and usurpation of authority. Purisima, Aquino’s long time friend, was under preventive suspension as PNP chief then because of separate corruption charges. Purisima sat in briefings on the Mamasapano operation, alongside Napeñas, despite his (Purisima's) suspension.
On Friday, Aquino presented to media select slides from a pre-operation briefing by the PNP SAF in 2015. The presentation detailed the number of armed groups in Mamasapano, as well as the position of friendly forces, or police and military posts.
Aquino said Napeñas’ “friendly fire map” – or the map indicating where soldiers and police were stationed – was apparently not up to date. “Why didn’t he know it changed? I won’t be able to answer that,” said Aquino, referring to Napeñas.
The former president, who was given a briefing on the operation on January 9, 2015, said he also insisted that the SAF coordinate with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) prior to the operation, should anything go wrong. Only the AFP would be able to send much needed back-up should the troops need help.
Aquino said Napeñas lied to him about the plan, saying SAF troops would have at least two entry and exit points in the operation. In the end, Oplan Exodus involved only one entry and exit point for troops.
“Everyone I talked to, in one way or another, I promoted. There’s no reason, as far as I knew, for them to lie. All my orders were logical and legal,” said Aquino, referring to the January 9 meeting in Bahay Pangarap, his official residence as president.
‘Formula for pintakasi’
Based on information presented by the SAF, there were around 3,200 armed fighters from different groups surrounding the area of operation in Mamasapano. At least two barangays were covered by the operation – Tukanalipao and Pinsandawan.
Napeñas had initially proposed to tap around 160 troopers from the SAF’s Seaborne. Aquino objected to this, arguing that a battle of 3,200 versus 160 was a “formula for pintakasi,” or a situation wherein a community bands together to attack a common enemy.
Aquino said Napeñas said yes, apparently assuring Aquino – or at least leaving an impression – that he would coordinate with the AFP beforehand. It turns out, Napeñas also allegedly misled Aquino into thinking that the Seaborne had 160 operators when it only had around 50.
Aquino also said they apparently had different interpretations of “time on target.” For Napeñas, this meant coordinating with the AFP and even local police forces only during the operations. For Aquino, it meant synchronizing every step of the operation with the military.
Two companies – the 84th and 55th – led the operation against Marwan.
Even in its early hours, the SAF troopers found themselves in trouble, unable to properly cross the river and tributaries that cut across the barangays. They were behind schedule and were still on their way to the target at 4 am, or just around the time that locals in the area woke up for morning prayers.
Members of the 55th Special Action Company were pinned down in Tukanalipao while those in the 84th, after killing Marwan, were also trapped in another barangay. All but one of the 55th SAC died, while 9 of the 33th Seaborne troopers died.
The botched operation was also controversial because even as Purisima acted as Aquino’s “resource person”, other key officials were out of the loop. Former PNP officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina, former interior secretary Manuel Roxas, and former defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin were all clueless about the planned operation.
Aquino said he was surprised to find out on January 25, 2015, during a plane ride from Manila to Zamboanga City, that neither Roxas nor Gazmin knew of the operation.
The botched Mamasapano operation was among the lowest points in the Aquino presidency. His trust ratings plummeted to a record low in the aftermath. The death of the SAF troopers would also trigger sentiment against the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, the result of a peace deal forged between the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
MILF fighters were among those who exchanged fire with the SAF troopers. – Rappler.com