Mamasapano clash: What did Aquino know?

MANILA, Philippines – It’s a secret police operation that stunned security officials, exposed cracks in the police and military, derailed the proposed overhaul of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao, and claimed the lives of more than 60 Filipinos, including 44 of the national police’s elite forces. 

All this happened under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, one which he said he would carry to his grave.

Patay na ang 44 na miyembro ng ating kapulisan. At nangyari ito sa panahon ng aking panunungkulan. Dadalhin ko—at uulitin ko po—dadalhin ko ang katotohanang ito hanggang sa aking mismong libingan (44 members of our police force are dead. And this happened under my term. Let me stress it: I will bear this basic truth with me to my grave),” he said in a speech before police cadets in March 2015.

Next week, the Senate re-opens a probe into the clash following Senator Juan Ponce Enrile's disclosure that he had new evidence to pin down the President.

Friendships, institutions

Exodus, which targeted terrorists wanted by both the Philippines and the United States, was Aquino's worst crisis to date. (READ: 'Mission accomplished': Marwan dead)

It turned Central Mindanao into a battlefield, hurting the peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which his administration aggressively pursued. 

Exodus unmasked the President's stubbornness, reinforced perception he lacked empathy by the way he appeared cold and detached when he faced the families of the police victims, and showed how he could put friendship above institutions.

And it caused the biggest decline in his public opinon ratings.

The President has been able to recover since then, but exactly a year later – an election year at that – the ghosts of Mamasapano continue to haunt Aquino. 

Senator Enrile said he will prove next week Aquino’s involvement and failures before and during the controversial operation.

Enrile’s questions are nothing new. They were asked when the Senate first probed the incident while Enrile was under detention in Camp Crame for his alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam. 

The Senate, in fact, concluded that Aquino should "ultimately bear responsibility" for what happened. (READ: 20 senators sign Senate report on Mamasapano)

But what did Aquino know, not know, do, or not do in the weeks before and during the crucial hours of the clash?

Rappler looks back at the documents, testimonies, and speeches by Aquino, his Cabinet officials, the police and the military last year. 

BEFORE EXODUS 

It's a fact that Aquino knew of the operation before it happened.

Former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief (retired) Police Director Getulio Napeñas made this revelation during a February 9 Senate hearing. 

President Aquino was briefed by Napeñas, PNP Intelligence Group head Chief Superintendent Ferdinand Mendez, and then-PNP chief Alan Purisima at his official residence in Malacañang, Bahay Pangarap. 

According to a SAF PowerPoint presentation earlier obtained by Rappler, the briefing happened on January 9, 2015. By then, Purisima was a month into a preventive suspension imposed by the Ombudsman as it probed an allegedly shady deal in Camp Crame. (Purisima was eventually dismissed from service over the same case.)

Absent from that briefing were people who were supposed to be in the know: senior military officers and commanders, the interior secretary (who has supervision over the PNP), and the officer-in-charge of the PNP then, (retired) Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina.

Aquino later said he ordered Purisima and the rest who were in that Bahay Pangarap meeting to coordinate with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. But the 3 police generals had “qualms” involving a “compromised” military. 

After briefing the President, Napeñas and Mendez stepped out, leaving only Aquino and Purisima in the room. Following the short huddle between Aquino and his friend Purisima, the then suspended PNP chief told Napeñas: “Huwag mo munang sabihan 'yung dalawa (referring to Espina and former interior secretary Manuel Roxas II), 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).” 

Napeñas said he thought this meant the suspended Purisima would brief the two himself. But Purisima never did, opting to only inform his Philippine Military Academy (PMA) mistahs (classmates) of the operation “time on target.” Roxas was only informed through another police general who had gotten Napeñas report of the operation. 

Texts exchanged between Purisima and Aquino on January 25 showed that Aquino knew how many terrorists were being targeted, the number of SAF troopers being deployed, among others.

Our Palace sources said that after the Mamasapano clash, the President briefed a few Cabinet secretaries about Exodus. He gave them his own PowerPoint presentation with all the details of the secret operation – maps, pictures, timelines.

PURISIMA AS THE LINK

Purisima was Aquino’s primary link before and during the operation – something the President initially sought to downplay.

On January 28, Aquino said Purisima was there merely to explain “jargon.” 

Aquino and Purisima’s closeness is well-known in police and political circles. Purisima, appointed PNP chief in 2012, was part of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) during the presidency of the late Corazon Aquino, the current president’s mother.  

Their friendship extended beyond the Cory Aquino’s term, even if the younger Aquino, prior to running for president was part of the opposition – a risky move for Purisima’s police career, the President himself pointed out. 

Police officials at that point did not determine when the operation would happen but told Aquino their window was between January 23 to 26. 

D-DAY: JANUARY 25 

In the wee hours of the morning on January 25, some 400 SAF troopers moved into Mamasapano town to execute “Oplan Exodus.” The SAF deployed its best-trained force, the 84th Special Action Company (SAC) or Seaborne, to be the main striking force with the 55th SAC as its main support unit. 

Past 4 am, the Seaborne finally reached Marwan’s hut in barangay Pidsandawan, albeit a few hours off schedule. Shortly after, all hell broke loose. 

Purisima reported to Aquino through a text message sent at around 5:45 am: “Sir good morning. For info, SAF elements implemented Oplan against high value targets. As of now, results indicate that Marwan was killed and one SAF trooper wounded. The body of Marwan was left behind but pictures were taken. The troopers are not in withdrawal phase and progress report to follow.”

In neighboring Barangay Tukanalipao, the 55th SAC were already engaged in firefight against Muslim rebels, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and private armed groups. The company’s radio man, Chief Inspector Ryan Pabalinas called for help at around 7am. 

Aquino apparently did not get to read the text message real time.

It would take the President a couple of hours to reply to Purisima’s text message – despite knowing that the jump off time for the SAF was at 2:30 am.

Aquino’s reply prompted an exchange of messages that lasted until Sunday noon, January 25:

7:36 am text message from Aquino to Purisima:

Why was it left behind? The other two targets?

7:48 am text message from Purisima to Aquino:

Sir accordingly when the nearest target from the time of approach is N1 and when they hit the primary target, the other house where Basit Usman was located and the other elements reacted and fired at the troopers.

There were about 15-20 armed elements. It was about 4:30 am and it was decided that they would pull out after taking pictures and other evidences and they were not able to reach the secondary targets sir.

7:59 am text message from Aquino to Purisima:

If I remember correctly 160 SAF troopers were directly involved in this operation plus provisions for other PNP and AFP units to assist. The terrain is flat and clear as opposed to upland forested or jungle terrain. Why could they not contain and or overwhelm 15 to 20 members of opposing force. Are they still in contact with other targets? If not, and the opposing forces escaped, are we now back to square one? (Editor's note: The Moro rebels who fought with the SAF troops were more than a hundred. Only 73 SAF troopers – members of the 84th Seaborne Company and the 55th Special Action Company – were able to enter the area of engagement)

Between 8:17 and 8:18 am text message from Purisima to Aquino:

They [opposing force] are presently in contact with the reinforcing elements from BIFF. The containment forces are the ones in contact right now. They are now supported by mechanized and artillery support sir.

The local target Basit and his group were the first group that were engaged by main effort group (84th Seaborne Company).

8:41 am text from Aquino to Purisima:

Review your earlier and latest text. They differ as to which was engaged first.

Purisima’s reply to Aquino:

I mean sir: The first target was M1 (Marwan), where they were able to neutralize first. The group of Basit retaliated which was about 100 meters away.

10:16 am text from Aquino to Purisima:

Basit should not get away.

11:38 text from Purisima to Aquino:

Already advised sir. As of the moment, the main effort is withdrawing and according to director IG [Senior Superintendent Fernando Mendez] we still have our contract with the [asset] and will hit them again sir.

The text messages contradicted Aquino's earlier claim that Purisima had no direct hand in the operation.

The President then said in a televised address: “If at all, baka 'yung jargon tinutulungan ako ni General Purisima to understand it. But he was involved 'yung up to the point in time, directly, that he was ordered suspended by the Ombudsman. Tapos after that, if at all, 'yung siya ang very knowledgeable about the whole thing; ipinapaliwanag sa akin 'yung intricacies of what the plan being presented to me was,” he said.

PARALYSIS IN ZAMBOANGA?

On the day of the Masamapano raid, Aquino flew to nearby Zamboanga City ostensibly to visit victims of a previous bomb blast in the area. The President's visit to Zamboanga was kept under wraps from the media, who are usually alerted about presidential trips at least a day in advance.

Although the official purpose of the trip did not seem uncharacteristic – it involved a deadly bomb blast in a major urban center in Mindanao blamed on terrorists – the announcement that the President would visit the wake of the two bombing victims struck reporters as odd, since the Chief Executive himself had expressed discomfort in going to wakes of "strangers."

By 10:30 am, Aquino was already in Zamboanga City alongside Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, then Interior Secretary Roxas, then AFP chief Gen Gregorio Catapang, and then Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero. 

 

During the Senate’s probe into the operation, none of the officials could say how and when did Aquino share with them the information that he already had at that point. (READ: President Aquino and the Mamasapano puzzle)

This led to senators speculating that the top security officials were either incompetent or covering up for the President. 

Gazmin and Roxas said they told Aquino much earlier, in the morning when they received reports of the clash. Guerrero, meanwhile, said he spoke to Aquino about the clash “around 11 am or before noon” but only briefed him of the situation at around 5pm.

Citing reports from the ground, military officials said clashes were most intense between 8 to 10 am. More than 12 hours would pass before Army forces linked up with the 84th SAC, at around 11pm on January 25. According to the PNP, almost all of the 55th SAC were dead by 1 pm. 

Roxas and police officials only found out that the SAF did not coordinate with the military at around 4pm on January 25. 

According to Guerrero, Aquino called them into a small room with Gazmin and Roxas, where they were asked for more details. Guerrero told Aquino then that he had directed the 6th Infantry Division, under Major General Edmundo Pangilinan, to “provide the necessary support on the ground.” 

WHERE'S THE MILITARY?

The military’s involvement – or lack thereof – is a sticky issue in the Mamasapano debacle.

SAF officials insist the military could have done more to help save the trapped troopers but the military says they did not have enough information that morning to send artillery. 

Former AFP chief Catapang said they upheld the "primacy of the peace talks” during the clash, explaining that the military went there not to join the fight, but to extricate the SAF troopers. 

Enrile is now insisting that Aquino, as commander-in-chief, failed to help the SAF troopers.

Aquino has countered this argument in the past by saying that he did not have the right information to make a decision during those crucial hours. The President would later say Napeñas “tricked” him by making him think they would coordinate with the military. 

Early evening, Purisima would send another text to Aquino. 

The President no longer replied, based on documents Purisima submitted to the Senate. 

Espina, interim head of the PNP during the clash, confirmed the death of SAF troopers during the clash past 9 pm on January 25.

Three days later on January 28, Aquino finally faced the public in a televised address on the bloody Mamasapano clash. – Rappler.com