'Bagani Force' still at large in North Cotabato

DAVAO CITY, Philippines - The military paid the leader of the "Bagani Force" to hunt down and murder Italian priest Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, alleged a former member of the notorious private army in Arakan, North Cotabato.

In a congressional hearing conducted this week by the Committee on Human Rights in Davao, Arturo (not his real name) revealed that he was a member of the Bagani Force and was present at the meeting convened by a "Kumander Iring" to announce that a P50,000 bounty money was raised allegedly by the military for the killing of the priest.

“Seven days before the murder of Fr. Pops, all 6 members of the Bagani Force, including me, were called for a meeting by Kumander Iring. He told us that a financier in the military would give us P50,000 if we will killed Fr. Tentorio,” Arturo said.

He added that Kumander Iring explained that the money was not to be divided among the group but would be their budget for the operation in hunting down the Italian priest.

“No, we would not receive cash. The money would be used to buy rice and other supplies. And the rest of the money would be in the hands of Kumander Iring,” Arturo said.

Identified as a certain John Corbala, Kumander Iring is being pinpointed by human rights organizations as one of the culprits behind the murder of the priest inside the compound of his parish in Arakan on October 17, 2011.

Arturo narrated that Tentorio was targeted because he was suspected of being a supporter of the New People’s Army.

When he heard the order, Arturo said he was very apprehensive because he knew that the priest and his network of NGOs were bringing in assistance and services to tribal communities in the area.

“I told them about my doubts about participating in the operation,” Arturo said.

But Kumander Iring then siezed his issued firearm and warned Arturo that he would be executed if he tipped off Fr. Tentorio about the plot.

“They went away for days after the meeting. And three days after the murder of Tentorio, they went back to our village and declared that the priest is already dead,” Arturo said.

“They planned to kill Fr. Tentorio. That is why they are the most probable perpetrators.”

Bagani Force

“Bagani” is the local term of the indigenous peoples of Mindanao for “tribal warriors”, organized teams within the tribe tasked with protecting their people.

However, Arturo revealed that the Bagani Force is not a real tribal defense unit but a special paramilitary force composed mostly of tribal folks and trained as an armed civilian auxiliary for the campaign against communist guerrillas in the area.

“We were given military training, including survival and firearm exercises inside our camp by military personnel from the 57th Infantry Battalion,” Arturo disclosed.

A small detachment, which serves as the main camp of the group, currently exists in Sitio Kamanagan, Barangay Ganatan in Arakan, Arturo said.

Arturo explained that they are required to be on duty everyday.

“If our boss from the military commands us to conduct patrol or pursuit operations, we immediately obey. But in my experience, we never had an encounter with the communists. Most of our days are boring, we just lounge around in our camp,” Arturo said.

He added that they were not given any salary but did received food.

Arturo described his former commander as a violent person who has a lot of guns.

He said Corbala, in his mid-50s, has high-powered rifles, short firearms and a vast arsenal of weapons including M-14 and M-16 rifles, revolvers, .45 pistols, shotguns and grenades.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW about the Bagani Force, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares asked officers of the AFP, the PNP and the CHR. Photo by Karlos Manlupig

WHAT DO YOU KNOW about the Bagani Force, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares asked officers of the AFP, the PNP and the CHR.

Photo by Karlos Manlupig

Corbala was named “Iring”, which is the Visaya term for “cat”, because he usually goes out on operations at night.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Eastern Mindanao Command has consistently denied funding or training any tribal paramilitary units in the area.

Lt. Nasrula Sema, 57th Infantry civil-military operations chief, said the accusations were fabricated to malign the credibility of the military.

“It is illegal to fund and train paramilitary units and the military strictly obeys the rule of law,” Sema said.

In the congressional hearing, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares asked AFP officers, the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) if they are aware that the Bagani Force is still at large in North Cotabato.

Brig. Gen. Cesar Dionisio Sedillo, assistant commander of the military’s 6th Infantry Division, confirmed that the Bagani Force exists and was organized by the tribe as a security arrangement to protect their village.

Asked if the military knows if the group is armed, Sedillo said that he has “no data” about it.

All representatives from the military and the police affirmed that they lack sufficient information and intelligence reports about the characteristics of the group.

“The existence of the group seems to be of public knowledge in the area. How come you do not know anything about this group?” Colmenares said.

Davao City 1st District Rep. Karlo Nograles said all concerned government institutions must be responsible in investigating the existence of armed groups in their area of responsibilities.

“This committee is directing the AFP, PNP and CHR to provide anything that they can find about the Bagani Force,” Nograles said.

DOJ investigation

A day before the congressional hearing, Department of Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan went to Davao to personally meet the witnesses.

Baraan explained that Justice Secretary Leila De Lima is closely monitoring developments and eyeing an early resolution of the case.

He said at the present the DOJ is relying on the credibility of the witnesses.

“If the accusations against the Bagani Force and the military are true, then the testimonies will be used. There will be no coverups in this investigation,” Baraan said.

The DOJ is planning to conduct a series of lie detector tests to those who are allegedly involved in the murder of Fr. Tentorio.

However, Italian priest Fr. Peter Geremia said they has been no significant breakthrough yet in the case.

He appealed for the expansion of the investigation to identify police and military officers involved and the immediate disarming of the Bagani Force.

“We are also calling for the extension of the witness protection program. We are all waiting for the early resolution of the case,” Geremia said.

Arturo, who is presently under witness protection, explained that he decided to tell the truth because he wanted to help bring justice to the victims of human rights abuses in their community.

“I am fearing for my security and am also afraid for my family. But I must do this so that truth and justice may prevail." - Rappler.com