The outcast retires: Benjamin Magalong bids goodbye to the PNP

MANILA, Philippines – It was already past 4 in the afternoon in Datu Saudi, Maguindanao. Benjamin Magalong, the 2-star police general who was leading a probe into a bloody operation that claimed the lives of more than 60 people, was tired and weary.

He sat at the patio of the town mayor’s office-slash-residence and took one phone call after another. He was surrounded by several journalists, other senior police officials, local officials, and local security forces but on that day, of all days, Police Director Benjamin Magalong was all alone.

The day ended in defeat.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander who he had hoped to interview suddenly backed out of their arrangement. It was another roadblock in an investigation that, for better or worse, would go on to define the rest of Magalong’s career in public service.

Later that night, as Magalong was winding down at a hotel in Cotabato City, this reporter was finally able to corner him.

“Yes, Bea?” he said as he ended yet another phone call.

Paano na 'yan sir (What will you do now, sir)?” I said, referring to the apparently now-uncooperative but crucial MILF commander.

Magalong cracked a weary smile.

Mahahanapan ng paraan yan (We’ll find a way),” he said.

On March 13, 2015, a few weeks after the Philippine National Police's Board of Inquiry’s (BOI) field work, Magalong would finally make public the now-infamous report.

The board, composed of 3 police generals and assisted by several other senior officials, was the first to conclusively pin down then-president Benigno Aquino III in a mishandled police operation that claimed the lives of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers.

The backlash – or at least the push back – from administration officials came swiftly.

Aquino’s spokesman criticized Magalong for failing to interview Aquino himself while the justice secretary then, now Senator Leila de Lima, hit the Magalong-led report for supposedly misconstruing the PNP’s chain-of-command and the President’s place in it.

Magalong did not relent.

BOI report

Aquino “gave the go-signal and allowed the execution of Oplan Exodus” and “allowed the participation” of his friend, then Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima in the operation despite his suspension, Magalong's team declared.

The BOI report added that Aquino “bypassed the established PNP Chain of Command.”

Aquino had reportedly been “hurt” by the report, which was followed by a separate Senate probe that said the former president, who saw his approval and satisfaction ratings dip to their lowest during this period, should “bear responsibility” for the botched operation.

Magalong’s future in the PNP was also apparently hurt by the report.

Considered a shoo-in then for the PNP’s Command Group, or its top officers, Magalong was instead appointed to the Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management after his stint in the powerful Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG).

He eventually did join the Command Group but only under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, with Director General Ronald dela Rosa as the new chief of the PNP.

The outcast

Magalong, who reached the mandatory retirement age in the PNP of 56 on Thursday, December 15, is a member of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1982.

“By chance” was how Magalong described his decision to enter the elite academy. “I didn’t have the slightest idea what was in store for me in the Academy,” Magalong would recall during his retirement honors at Camp Crame on Wednesday, December 14.

The years following his stay in the academy weren’t going to be any easier.

Following his deployment in his home region, the Cordilleras, he joined the Special Action Force (SAF) where he founded the SAF Seaborne and Sniper Unit. While in the SAF, Magalong – then already a senior officer – led a SAF operation to quell Abu Sayyaf prisoners during the Bicutan siege.

He narrowly escaped death after a bullet hit his kevlar helmet. The same helmet is displayed proudly in his office.

It’s the SAF that to this day, Magalong considers home.

As the BOI was crafting their report on the incident, Magalong would repeatedly tell media: “We owe the truth to the 44 killed.”

The truth – or at least the side of history he believed in – was always something the retired police general had fought for.

In 2006, Magalong was detained for leading a SAF unit during an alleged coup attempt against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

He was absolved of the rebellion charges, but said he was considered an “outcast” in the PNP after that.

Magalong was assigned in the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) before eventually returning to the “mainstream” of the PNP.

His promotion came swiftly and less than a year after he was transferred to the Quezon City Police Department in 2010, he got his first star.

The PNP’s 'anchor'

Under the Duterte administration and under Dela Rosa’s term as PNP chief, Magalong took on an interesting role – both a subordinate of and source of wisdom for a PNP chief who was years his junior.

It was a situation Dela Rosa, of PMA Class of 1986, acknowledged in a video message for Magalong during the latter’s retirement party in Camp Crame.

"Sa pag-retire mo, para akong nawalan ng right wing... Wala na ako big brother na aalalay sa akin kapag ako'y kinokontra ng matitigas na ulo na upper class," said Dela Rosa, who was in Cambodia as part of Duterte’s official party.

(With your retirement, it’s as if I’ve lost my right wing. I no longer have a big brother to help me whenever my hard-headed upperclassmen go against my decisions.)

It was Magalong who headed the audit team for the PNP’s operations in Duterte’s popular but controversial war on drugs.

In congressional hearings into allegations of summary killings by police in the name of the drugs war, it was Magalong too who sat beside Dela Rosa, defending the PNP from its detractors while also acknowledging lapses committed by some of its men and women.

'Sunod ka lang'

In the wake of the bloody Mamasapano clash, the numerous questions that arose, and the probes that attempted to answer them, Magalong was among the figures whom the public saw as a source of clarity.

As emotions ran high, the 2-star police general would remain silent, betraying neither anger nor distress. It wasn’t always that way, Magalong himself said.

“I was uptight and far too serious and strict about giving and following orders. Based on what I have heard from my peers and subordinates, especially those who used to work with me in special operations – I was like a ‘dragon,’” Magalong said in his speech.

A former staff member, said Magalong, noted that he had a “distinct military air – with a ferocity that could make working with me – nerve-wracking and stressful as it was inspiring.”

He continued: “I realized that the trouble with me was this: I lacked the ability to earn the ‘relational passport’ that is needed to effetively lead and engage people. I came up short in one important ingredient – I was not approachable.”

But it was a notably different side of Magalong that faced intrusive media, as the probe into Mamasapano went on.

Without an itinerary or any vague idea of what would happen when the BOI team visited Mamasapano, media covering the visit had no choice but to trail them the best they could.

After a series of interviews in Cotabato City with SAF troopers who survived the clash, Magalong and his team rushed out of the CIDG office in the city. We had no idea where we were going.

Saan na tayo, sir (Where are we going now, sir)?” we asked him.

He stared us down before finally mumbling: “Basta, sunod ka lang (Just follow us).”

It turned out that Magalong had arranged a visit to the MILF headquarters in Camp Darapanan for the coveted interview with the MILF commander from the day prior. And although he didn’t quite get the interview he hoped for, Magalong again shrugged this off.

We will find a way, he would repeatedly tell us.

“I am proud to have humbly and loyally served the PNP. It was an honor to serve you and a privilege to have served beside you."

"But there is one thing I wish for each and every one of you – the future generation of the Philippine National Police. Follow our lead. Make humility and service the norm, not the exception. Be humble public servants,” said Magalong, before he finally turned over his police badge. – Rappler.com