New Bilibid Prison

The Bilibid riots: Drugs, guns, and blades

Lian Buan
The Bilibid riots: Drugs, guns, and blades

RIOT. Armed Bucor personnel and the PNP Muntinlupa secure the entrance of the New Bibilid Prisons in Muntinlupa City after a riot broke out inside the national penitentiary on November 9, 2020.

Photo by Inoue Jaena/Rappler

After the first riot, BuCor Chief Gerald Bantag talks to the leaders of Sputnik and Commando gangs. After a month, the gangs do it again. Is Bantag accountable?

Two riots in a month involving the same gangs have killed at least 13 convicts in the New Bilibid Prison, where guns, arrows, and blades were used, pushing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ask: What is the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) doing to control the chaos?

“That’s what I’m looking for, ano ba ang ginawa ng management or admin ng BuCor (what did the management do) after the first bincident on October 9? Were new measures taken to prevent the same thing from happening?” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who has administrative supervision over BuCor, said on Wednesday, November 11, during a Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum.

The first riot happened 1 am of October 9 between the Sputnik and Commando gangs, killing 9 convicts.

Three root causes surfaced, according to a report obtained by Rappler.

First is that a Commando convict allegedly stabbed a former Sputnik member. The second possible cause is that a “mayor” (or one of the leaders) of Sputnik supposedly squealed on a Commando member, who, in turn, was apprehended for possessing illegal drugs. The 3rd possible cause was a gay convict who was bullied, “igniting a fight.”

Whatever it is that started the fight, convicts woke up and “stones were being thrown everywhere” and “warring groups tried to hit each other with whatever object that can be held on.” 

A convict also claimed that Commando members had bladed weapons and held some prisoners hostage inside a dorm where they were “blindfolded” and “hit by a blunt object.”

This happened at the East Quadrant of the Maximum Security Compound.

A talk with Bantag

BuCor Spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag said their chief, Director General Gerald Bantag, talked to the leaders of both gangs, who appeared to be “remorseful.”

“Binigyan natin sila ng pagkakataong itama ‘yung ginawa nila, hindi naman namin in-e-expect ‘yun, sinasabi nila na spontaneous ‘yun, we give it to you, kinausap ni General Bantag ‘yung dalawang leader, and in fact, they supported the Oplan Bura Tatak,” Chaclag said during the same forum.

(We gave them a chance to correct what they’ve done, and we didn’t expect that, they said it was spontaneous, so we said okay we give it to you, General Bantag talked to the two leaders and in fact they supported Oplan Bura Tatak.)

Oplan Bura Tatak is a reformation program of removing convicts’ tattoos which marks their gang memberships.

“Remorseful ang leader nila, hindi nila na-control (their leaders were remorseful, they could not control their men),” said Chaclag.

Guevarra had doubled down on BuCor after this incident, ordering a report on why prison officials allowed such chaos to happen.

But at 8:40 am on November 9, exactly a month after, it happened again – in the same quadrant.

Guns and blades

According to Sputnik, while they were pacifying two convicts involved in a verbal altercation, “a Commando member successfully lunged an improvised arrow hitting the Sputnik member,” said a separate report obtained by Rappler. 

But if you ask Commando, a member of Sputnik attacked their “bantay pinto (doorman) with a bladed weapon” and the commotion started.

Chaclag said guns were also used, and that during their clearing operations Tuesday night, November 10, operatives found 2 functional handguns – Calibers 45 and 380 – in the ceiling of the dorms.

The 4 people who died in the second riot – including a shabu lab convict – suffered from both gunshots and puncture wounds.

Chaclag said convicts fashioned their weapons from anything they could find – the metal handle of pails, metal from the beds, and even metals they detached from structures over the course of days, or even months. 

“Kaya hindi po talaga matatanggal totally, kahit araw-araw po tayo (mag clearing),” said Chaclag. (You can never totally get rid of the weapons even if you conduct clearing operations every day.)

Chaclag was uncertain whether the guns were newly smuggled, or had been inside Bilibid for some time.

Organized criminal groups

Part of the evidence that BuCor is using to investigate? Videos from smartphones taken by the convicts themselves and posted on social media, Chaclag said, conceding that they have not been able to confiscate phones or limit communications.

Jammers had become “obsolete,” Chaclag said, and the installation of a new jamming system had been derailed because of the pandemic.

“Kaya araw-araw sustained talaga ang aming search operations, very organized po ang criminal groups sa loob,” said Chaclag. (So we have sustained search operations because criminal groups are very organized.)

Guevarra said he will look at the accountability of BuCor officials, but refused to say if there are initial findings on whether or not Bantag can be held accountable.

“Maybe when the new report comes in as to what the administration has done to prevent these things from happening, that’s the time that I will make a statement whether an administrative investigation will be conducted,” said Guevarra.

Bantag, as a presidential appointee, can only be fired by President Rodrigo Duterte.

During the recently-concluded congressional budget hearings, in light of back-to-back scandals in BuCor, Duterte’s allies, including Senator Bong Go, praised and vouched for Bantag.

During the pandemic, Bilibid has recorded a high number of deaths even while many of the convicts who died were never tested, Rappler’s investigations showed. High-profile drug convicts also died successively in a special building.

Guevarra has asked the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) for an independent probe. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.