MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The intelligence project was dubbed Project Runway, a play on the Filipino word paliparan (airport) and the name of its P2-million quarry: retired Major General Jovito Palparan.
Nearly 3 years after he went into hiding, Palparan let his guard down.
On Monday night, August 11, he stepped out of his safehouse in Sta Mesa, Manila, where he had been staying for 3 months, to withdraw money from an ATM machine. Agents of the Naval Intelligence and Security Force (NISF), hot on his trail for months, made a positive identification of him.
They followed him back to an old house at the corner of Teresa and Valenzuela streets in Old Sta Mesa – a crowded neighborhood that's ironically near one of the bastions of student activism, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. At the ungodly hour of 3:30 am, NISF agents and members of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) swooped down on the house and arrested the Philippines' most wanted soldier, alone and unarmed.
Palparan was sleeping in a room on the 2nd floor of the house, when he woke up to noises from the roof of his room. Peaceful is how Palparan described his arrest. No handcuffs were needed.
The house, said to be owned by a certain Grace Roa, supposedly Palparan's longtime family friend, has capiz windows with a bakery on the ground floor.
"Ang gagaling niyo, naisahan 'nyo ako. Kasi medyo naging lax ako," Palparan reportedly told the Navy intelligence agents. (You're good. You put one over me, because I have been lax.)
At least the communist New People's Army (NPA) didn't get to him first.
"The NPA was really trying to find General Palparan," Major General Eduardo Año, chief of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP), said on Tuesday, August 12, hours after Palparan's arrest.
"He has been a subject of manhunt of the NPA even when he was still at the military service. On 3 occasions, the NPA Special Operations Group (SOG) got close to him but fortunately, he was saved because he has his security and he is changing his pattern," Año added.
Año spoke to Palparan after the arrest. "I checked if he was okay. He said he is okay. He even congratulated me. 'No sir,' I said, 'It's not about that. I'm looking at your situation now.'"
In December 2012, President Benigno Aquino III instructed Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to use the intelligence units of the military to find the country's high-profile fugitives. Among them is one of their own – Palparan, who's respected by troops for his hardline stand against the NPA but who's been charged in court for allegedly kidnapping and torturing activists.
There was constant speculation that troops themselves were protecting him, but this was denied by Año.
AFP Task Force Runway was created to look for him. The ISAFP, the Army's Intelligence Service Group, and the Air Force Intelligence were assigned specific areas to monitor.
Palparan was spotted in various towns such as Pampanga, Zambales, Bataan, all in central Luzon, where he served as Army commanding general from 2005 to 2006, and as far as Cagayan de Oro.
Given his military and intelligence training, he was a step ahead of the agents. "He can hide inside the house for days without even getting sunshine. He can be very patient not to contact his family. Ganoon siya katiyaga. Mahirap talaga," said Año.
In the end it was a composite team, not his service command, the Army, that cornered him. Informants stand to get the P2-million reward put up by the government for his arrest.
Palparan was arrested by members of the NBI Anti-Organized Transnational Crime Division, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Naval Intelligence Security Force Counter Intelligence and Naval Reserve Command, and AFP Task Force "RUNWAY."
"Siyempre reluctant siya to be arrested pero after AFP na ang [humarap] sa kanya, he willingly accepted his arrest. He came with the arresting officers of the NBI and NISF," said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala. (Of course he was reluctant at first. But when he saw soldiers [as part of the arresting team], he yielded.)
Año said Palparan thinks the arrest was a blessing in disguise. He was suffering from several ailments and needed proper medical attention, he said.
Palparan insisted that the evidence against him was "manufactured." Facing the media, he said: "No. I have no regrets for what I have done....What I did is for the good of the people."
Palparan said he has always wanted to surrender. He said he has never thought of going out of the country. "Ang airport alarmado. Wala akong pera para gastusan yung movement na ganun (The airport is equipped with alarms. I have no money to use for a movement like that)," he said.
His surrender never came about. He – or his family at least – doubted the state would be able to ensure his security.
Photo courtesy of AFP-PAO
Benefit of the doubt?
Tagged as "The Butcher" by human rights activists, Palparan has been the face of abuse in and out of the battefield in the government's protracted campaign to crush Asia's longest-running insurgency. The NPA in fact had a hit order against him. (READ: TIMELINE: The search for Jovito Palparan)
AFP chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang recalls Palparan as a good officer. He was a lieutenant when he worked with then Major Palparan, commander of the 24th Battalion.
"He was really an aggressive officer talagang strong anti-Communist. He really did his job well," Catapang said.
The military chief is now asking the public to give Palparan the benefit of the doubt. "Let's give General Palparan the benefit of the doubt, for the meantime. Kung talagang naniniwala tayo sa (if we really believe in the) rule of law, that everybody is innocent until proven guilty," Catapang said.
He added: "Siyempre naging sundalo siya. He also served the country. Maaaring may ginawa siya na sinasabi natin na mali. Bahala na husgado na patunayan na siya ay nag-commit ng human rights violations," Catapang said. (He was a soldier. It is possible he might have done something wrong. But that's up to the courts to decide.)
After his retirement from the military, Palparan would even become a member of Congress as representative of party-list group Bantay. He had several confrontations with leftist lawmakers during plenary sessions.
In the 2010 elections, Palparan also joined leftist leader Satur Ocampo in the senatorial race. They both lost.
Palparan's luck ran out in December 2011. A Bulacan regional trial court issued a warrant of arrest against him in connection with 2 cases of kidnapping and serious illegal detention of University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno.
Cadapan and Empeno were abducted on June 26, 2006 from a farming community in Hagonoy, Bulacan. At least two witnesses have testified that the two were tortured upon the orders of the general. (READ: The most wanted man in the country) – with reports from Buena Bernal/Rappler.com
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