Mistahs of PMA '81 and the Mamasapano tragedy

MANILA, Philippines – His white barong was a reminder of his fall from power.

On February 9, the packed gallery watched as Alan Purisima, the resigned chief of the 150,000 strong Philippine National Police (PNP), walked to his assigned seat at the Senate session hall for the first day of hearing on the death of 44 police Special Action Force (SAF) commandos in the operation against top Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Zulkifli bin hir, better known as "Marwan."

At the other end of the table, 5 empty chairs in between, was the man who took over as OIC police chief after Purisima's suspension last December 2014: Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, who was bypassed in the January 25 operation against Marwan.

The chief of the 120,000-strong military, General Gregorio Catapang Jr, later arrived in the Senate and shook Purisima's hand before proceeding to his assigned seat. 

These 3 generals belong to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Dimalupig Class of 1981, along with 3 others called to the Senate hearing – Western Mindanao Command Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero, Defense Undersecretary Natalio Ecarma of the Anti-Terrorism Council of the Philippines and AFP Inspector General Major General Benito De Leon.

Add another mistah (classmate) in Malacañang – retired Armed Forces chief General Emmanuel Bautista, executive director of the Cabinet Cluster on Security, Justice, and Peace, which handles issues concerning the police and the military.

That makes 7 members of the class now faced with the responsibility to help fix the worst crisis to hit the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the leader who favored all of them to get their coveted posts. 

The mistahs watched each other get the grilling from senators with straight faces – betraying no emotions. They're closer than brothers in spite of – and because of – the things they've gone through together since they entered the the military school as plebes in 1977. In fact, after the Mamasapano tragedy and before Purisima's resignation on February 6, some members of the class met inside Camp Crame. 

Two questions

At the Senate, Purisima was repeatedly asked two questions about his classmates because the answers define his role in the bloodiest security operation in the country's recent history. Commanders said it was Purisima, together with sacked SAF commander Director Getulio Napeñas, who supervised "Oplan Exodus" against Marwan.

"You do not trust your own second in command (Espina) with this information?," Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos asked Purisima. Napeñas has said he discussed the secrecy of the operation with Purisima who told him: "Huwag mo munang sabihan yung dalawa, saka na pag nandun na." (Don't inform them (Espina and Roxas) yet. Let them know once the operation is underway.)

Another senator asked. "What did you mean when you said "Ako na ang bahala kay General Catapang?" These were Purisima's words to Napeñas on January 9, when they briefed President Benigno Aquino III in Bahay Pangarap, Aquino's residence inside the Malacañang compound. (READ: Aquino, Purisima were at final 'Oplan Exodus' briefing

The lack of coordination with the military, which has air and ground assets, is one of the reasons being cited for the bloodbath in Mamasapano.

The questions seek to understand how a suspended police chief stayed on top of an important operation when the ruling of the Office of the Ombudsman was to strip him of the authority to do so. (READ: What I wish Aquino said as president)

They take on a deeper meaning knowing that these 3 generals and several others are classmates who burned the phone lines immediately after the firefight erupted in Mamasapano before 6 am on January 25.

And when Purisima said he would take care of coordinating with  Catapang, it carried the guarantees of a PMA graduate being able to count on his mistah for help whatever happens.

"That was not an order but an advice," Purisima told senators about his conversations with Napeñas.

This was not the same Purisima who faced the Senate in September 2014. In September he carried the power of his uniform too far – to the point that he was almost brash in his responses to corruption allegations against him. 

Today, he's at the lowest point of his life, one of his mistahs told Rappler. It's the end of his career as a cop.

"I sent him a text message. I said 'We're behind you.' My family is behind him," he said. 

'Walang kampi-kampihan'

Rappler talked to 3 retired members of the class who maintain that the class is unaffected by the issue. Friendship means they do not demand explanations for each other's actions, they said, and there is no blame game even as they acknowledge the toxic relationship among their mistahs in Camp Crame owing to the rivalry between Purisima and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II.

Purisima's appointment as PNP chief created a rift between him and his mistahs because some resented how he got a little too "aggressive," according to the source. There have been talks about Purisima ocassionally giving his mistahs a dressing down in Camp Crame. They were all very close to him before he was appointed PNP chief.

But separate Purisima's strained relationship with his mistahs, the source said, from his decisions involving the Mamasapano operation. The decision to keep the operation a secret from Espina and Catapang was a judgment call that Purisima made based on his own motivations, they said. 

Two of them talked about respecting his decision to prioritize operational security over coordination. Purisima and Espina may be friends, they said, but "the operational consideration transcends relations." In the same manner, they understand that Espina is hurt because he is the OIC chief and was bypassed.

"You don't ask things like those specifically. The class is not affected. Walang kampi-kampihan. We respect each other," said a mistah.

"It's part of the job. Wala naman kaming away," said the fourth mistah Rappler interviewed, who was present in the Senate hearing. "Nagtetext pa nga kami hanggang ngayon e. Sa trabaho, trabaho. As classmates, classmates pa rin," he added.

Espina, for example, was never heard attacking Purisima directly even as he declared that the PNP needed a new chief – before Purisima considered resigning.

Purisima's exit offers a new start for Camp Crame. There's a good chance PMA '81 will keep its hold on PNP if the President continues to favor the class. The contenders for the top post include Espina and Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo, chief of the directorial staff. – with reports from Bea Cupin/Rappler.com