Edgar Matobato: Liar or truth-teller?

Chay F. Hofileña

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Edgar Matobato: Liar or truth-teller?
As he throws trash a few days before his birthday, Edgar sees an icon of the Virgin Mary in a heap of garbage. Perhaps it is a sign, he says, that things will be better.

MANILA, Philippines – He’s either a shameless, well-trained prevaricator, a repentant truth-teller, or someone caught in between.

57-year-old Edgar Matobato appeared twice before partisan senators who grilled him and tried to assert that his shocking revelations about the infamous Davao Death Squad (DDS) and President Rodrigo Duterte were too incredible to be true. Practically illiterate after completing only Grade 1 many decades ago, he was made to look stupid and inconsistent in his narration of what he knew. The son of a forest ranger who planted coffee and corn to support his family, the short, stocky Edgar with streaks of silver hair showed little traces of a man who had witnessed and even participated in the killing of hundreds of people – many of them criminals who were a menace to Davao. They were drug pushers, snatchers, hold-uppers, land-grabbers, and they all deserved to die, he thought. Edgar took pride in his job. He says his was among the names listed under Davao city hall’s civil security unit (CSU), which watched over markets, schools, and terminals to keep them safe – even if his job was nowhere near that. Among the “ghost employees” of city hall, he received from P5,000 ($103.80)* to P6,000 ($124.54)* a month, hardly enough to feed a family. His covert job was to kill. He says he has proof of his ties to the city government of Davao. “Maski wala akong grado, mangmang akong tao, kung may papel ay tinatago ko. Hindi man ako marunong magbasa. Basta nilalagay ko lang diyan (Even if I’m uneducated and I’m illiterate, I keep documents. Even if I don’t know how to read. I just keep them).” On Monday, September 26, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV presented documents that supported Edgar’s claims about his links to Davao city hall – among them, an identification card bearing his name and signature and which indicates he was an “auxiliary service worker”; a service card which however listed his date of birth as June 11, 1961 (he was born in 1957); and job orders issued in 2013 by the authority of the city mayor then, Rodrigo Duterte.
He started out as a member of the Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF), a paramilitary unit tasked to help maintain peace and order, and fight insurgents. Later, the CHDF, under the supervision and control of governors and mayors, became associated with human rights abuses and was disbanded. After Marcos, the CHDF was transformed into the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu), an irregular auxillary force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Edgar Bernal Matobato was an early witness to violence. By his own account, when he was 18 or so, supposed members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) who were in need of guns, swooped down on their home near the Mt Apo National Park and demanded guns. “Sabi ng tatay ko, huwag ‘nyo galawin ang pamilya ko. Kung kailangan ‘nyo ng baril ko, ibibigay ko. Hindi ako lalaban. Siyempre noon, malakas ang NPA. So ako ang nagbigay. Kinuha ko sa taas ang baril tapos binigay ko sa mga NPA iyong baril. Pagkatapos iyong tatay ko hinawakan ng 4 na tao, pinutulan ng ulo sa harapan ko. Lumalakad pa nga sa bakuran namin iyong katawan, walang ulo. Pagkatapos tinusok sa kahoy, ginanyan sa lupa, binandera ang ulo ng tatay ko,” he narrates. (My father told them, don’t touch my family. If you need my gun, I will give it. I won’t put up a fight. Of course at the time, the NPA was strong. So I was the one who gave the gun. I got it from upstairs and handed it to the NPA. Afterwards 4 men held my father and beheaded him in front of me. His headless body even walked around in our backyard. Afterwards they placed his head on a wooden stake, did this on the ground, and paraded it.) That killing left such an impression he swore he would avenge it and seek justice for his father. Duterte links From 1988 to 2013, hundreds were killed in the 25-year span of Edgar’s service to Davao’s CSU. He has linked President Duterte to the Davao Death Squad (DDS), the only one who has dared to do so. Duterte has consistently denied the accusations, his defenders and allies also saying there have been no direct links established between Duterte and the DDS. Everything is hearsay and a political agenda is also suspect. Duterte’s running mate in the 2016 elections, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, aggressively badgered Edgar, pointing out how in his testimonies, he jumped from “pretending to have personal knowledge” to “hearsay.” To prove his point, Cayetano said Matobato’s sworn statement to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) on September 4, 2014, names a certain policeman, Senior Police Officer 2 Reynante Medina, as being the alleged killer of wealthy Cebu businessman Richard King. In the hearing of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, however, Matobato said King was killed by two rebel returnees.
CHALLENGE. Senator Alan Peter Cayetano points out inconsistencies during the hearing of the Senate committee on justice and human rights. Rappler photo
Then there is the account of the killing of supposed suspected terrorist “Sali Makdum.” In his statement, Matobato said Makdum was a suspect in bombings in Kidapawan and elsewhere. After making a show of being arrested, Makdum was brought to a burial site in Barangay Ma-a where Edgar said he saw the group slit his throat and take turns in stabbing him to death. But Cayetano pointed out that during the Senate hearing, Edgar shifted his story and said they hanged Makdum and chopped his body to pieces. The military has also said the name of “Makdum” is nowhere to be found in their intelligence records. It is unclear if the spelling of the name given is correct. Is Edgar embellishing his stories, pretending to know more than he actually does, or being dictated upon by groups out to discredit the President? Is Edgar a man desperate to save himself? “I’m only telling the real truth. I worked, I killed people because I was ordered to. That’s all I’m saying. I went here because I want justice. Where can I go? If I went to Davao City, there’s no justice. If I went to the Davao City police, they would butcher me,” he says, explaining the decision to come forward. He is unperturbed by attempts to “destroy” his credibility as a witness. He fires back and recalls a gruesome murder in 1993. He details how members of the DDS got rid of a man named Jun Barsabal, head of a religious group called Remnant Family of God, whose men made a living from squatting on land. Edgar pauses in his recollection of the killing then claims to have seen Duterte manhandle Barsabal, hitting him with a golf club until he lost most, if not all, of his teeth, before being brutally killed. Barsabal was allegedly all chopped up when he was buried, his remains nowhere to be found. Four mayors, Edgar alleges, pooled their resources to finance the killing, including Duterte. Hired guns went after Barsabal until he got cornered in Samal Island. Barsabal put up a fight and grabbed the gun of Edgar but got overpowered. He could have been killed there and then but he was to be delivered alive, not dead. Barsabal was brought to the Matina golf course area where Duterte supposedly was. Edgar says they brought their victim to Ma-a where he was eventually butchered. In between his story-telling, Edgar wipes his eyes that have turned red and glassy. He sounds resolute and repentant, relieved to let go of a long-kept secret. The killings actually happened, he says.

Handiwork of the Davao Death Squad

With very little education, Edgar started out as a cook before he became part of CSU. In his affidavit submitted to the NBI in 2014, Edgar said he was briefed that his real job would be to “carry out hits for Rodrigo Duterte” through Senior Police Officer 4 Arthur Lascañas, a junior policeman at the time. In the same affidavit, he said 35 CSU contractual employees, including him, were also members of the DDS. Unlike the rest, however, he took direct orders only from Lascañas because, according to Edgar, he served as Lascañas’ personal bodyguard. He reported “exclusively” to Lascañas. In Davao City, according to Edgar, practically all killings are perpetrated by the DDS. Walang ibang pumapatay sa Davao. Buo ang loob ng pumapatay sa Davao. Hindi nakakapasok ang ibang kriminal. Ang nakakapasok doon ay mga holdaper lang, sa mga taxi-taxi. Iyong mga ibang krimen, wala. Iyong ibang krimen, mga patayan, iyon personal. Pero iyong binabaril ka, na DDS ang nagtrabaho, walang investigation iyan.” (No one else kills in Davao. Those who do are determined to kill. Other criminals are unable to enter. The only ones able to get through are hold-uppers of taxis. Other crimes, none. The other crimes that involve killings are personal in nature. But the shootings done by DDS, those are not investigated.) How do they operate? They ride motorcycles and shoot their targets up close. It’s easier to kill in a crowd because the target is unaware that he or she is being eyed. A bigger mass of people creates more walls of anonymity. After a kill, says Edgar, hitmen walk, they never run. They casually walk away and blend with the crowd. Nobody reports, the cops come. The police usually stay away during an operation. Only when the job is done do they come to supposedly investigate. But nothing ever happens to those investigations. Wanting out Just 3 years ago, in early 2013, Edgar recalls, they took 3 women from an apartment in Barangay Obrero. They were probably aged 17, 18, or 20. Who knows for sure? They were suspected of having links to illegal drugs and were picked up by his group. Blindfolded, the women were brought down from a car they were hauled in then stabbed repeatedly. Their genitals were fondled while they were in the car, before they were killed. The young women’s fate pricked Edgar’s conscience. They were mere drug suspects and killing them that way did not seem right. For the very first time, he started to entertain thoughts of leaving.

But just like a mafia, it isn’t that easy to walk away. Once in, it’s almost impossible to get out. That was the case with “Ega” of Samal Island married to a certain “Austria”. He was asked to join an operation only to be killed. Then there was “Enriquez” of Tibungco also in Davao City, who was run over and killed. Both of them wanted to leave, Edgar says.

In September 2013, Edgar told Lascañas he wanted out and that he just wanted to make a decent living. After all, he was already old. As a supposed trusted man of Duterte, Lascañas became among the most powerful policemen in Davao. He was with the Davao Metropolitan District Command Center (Metrodiscom) during the time of Ferdinand Marcos, informed sources say. “Kapag hindi ka dumaan kay Arthur, hindi ka makakaposisyon sa posisyon mo (You wouldn’t get to your post without passing through Arthur),” Edgar attests. The two of them were like brothers. They slept and ate together. And shared the same secrets. Edgar stopped reporting for “work,” euphemism for killing operations, and instead became a bodyguard of an unnamed American who was doing tunnel work in Samal Island back then. Even if Edgar could not speak English, they somehow understood each other and got along. Edgar was, however, aware that it was just a matter of time before members of the DDS would go after a desserter who knew too much. Edgar claims that pinning the 2014 death of the Cebu businessman King on him was their way of nailing him. He was the perfect fall guy for a murder, that he claims, he did not commit. He was supposed to point to Police Superintendent Leonardo Felonia as the supposed mastermind, which Edgar also refused to do. If Edgar’s story is to be believed, the murder was prompted by King and Duterte’s son Paolo reportedly fighting over a woman named Helen Chua. Witness protection Aware of the fate that could befall him, from Davao Edgar traveled to Cebu. He moved to Leyte and Samar where he went into hiding before heading to Manila to seek the help of fellow-Waray, broadcaster Ted Failon. But there were forms to be filled up, and there was a long wait which led nowhere. He returned to Tacloban then traveled back to Samar. Desperate to seek protection, he approached the Commission on Human Rights in Tacloban and was advised to proceed to the Department of Justice (DOJ) because the Commission could not guarantee his safety. He hailed a taxi and asked to be brought to the DOJ in September of 2014. At that time, now Senator Leila de Lima was justice secretary. Edgar walked up to the DOJ guard that day and told him he was from Mindanao and he was surrendering. The guard got nervous and quickly called security. Edgar was brought face to face with the executive director of the Witness Protection Program at the time, lawyer Martin Meñez, who was also De Lima’s head executive assistant. He was brought to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) where he narrated what he knew. He stayed 4 days telling a story he would keep repeating to this day. On the 5th day, he was brought to a safehouse. Edgar stayed under the WPP for about two years, and knew it was time to leave when Duterte became the imminent winner in the 2016 presidential elections. Meñez was leaving his post, and so were the other appointees of former president Benigno Aquino III, including De Lima. It was no longer going to be safe. Out of the WPP, Edgar found himself in the halls of the Senate, where he was shamed for not knowing the difference between packing tape and “masking tape,” which, he says, they used when they disposed of dead bodies. The hostility in the Senate he can live with, he says. After all, he has sins he needs to pay for. Miracle? Were it not for his live-in partner of 10 years now he would have already killed himself. He says he also found hope in the unlikeliest of places: a heap of garbage where he saw an image of the Virgin Mary. As he was throwing trash a few days before his birthday, he saw her lying among the trash, dirty but whole. He picked up the image, wiped it clean with his fingers, and kept it. Perhaps it is a sign, he says, that things will be better.
MIRACLE. Edgar shows the icon of the Virgin Mary he found in a heap of trash. Rappler screengrab
“This is what gives me strength every night, every single day. I don’t have dreams, but she’s just there. It’s like she was given to me, for me to return to God,” he says in Filipino. He made a makeshift altar for her, picked up an empty iPhone box, arranged white cotton and glued the icon to the box so the Virgin appears surrounded by a bed of clouds. He shifts in tone when asked if he knew what to say given a chance to speak with the President. He does not hesitate one bit: Edgar admits he is tired. But he defiantly says: “Ito lang masasabi ko, totoong tao ako. Basta iisa lang ang salita ko. Kung ano ang isipin sa akin, tatanggapin ko, pero hindi ako magpapakulong, magpapakamatay ako. Hindi ako magpapakulong.” (This is all I can say, I am a real person. I keep my word. I will accept whatever others think of me, but I will not go to jail, I will kill myself. I will not allow myself to go to jail.) Edgar Matobato would still take pride in his last handiwork.  with Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com *US$1 = P48.18

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.