How the Ampatuans commanded the police to carry out massacre

Lian Buan
How the Ampatuans commanded the police to carry out massacre
Policemen, whether accomplices or not, readily comply with the order to set up checkpoints. The Mangudadatu convoy fails to secure an escort after the army refuses to provide them with one.

MANILA, Philippines – How could the massacre of 58 people be carried out with such brazenness in broad daylight on November 23, 2009?

Simple. The warlord clan had solid command over the police force in Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

The Ampatuan clan’s accomplice was no less than the acting chief of the Maguindanao police at the time: Chief Inspector Sukarno Dicay.

In September 2009, a month before the massacre, and by which time it had already been planned (in July that same year), Dicay appointed SPO2 Cixon Kasan as police chief of Buluan town, where Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu lives.

Court documents showed that Kasan, not an accused, was requested by the Mangudadatus to provide police escorts for their convoy on November 23, 2009, but Toto’s brother Khadafeh later decided it was better for the convoy to be left unarmed.

Toto went to the military for escorts, but the 6th Infantry Battalion refused to be involved, saying correctly that the filing of candidacy is a security matter under the police’s jurisdiction and not theirs.

The details in Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes’ 761-page ruling paint a disturbing picture of how law enforcers could be used, both willingly and unsuspectingly, for a massacre, and how the normalization of violence in Maguindanao led to the acquittal of dozens of cops who heard gunshots but did nothing.  (READ: SUMMARY: Why many were acquitted, some convicted in Ampatuan massacre)

Police chief sanctioned it

Based on flight records, provincial police chief Dicay was in Manila on July 20, 2009, the same day that the Ampatuans and Mangudadatus met at the office of the Department of National Defense (DND) in Camp Aguinaldo to discuss Toto’s planned candidacy for governor of Maguindanao.

No one saw if Dicay was in Century Park Hotel in Malate the night of July 20, the first time that the Ampatuans and their supporters agreed Toto would be killed if he pushes through with running against Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr in the 2010 elections.

On November 21, 2009, Dicay was present in Unsay’s house in Shariff Aguak where they hatched the plan to set up checkpoints, designed to stop the Mangudadatu convoy. Part of the plot was to kill Mangudadatu and members of the convoy.

On Dicay’s orders, police troops were deployed early that day. Unsay commanded the Civilian Volunteers Organizations (CVOs), an auxiliary force of the police.

The checkpoints were set up in Crossing Saniag and were to be led by the 5th Company of the 15th Regional Mobile Group (RMG), Malating to be led by the 1508th Provincial Mobile Group (PMG), Crossing Masalay by the 1507th PMG, and the front of the Ampatuan Municipal Hall to be headed by SPO4 Badawi Bakal. (Bakal is among the 4 people who did not receive judgments in the ruling.)

Aside from Dicay, Police Superintendent Bahnarin Kamaong, Unsay’s trusted aide, also promised his men for the execution of the plan. Dicay was convicted and sentenced to reclusion perpetua, while Kamaong was on the list of both convicted and acquitted. Families of the victims will file a clarificatory motion.

Police Inspector Rex Ariel Diongon, who was also in the meetings, was the one who ordered the 1508th PMG to man the checkpoint in Malating where the convoy was first blocked. Diongon told cops to be ready because armed men would accompany Datu Toto Mangudadatu in filing the Certificate of Candidacy (COC).”

“The 1508th PMG were also told to expect resistance and retaliation [from] the armed men servicing the Mangudadatu family if the latter were inspected during checkpoint operations. They were further informed that the security of the Mangudadatu family carried high-powered firearms, compared to the malfunctioning and incomplete weaponry of the police officers,” said court records.

Diongon helped Dicay command the police on massacre day, but the former became a state witness. Thirteen (13) members of the 1508th PMG claimed Ampatuan’s men pointed their guns at them, and that “they were not able to do anything to prevent the abduction of the victims for fear of their lives.”

They were nonetheless convicted and sentenced to 6-10 years in prison for being accessories to the crime because Judge Reyes said that after Ampatuan’s men left their checkpoints, the cops could have immediately reported the incident but didn’t.

“Hence, as soon as Datu Kanor and his armed men had already left Malating checkpoint, and danger to their lives [was] no longer present, they were duty bound to immediately report said incident to their higher officials so that appropriate action can be made which could have saved the lives of the victims,” said Judge Reyes.

Residents near the checkpoints were warned days ahead that there was going to be shooting, prompting them to evacuate. It was a grand plan that the Ampatuans, for some reason, thought would work. (READ: Ampatuans’ scramble after massacre turns loyal househelp against them)

Mangudadatu convoy did not have escorts

Because of the presence of armed men in checkpoints on the way to Shariff Aguak where the candidacy would be filed, reporters invited by the Mangudadatus voiced their concerns in the morning of November 23, 2009. 

In his own testimony, Khadafeh said he told reporters “that when they tried getting escorts, none was provided.”

But according to Kasan, then police chief of Buluan, it was Khadafeh who decided not to have escorts.

“Khadafeh Mangudadatu said that it would be better for the convoy not to have security personnel bearing firearms,” court records quoted Kasan’s testimony.

Why Khadafeh decided that way was not extensively discussed, save for a testimony of journalist Joseph Jubelag who was in the Mangudadatu house in Buluan in the morning of November 23, 2009. He joined the convoy up until Tacurong City before he stopped because of stomach ache. Jubelag was spared.

“Jubelag also said that Khadafeh Mangudadatu never prevented the group from continuing with the filing of the Certificate of Candidacy (COC) despite the lack of clear security arrangements,” said court documents.

Toto, on the other hand, called army general Raymundo Ferrer to ask for convoy security. Ferrer then called the division commander of the 6th Infantry Battalion.

General Cayton (of the 6th IB) responded that the filing of the Certificate of Candidacy was a political matter, which meant that the security concern was more of a police matter, for which the PNP was allegedly already informed,” according to court records quoting Ferrer’s testimony. (READ: ‘Tama na please’: How lawyer’s text in last moments convicted Andal Ampatuan)

Solano and Labayan groups

Of the 56 acquitted, 33 were policemen, most of them from the so-called Labayan and Solano groups who were assigned to Sitio Binibiran and Sitio Masalay checkpoints, respectively.

These checkpoints were 600 to 800 meters away from the Malating checkpoint, where the convoy was first stopped and then subsequently held hostage by armed men before they were taken to the massacre site in Sitio Masalay.

There were a total of 50 vehicles carrying hundreds of passengers when they left Malating, 6 cars belonging to the Mangudadatu convoy.

One of the 6 cars didn’t even belong to the convoy per se, but was ferrying Eduardo Lechonsito to the Cotabato City hospital. Lechonsito and companions Gemma Palabrica, Cecile Lechonsito, Mercy Palabrica, and Darryl Delos Reyes all died.

For Judge Reyes, even though the Labayan and Solano groups saw the convoy of 50 cars passing their checkpoints, they were unaware of who the passengers were.

After passing the checkpoints, the victims were shot repeatedly in a hilly part in Sitio Masalay, with the sound of gunshots spooking residents nearby and prompting them to evacuate. These residents would eventually testify to seeing Unsay and other gunmen at the massacre site.

The cops who also heard the gunfire and did nothing were acquitted because of the normalized violence in Maguindanao.

“While they may have heard the burst of gunfire after said convoy had passed, their failure to report the same or respond thereto, should not be taken against them, given that burst of gunfire is considered a normal occurrence in their place, the peace and order situation being one of the major problems therein since time immemorial,” said Judge Reyes.

The acquitted cops can return to full service, said the Philippine National Police, while dozens of other policemen charged with the massacre were never arrested and still roam free.

Families of the victims are afraid they are still in Mindanao and could retaliate anytime. – Rappler.com

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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.