President Aquino and the ghosts of Mamasapano

MANILA, Philippines – It was an ill-fated police operation that claimed the lives of more than 60, exposed cracks in the national police force, and saw a popular president’s trust and approval ratings slide down in its aftermath.

Almost 8 months after the fatal first bullets were fired in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, and almost 5 since the last comprehensive report on the top-secret operation was released, “Oplan Exodus” is again fodder for news, thanks in part to the same man who said the deaths of the 44 elite cops during the operation is a “basic truth” he will “bear with to my grave.”

“I still have quite a number of questions, and there are various agencies of government tasked to ferret out the truth of exactly what happened in its entirety. There is an alternative version of events that happened there, which is undergoing very intense scrutiny,” President Benigno Aquino III said during a September 8 interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The President was asked then if he had “closure” over the bloody incident which also claimed the lives of 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters and 4 civilians in addition to the 44 elite cops.

Aquino, according to sources from the security sector, was told that it was the MILF – and not the elite Special Action Force (SAF) – that actually killed Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir alias “Marwan” – one of the 3 targets that fateful morning.

A little over a week after dropping that bombshell, which launched a handful of new revelations from media outfits, the President finally made up his mind: it wasn’t the MILF nor Marwan’s aides who killed the Malaysian bomb maker. (READ: Final conclusion: SAF killed Marwan – Aquino)

It was the SAF, the “gallant” heroes of Mamasapano who killed the wanted terrorist after all.

“It was posited that one of Marwan’s companions killed him – the same one who cut off his finger and gave it to the SAF. But it is clear from the presentation today: the SAF were there; we can no longer doubt that it was the SAF who took Marwan’s finger,” said Aquino during a nationwide address on Thursday, September 17.

He added: “This also means: all the other accounts about the alternative narrative are baseless, and consequently have no relevance.”

But is this case finally closed?

‘New’ photos

That the President, during the question-and-answer with the Inquirer, decided to casually mention the so-called “alternative truth” about Mamasapano surprised PNP officials.

The Inquirer later reported, citing sources and MILF chief peace negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal, that government forces weren’t the ones who fired the shot that killed Marwan. It was his aides who did, sometime before “Oplan Exodus” was launched.

A retired military officer in the intelligence community, said a police source privy to discussions, was the one who broached the idea that it wasn’t the SAF who killed Marwan, based on information from an intelligence asset.

The asset, however, was unable to show evidence.

Doubts about who really killed Marwan had long existed.

Kahit noong unang araw pa lang, maraming kwento kasi (Since day one, there were a lot of stories). There was a formal investigation. There were the proceedings at the Board of Inquiry. Nakita niyo naman ang findings ng Board of Inquiry, no-holds-barred yun,” Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ricardo Marquez told reporters in a chance interview on Monday, September 14.

NICA, military probes

Separate sources from both the police and military confirmed to Rappler as much. So even if the probes by the PNP, Senate, MILF, and other bodies had wrapped up months before, an investigation by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) was discreetly launched to seek the truth.

The military likewise conducted a discreet probe into the incident.

The SAF, said one source, presented its own evidence to the NICA 2 or 3 weeks ago, including data from the Global Positioning System (GPS) devices the SAF were bringing during the operation. The data, said the police source, pinpointed the exact location of at least 2 SAF troopers, both from the 84th Special Action Company (SAC), during the operation.

The 84th SAC was the main striking force of the operation, the team tasked to neutralize Marwan.

Wednesday evening, September 16, the President called Marquez and SAF chief Police Director Moro Lazo to a meeting in Malacañang to explain the implications of the data the SAF had submitted.

The SAF also showed the President a series of photos taken by its troopers after Marwan had died.

The President had only recently seen the SAF’s photos, when the NICA started its investigation. “Bakit ngayon niyo lang pinapakita ito (Why are you showing me this just now)?” Aquino supposedly asked police officials.

It seems nobody from the police or the military bothered showing Aquino these photos – which were validated by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) late Wednesday evening – at the height of the scandal.

MILF’s findings

But even without the whispers of Aquino’s trusted advisors or doubts over the photos taken during the operation, the last part of the MILF’s official report, released in March 2015, subtly accuses the SAF of lying about the encounter near Marwan’s hut.

The MILF’s report reads:

The SAF’s version in the justice department's report is in the testimony of Superintendent Raymund Train, SAF intelligence chief for Mindanao and a former member of the SAF’s elite Seaborne Company:

Aquino, in an interview, said after his September 8 Inquirer briefing, he would take a step back and clarify that although there exists an “alternative” truth, it could be the wrong one.

The President added that it was possible that both versions – the one the SAF attests to and the one other people believe in – could both be wrong.

To get a better understanding of how and why the President had doubts over the SAF’s narrative in the first place, said once source, it’s important to revisit the results of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the National Prosecution Service (NPS)’s joint probe into “Oplan Exodus.”

Where are the witnesses?

Of all the investigations into the operation, the one conducted by the NBI and NPS is the only one that includes the testimonies of those outside the police and the military.

The PNP’s BOI had requested representation from MILF leaders, but this was denied.

At least 90 people from Tukanalipao – mostly members of the MILF, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and private armed groups – face charges for the death of the 55th SAC's 33 men.

The suspects were identified by the NBI’s witness, codenamed “Marathon,” identified as a local of Tukanalipao who was there when “Exodus” was launched.

But cases over the death of the 9 84th SAC’s personnel won’t be as easy to build. To this day, the NBI has yet to find a witness willing to testify on the events in Pidsandawan.

“It’s unlikely a part 2 [of the probe] will ever materialize. There are no witnesses who want to come forward but the president wants a complete story,” said the source.

Aside from the photos, there is no other way to prove – or disprove – the SAF’s narrative. Investigators from the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) sent to investigate the area, “bungled” the investigation.

“No witnesses, no forensics, no body,” said a source privy to investigation.

Marwan's burned hut

Investigators would not have a chance to check Marwan’s hut again.

The military soon launched an “all-out offensive” against BIFF forces in the area. When the PNP’s Board of Inquiry (BOI) went to Mamasapano last February, it was deemed too dangerous to venture past Tukanalipao.

The same hut was burned down by unknown groups the same night police investigators from Camp Crame and media visited the cornfields of Tukanalipao.

Marwan is dead and the second target of the operation, Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman, was later killed by his own men. The third target, Amin Baco, is still being hunted.

Why just now?

But the wounds had already been reopened. The resurgence of “Oplan Exodus” in headlines triggered not-so-distant memories of the mess caused by the controversial operation. “Why just now?” one police source wondered.

Speculation in police and military circles over the President’s reasons for starting a new probe into Mamasapano are rife.

There are those in Camp Crame who believe it’s partly because Mamasapano is such as huge chip on the President’s shoulder.

He was criticized for allowing his friend, then PNP chief Alan Purisima to participate in the mission even if the latter was preventively suspended over corruption allegations.

Aquino was also accused of ordering the military to stand down and not launch an offensive against the MILF, supposedly to save a peace deal that would have been the hallmark of his administration.

In all this, the President blamed Purisima and the SAF for providing him incomplete information.

Before the President's September 17 televised address, several lawmakers called for the re-opening of probes into the operation. (READ: Grace Poe ‘considering’ re-opening Mamasapano probe)

Politics, said sources in the security sector, cannot be discounted as well. The administration supposedly wanted to set the record straight for fears that this would be used by the President’s political opponents against him as the 2016 national elections draw near. 

The current administration is propping up the candidacy of its standard-bearer, former interior chief Manuel Roxas II, as the candidate who can best continue the programs of the popular Aquino. A dip in the President's popularity could affect his anointed candidate. And Roxas was kept out of the loop in "Oplan Exodus."

But Palace sources insist that all Aquino wanted was the truth – no matter how ugly it would’ve been.

Who can prove what?

The existing narrative of “Oplan Exodus” – the one the President now says he believes in – is based mostly on the testimonies of the SAF troopers on the ground and in the tactical command post (TCP) that day, military officials called in to help the trapped SAF troopers, as well as locals from Tukanalipao in Mamasapano.

On January 25, the SAF launched their final operation against Marwan, who, in the past, had always managed to evade the elite police force’s grasp. The secrecy of the operation would later be one of the most controversial issues in its aftermath.

Based on testimonies of SAF survivors, the 84th SAC, the “main effort” of the operation, found it difficult to reach Marwan’s hut on time. Only a handful of the SAF troopers actually got close to Marwan’s hut to finish the mission.

Meanwhile, the 55th SAC, which was supposed to reinforce the 84th’s men as they retreated from Marwan’s hut in barangay Pidsandawan back to safety, found themselves stuck in the cornfields of barangay Tukanalipao. The 55th SAC was annihilated, save for one enlisted personnel.

The 84th SAC lost 9 of its men after an hours-long firefight against local armed groups. They were rescued late afternoon on January 25, but only after white phosphorus forced local groups to stop firing.

Nearly 8 months after “Oplan Exodus” and with around 9 months left in his term, Aquino now wants to put a close to the debacle, which exposed weaknesses in his leadership, unearthed cracks in the ties of the military and police, and endangered a peace deal that the government had long worked for. –