communist insurgency

8-month chase leads to sinking of ‘communist VIPs’ in Samar waters

Jazmin Bonifacio, Inday Espina-Varona
8-month chase leads to sinking of ‘communist VIPs’ in Samar waters

ESCAPE PATH. Top communist rebels in Samar used one of the island's many rivers on the way to Pagsanghan town.

Rebels slain in the August 22 boat explosion off Tarangan, Samar flee their besieged highland bases and head for the coast

First of 3 parts

SAMAR, Philippines – On the shores of Tarangan, an impoverished coastal town on the western coast of the country’s third-largest island, shades of green from the mainland and several islands surround the blue waters of the Samar Sea and, in the distance, the larger Visayan Sea.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 22, an explosion ripped apart a 10-seater motorized banca less than two kilometers off the coast of Tarangan town, 16.9 kilometers north of Catbalogan, the capital of Samar province, one of three on this Eastern Visayas island.

A Facebook page associated with defense and security alerts claimed hours later that Benito and Wilma Tiamzon, believed to be the top leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), had died in the explosion. 

Officials of the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Force (JTF) Storm, which operates in Samar, confirmed the explosion during a firefight and chase that followed the soldiers’ attempt to interdict the vessel headed for Libacun Gute island.

Major General Edgardo de Leon, commander of the 8th Infantry Division and head of JTF Storm told Rappler on August 26 there were “strong reasons to believe the casualties were NPA VIPs (New People’s Army very important persons) trying to flee sustained and extensive military pursuit in the mountain areas bordering four towns: Matuginao and San Jose de Buan in Samar, Las Navas in Northern Samar, and Maslog in Eastern Samar. 

TRI-BORDER OPERATIONS. Incessant pursuit of rebel units splintered into small groups by 2021 aerial bombing runs forced the top leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines to flee their mountain bases for the coast, according to the Armed Forces Joint Task Force Storm.

The encounter followed a tip about an armed group loading ammunition on a banca in Canhawan Guti, an island in the provincial capital, Catbalogan, just south of Tarangan. 

The Tiamzon couple and other communist leaders periodically use the island as a base, according to De Leon.

Benito and Wilma had headed for Samar in 2017 when then-president Rodrigo Duterte scrapped peace talks with the National Democratic Front, the CPP-controlled umbrella network of underground organizations, the general told Rappler on September 13.

Previously detained, the Tiamzons had been released by Duterte to allow them to participate in the negotiations in Oslo.

“We learned about their presence here from the revelations of surrendered former rebels and interviews with captives,” De Leon said.

The AFP had tapped Alma Gabin, alleged former education secretary of the NPA’s Eastern Visayas Regional Party Committee and secretary-general of the Northern Samar provincial white area committee, who started cooperating after her June 8, 2021 arrest in Tolosa, Leyte.

Another asset, Noel Legaspi alias “Ka Efren,” allegedly a deputy secretary of the CPP Far South Mindanao Regional Committee and long-time spokesperson of the National Democratic Front (NDF) Far South Mindanao, had surrendered in January 2018.

The information gleaned from the two and other captured rebels, as well as intelligence from assets embedded in areas with rebel influence would form the basis of the AFP’s eight-month push that started in February 2022.

“We learned that the CPP leadership was based in Samar, and which communities were hosting guerrilla bases, whether consolidated or in the process of consolidation,” De Leon said in a mix of English and Filipino.

The JTF was following the movement of the Tiamzons prior to the incident, said the general. But he stressed that confirmation of their deaths has to wait for a DNA match with the closest kin of Benito, who is 71, and Wilma, 69.

Tiamzon’s sister approached the Commission on Human Rights on August 31 for help in verifying  if the couple were among the rebels killed in the sea battle.

“Maybe the relatives also want to have closure from their years of anxiety caused by the couple’s being long-time fugitives,” said the general. “Law enforcers who had been hunting them also want a closure of this case.”

From August 24 until September 2, fisherfolk in the Samar sea recovered the remains of eight rebels, including two women, and bits and pieces of the banca, turning these over to local authorities. 

Last journey

The general gave Rappler a glimpse of the slain rebels’ journey from the highlands of Samar to the sea off Catbalogan City.

The occupants of the boat “came from a place in San Jose de Buan and used a commuter boat plying the river linking the town to San Jorge and Gandara,” also in Samar province. 

“Then they transferred to another boat and headed for Pagsanghan, and then towards the sea,” De Leon said.

ESCAPE ROUTE. Top communist rebels in Samar escape heavy military pursuit in San Juan de Buan, Samar via the Gandara River, which forks into two channels as it nears the sea in Pagsanghan town.

San Jose de Buan is where troops of the 801st Infantry Brigade killed Rodrigo Mejica Lorezo, the 60-year-old suspected of being the regional operation commander of the NPA Eastern Visayas regional party committee (EVRPC) on August 1, as the JTF operation entered its eighth month.

The AFP announced the death of Lorenzo and his aide, Rosco Rotalano, only on August 12. 

Pagsanghan is a remote, sparsely-populated 5th class municipality. Its name comes from the local word sanga (branch) because the Bangon and Cambaye islets split the Gandara river into two forks as it nears the sea. 

This area is west of Tarangan town where the August 22 explosion happened in waters midway to Catbalogan City. 

De Leon said rebels had already loaded up in San Juan de Buan and transferred from one boat to the other as they headed for the open sea.

Operation commanders were informed when the rebel VIPs boarded another boat at the Gandara-Pagsangjan tributaries.

The boat steamed south toward the general direction of Buri island, which sits just north of Catbalogan City proper.

Philippine Navy SEALs were expecting the rebels’ exit, De Leon said. 

They were in position as the boat headed in their direction.

Government troops attempted interdiction 2.6 kilometers north of Canhawan Guti’s shore.

“They tried a short attempt at evasion. Then they started firing at our waterborne troopers. That’s why the encounter site is just a little northeast of where they were initially asked to stop,” said the general.

ROUGH CURRENTS. The challenging waters off the coasts of Catbalogan and Tarangan carried off the remains of two rebels to the island municipality of Sto. Nino, 69 kilometers north of the sea encounter site. Photo courtesy of 8ID Public Affairs office

The military gave almost daily updates on retrieval operations in late August and early September. In contrast, there was no word from communist underground organizations, which continue to have a social media presence despite government efforts to purge them from the internet.

“There has been no statement from Eastern Visayas,” an official account of one of the CPP’s Visayan regions told Rappler on September 8.

Why Samar?

The Tiamzons are both from the National Capital Region. Benito grew up in Marikina, Wilma in Pasig.

But they developed close links to the region while rising through the ranks of the communist movement. 

Benito and Wilma were arrested separately after the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972 but were released in 1974.

The Tiamzons’ first underground assignment was organizing workers in Cebu, the main Central Visayas island in 1975.

A year after, they transferred to Samar.

Benito underwent guerrilla training in Eastern Samar, a government official said, after the Tiamzons’ arrest in 2014. 

Military officials also said they had tracked the couple going “in and out of Leyte” in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda, which devastated the Visayas in November 2013.

In 2016, then-president Rodrigo Duterte’s government released Benito and Wilma on bail just before the start of peace talks with the NDF, an umbrella of underground leftist organizations controlled by the CPP. 

Duterte ordered the arrest of more than two dozen released rebel leaders after scrapping the peace talks in 2017, but the Tiamzons went underground. A Quezon City court convicted them in 2020 of kidnapping and serious illegal detention. (READ: The end of the affair? Duterte’s romance with the Reds)

To be continued (Part 2: Air, land, river operations put rebels in Samar on the defensive)

(Part 3: Wounded land: The cost of war in Samar)Rappler.com

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