How Isko Moreno copied a Duterte anti-crime idea and made it his own

Rambo Talabong

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How Isko Moreno copied a Duterte anti-crime idea and made it his own
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno forms his own mayoral anti-crime police squad, headed by a cop who grew up with him in Tondo

MANILA, Philippines – It was a bright and cloudless morning in Manila on May 15 when mayoral candidate Isko Moreno called for an 8 am meeting.

He barely had time to sleep, but there was no time to rest. He had just been elected the next mayor of Manila, and he had to meet with the men who would implement his vision of peace and order for the renewal of the city. 

At the lobby of the New World Hotel in Malate, he called his most trusted cop – Major Rosalino Ibay Jr – the chief of the District Intelligence and Operation Unit, a veteran operative, and his childhood friend.

Ibay arrived on the dot, and just as he found his seat, was instructed by Moreno to call the chief of the Manila Police District (MPD), Brigadier General Vicente Danao Jr.

When Danao arrived with his entourage and settled down, Moreno pointed to Ibay, and told the one-star general, “Gusto ko siyang maupo bilang chief ng pulis ko sa Manila City Hall (I want him to sit as my chief of police at Manila City Hall).”

Danao had an idea. Moreno could get the squad he wanted.

In fact, Danao said, it had been done before. He was, after all, the top cop of then-mayor Rodrigo Duterte in Davao City, heading what was called a Special Mayor’s Reaction Team (SMaRT).

A team for the mayor

Mayors do not simply form their personal anti-crime team. While they are deputized by the National Police Commission (Napolcom) to manage cops, mayors cannot keep police teams for their own benefit.

So Danao and Ibay crafted guidelines in the formation of SMaRT. These were finalized two weeks after the hotel meeting on May 28. The purpose of SMaRT was clear and itemized in a memorandum issued by Danao and obtained by Rappler:

  1. To intensify the priority program of the City Mayor of Manila, Honorable Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso against all forms of corruption in the City Government of Manila;
  2. To clean the City of Manila from corrupt practices involving police personnel and other law enforcers, and local government officials, both elected and appointed;
  3. To eradicate all criminal activities involving gang/s, organized and syndicated groups operating in the City of Manila;
  4. To rescue and save the youth of Manila from all forms of abuses, vices, and illegal activities;
  5. To strictly enforce all City Ordinances, acts punishable under the Revised Penal Code, and all other prohibited acts as may be provided by the laws.

The SMaRT also investigates walk-in complaints from Manileños and assists in securing the city’s officials.

But a caveat. Under its general guidelines, the memorandum says, “The administrative and operational control of the SMaRT office shall be directly supervised by the C, DID (Chief, District Intelligence Division) under the office of the District Director.”

While SMaRT operates on the agenda of Mayor Moreno, its legitimacy depends on MPD headquarters. Because the team was created under the stewardship of General Danao, it would also only be Danao who could disband them.

Meet the commander

SQUAD COMMANDER. Major Rosalino Ibay Jr inside his office at the Manila City Hall. Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

SMaRT is not a monolithic anti-crime group. It is manned by 64 people, consisting of two operations teams, administrative personnel, two deputy chiefs, and its commander, Major Ibay.

Like Moreno, the commander of SMaRT is a proud “Tondo boy,” toughened by the harsh streets of Moriones. In fact, his desire to wear the PNP’s blue was prompted by a haunting encounter with criminality in his own neighborhood.

Biktima din tayo ng insidente sa Tondo kung saan nakatanggap ako ng bully at pumalag ako. Nakatanggap tayo ng 13 stab wounds,” Ibay told Rappler. (I was also a victim of an incident in Tondo, where I stood up to a bully. I got 13 stab wounds.)

For most of his policing career, Ibay served as an intelligence officer. He is not embarrassed to say he had no headstart because he did not enter through the Philippine National Police Academy. Yet he is one of the most decorated cops who managed to get through via a so-called “lateral entry.”

His love for field work was forged by years of operation under the PNP Highway Patrol Group. He didn’t limit himself to merely the group’s traffic enforcement mandate, and instead worked on crimes that involved vehicles such as carnapping, in the process expanding his intelligence operations portfolio. In 2013, he worked as the chief of the anti-carnapping group of the Manila police.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, Ibay was promoted chief of the Manila police’s District Police Intelligence Operations Unit, the team that prepares drug lists and joins operations in hunting down drug suspects.

His proudest achievement for the MPD was busting the Confederate Sentinels Group (CSG), a vigilante group that killed alleged criminals in Tondo. (Rappler earlier reported that there are strong indications that cops outsourced the CSG to carry out killings.)

Like his bosses, Ibay believes all the drug suspects shot down by cops in the anti-drug campaign fought back and threatened cops’ lives, despite the conviction of 3 cops in the killing of Caloocan teenager Kian delos Santos.

When asked whether it was possible for cops to restrain themselves if there were no life threats, he responded, “Hangga’t wala kasi kayo sa posisyon namin sa sapatos na ginagalawan namin, madaling sabihin yun (As long as you’re not in our position and don’t walk in our shoes, that’s easy for you to say).”

The team’s exploits, its future

TANDEM. Mayor Isko Moreno and Major Rosalino Ibay Jr in a clearing operation in Manila. Photo from Isko Moreno's Facebook page

Under Moreno, Ibay has his drug-busting days behind him. At least for now.

That Danao would disband the very idea he pitched is far-fetched, especially since he has shared the glory in presenting achievements, which span arrests as wide-reaching as Moreno’s ambitious promises.

Every time SMaRT makes an arrest, Moreno holds a press briefing inside the historic Bulwagang Katipunan of the Manila City Hall, never forgetting to make special mention of Ibay and Danao. Both followed Moreno’s lead in presenting suspects, despite a ban from the PNP’s national headquarters – part of efforts to curb trials by publicity.

Among the highlights of SMaRT operations are the arrest of the city’s most wanted rape suspect, the arrest of a dog butcher spotted through a social media post, and the arrest of so-called “jumpers” who stole electricity monitors from homes.

SMaRT also tracked down the gun-toting barangay captain Amado Soriano who went viral on the internet.

They also guarded and assisted Moreno in his much-publicized clearing operations in Binondo, Recto, and Divisoria.

Moreno would even accompany them in operations, most recently in the shutting down of a gambling arcade posing as an amusement center in Isetann Recto.

Asked why he joined the operation despite the security risk, Moreno said he “means business” in the capital. He also vowed that laws would be applied “equally” under his term.

For Ibay and Moreno, their only goal in working together is to give Manileños something they never grew up with: a city that’s clean and safe for all.

Can the boys from Tondo do it?


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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.