'Spectacle of a grand cover-up': Senate hearing bares how 'ninja cops' remain in service

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The marathon hearings of the Senate blue ribbon committee led to the discussion of something close to the heart of the Duterte administration: the war on drugs.

After 7 hearings, the issues have evolved from a wide range of topics – from the loopholes in the "good conduct time allowance (GCTA) law, prison reform, the drug kingpins of the New Bilibid Prison, and now the involvement of "ninja cops" in illegal drugs.

But what raised eyebrows on Tuesday, October 1, was the alleged intervention of Philippine National Police chief General Oscar Albayalde in what seemed to be a "grand cover-up" – as the senators believed – to protect his underlings from dismissal from service over a 2013 case.

Roughly a month before Albayalde's retirement on November 8, the 2013 incident seemed to haunt the country's top cop. What happened?

November 29, 2013

10 am – Twelve Pampanga cops conduct a buy-bust operation in Mexico, Pampanga which led to the recovery of 36.68 kilos of metamphetamine hydrochloride (shabu) and a P100,000 marked money. The team is headed by ex-Pampanga anti-illegal drug operations task group chief Joven de Guzman Jr, along with 11 others:

The group is supposed to go after the Chinese drug lord Johnson Lee, but instead arrest another suspected drug dealer Ding Wenkun.

The team conducts a buy-bust operation leading to the arrest of a drug suspect named Johnson Lee. But according to Magalong, the cops were bribed by Lee with P50 million to let him go and instead arrest a fall guy identified as Ding Wenkun.

Cops also supposedly seized 200 kilograms of shabu, but only declared the seizure of 38 kg.

4:30 pm – The time that the cops claim to have only begun with the buy-bust operation. This is the only time that Albayalde was supposedly informed about the operation.

Baloyo tell senators in the Senate’s joint probe on October 1, 2019, that he did not see it fit to tell Albayalde ahead of the big operation because he was not “sure” it was a hit.

Because of the discrepancy, senators suspect that the time between the actual time and the bogus time was spent by cops to mount a coverup.

November 30, 2013
Cops submit 38 kilograms of shabu as evidence in the afternoon. That the processing took a day violated the rules of handling evidence. Cops are required to process the illegal drugs immediately.

They also fail to include a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) agent and a barangay official in the operation.

February 2014
Major General Benjamin Magalong leads the CIDG at this time. He holds a briefing on the “agaw-bato” (keeping of drugs) scheme of cops before then-police chief General Alan Purisima.

Purisima, according to Magalong, raised a tip he had received that a bunch of intelligence officers in Pampanga suddenly were able to afford buying SUV for themselves, and that it might have had something to do with the illegal practice.

Benjie, imbestigahan mo nga ito, dahil just recently, nagkaroon ng operation itong mga bata diyan sa Pampanga. Meron silang nakuhang mga 30-plus na kilos na shabu pero bigla silang nagkaroon ng magagandang sasakyan, sabay-sabay,” Magalong recalls Purisima telling him then during the Senate hearing on October 1, 2019.

(Benjie, could you investigate this? It’s because just recently, there was an operation by these young cops in Pampanga and they seized 30 plus kilos of shabu, but suddenly they were able to buy good cars, all at the same time.)

Magalong begins his investigation immediately.

March 3, 2014 

The 13 cops, including then-Pampanga intelligence branch head Rodney Balayo, are preventively suspended for not following the standard procedure during the November 2013 buy-bust operation:

March 11, 2014
The 13 cops are charged for violating Section 27 of the Dangerous Drugs Act, or mishandling of drug-related evidence.

The offense merits life imprisonment and a fine between P500,000 and P10 million.

March 15, 2014
Albayalde is sacked from his post by then-Central Luzon police chief Brigadier General Raul Petrasanta in line with “command responsibility.”

““[It is] due to [Albayalde’s] failure to take corrective action at his level despite the chance given to him to do so,” Petrasanta is reported as saying by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

November 14, 2014

Then-Central Luzon police director Raul Petrasanta orders the maximum penalty of dismissal from service for the 13 cops.

March 2, 2016
After over a year, the team finally receives the dismissal order.

They are given 12 days to contest the decision of the regional and national headquarters.

March 14, 2016
The cops file a motion for reconsideration to appeal the dismissal order. It would take over a year for the police to resolve this motion.

May 30, 2016
Then Brigadier General Aaron Aquino assumes his post as Central Luzon chief, replacing retiring Brigadier General Rudy Lacadin.

July 4, 2016
Albayalde assumes office as the chief of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO).

NINJA COP? At the hearing, Lt Col Raymund Baloyo IV says he was at the 2013 buy-bust operation, and that 2 security guards were threatening their group that's why they had to do the inventory of the drugs elsewhere. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

NINJA COP? At the hearing, Lt Col Raymund Baloyo IV says he was at the 2013 buy-bust operation, and that 2 security guards were threatening their group that's why they had to do the inventory of the drugs elsewhere.

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Between July and November, 2016 

At the October 1 hearing, Magalong urges Aquino to "tell the truth" when asked if anyone had called the latter in relation to the ninja cops' case. Aquino says that in late 2016, Albayalde called him to ask about the case of the 13 policemen.

"Sinabi niya sa akin, 'Sir, for the meantime, baka puwedeng ipa-review muna 'yan, kasi gusto kong malaman kung ano talaga ang mangyayari sa result ng investigation na iyan…Kasi, Sir, mga tao ko 'yan,'" Aquino recalled Albayalde telling him.

(He told me, 'Sir, for the meantime, maybe you can have that reviewed, because I want to know what will happen to the result of that investigation. Because, Sir, those are my people.')

Albayalde admitted on Tuesday, October 1, that the call indeed happened, but denied trying to influence Aquino: "Yes, I asked for the status – only the status. I could not possibly influence an RD or an upperclass…It's normal but never in one time did I ask for any favor. I was asking for the status."

Magalong told senators on Tuesday that Aquino "did not implement the order" pending the review of the case, as a result of the call, and assigned the erring cops to Mindanao as punishment.

June 2017
According to PNP Drug Enforcement Group chief Brigadier General Albert Ferro, the criminal drugs case against the 13 cops were dismissed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) during this month.

Before rising as DEG chief, Ferro was Magalong’s investigator on top of the 13 cops’ case.

During the Senate hearing on October 1, 2019, Senator Richard Gordon corrects Ferro, saying that the case has not been dismissed but has actually been forwarded to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s office for review. Guevarra says he has delegated the case to an undersecretary.

September 1, 2017
Brigadier General Amador Corpus replaces retiring Aaron Aquino as Central Luzon police chief.

September 12, 2017
Aquino replaces Isidro Lapeña as PDEA chief.

October 17, 2017
Just a month heading the regional office, Corpus issues a resolution deciding on the fate of the 13 ninja cops who filed for a motion for reconsideration. Corpus modifies the penalty from dismissal from service to a "one-rank demotion" instead.

Corpus defended the decision on the October 1, 2019 hearing, saying that the legal officer recommended it. He said that there are two aggravating circumstances (taking advantage of length of service and employment of fraudulent means to commit the offense) and a mitigating circumstance (numerous awards and commendations) which led to a "net of one aggravating circumstance."

As Corpus justified it, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said: "As an ordinary citizen and a lawyer, I could not understand why a penalty of dismissal was lowered to a penalty of demotion. Why you made that judgment, may tumawag po ba sa inyo na ibaba ang penalty na 'to (Did somebody call you to lower the penalty)?"

Corpus, who is now heading the CIDG, evaded the question by answering that the facts presented by Magalong during Tuesday's hearing – despite being corroborated by PNP documents – were "distorted."

April 19, 2018
Albayalde replaces General Ronald dela Rosa as chief of the PNP.

He was chosen by Duterte for his reputation as a disciplinarian, frequently landing in the evening news for riding his motorcycle at night and sacking sleeping cops on the spot.

“Albayalde is the man for you. So the stricter the better," Duterte recounts, telling top police officials when he was deciding on Dela Rosa’s successor.

May 14, 2019
Benjamin Magalong is proclaimed the next Baguio City mayor on his first try into politics, defeating PDP-Laban backed Edison Bilog, who never lost an election since 1990.

November 20, 2018
Corpus is promoted to head the CIDG. The vacancy he leaves behind in Central Luzon is filled by former Manila Police District chief Brigadier General Joel Coronel.

September 16, 2019
During a Senate hearing for PDEA’s 2020 budget, Aaron Aquino raises to senators about drug recycling still being “rampant” in the PNP.

“I received some information from assets, from other law enforcement agencies themselves…Hearing these reports, it will just show that there's still recycling of drugs. I guess it's still rampant," Aquino says.

He adds: “When they seize drugs, maybe half of that wll be surrendered. Or they will make it appear that the amount of seized drugs is less. While all the other ones are being kept for other future operations, or worse, [are sold]," Aquino added.

The announcement makes waves in the media, shocking even the PNP itself.

September 19, 2019
The Senate committee on justice and human rights, and the Senate blue ribbon committee hold an executive session – with Magalong – on the practice of drug recycling.

The senators were originally probing the controversial Good Conduct Time Allowance law, but their probe segues to the PNP after witnesses bare the continuous illegal drug operations inside the New Bilibid Prison, even its hospital.

It is in this session that Magalong presents the 2013 Pampanga operation as the chief example of a sting executed by “ninja cops” who were left to continue in the police service by top police officials.

Some time between September 20 and September 30
Magalong and Aquino meet with President Rodrigo Duterte and Senator Bong Go about the “ninja cops” issue at the Manila Hotel.

During the meeting, Magalong remembers Aquino telling the President that Albayalde had called him when they were regional directors “not to implement” the dismissal order for the 13 cops.

In the same time period, Albayalde meets with Duterte in Malacañang to provide an update on the anti-drug campaign and clears his name after the controversy is raised in the Senate.

Albayalde tells reporters later that Duterte would tune in to the Senate hearing on October 1. 

October 1, 2019
12 pm – In the continuation of the joint Senate probe into the GCTA controversy, Magalong repeats his testimony from the September 19 executive session.

Magalong then pushes Aquino to reveal to the Senate and the public what he earlier said during earlier meetings.

"Sabihin mo kung anong sinabi mo sa akin. Sinong kumausap sa 'yo (Tell them what you told me. Who talked to you)?" Magalong told Aquino during the hearing.

Aquino then reveals that Albayalde called him back in 2016 to “review” the dismissal order against the 13 cops, explaining that they were his people.

3:30 pm – In an ambush interview on October 1, 2019, Aquino says Albayalde only told him to “review” the dismissal order, and that the police chief did not pressure him not to implement it. In a separate ambush interview, Magalong said, “I am not lying.”

Albayalde has denied that he “influenced” Aquino in any way, pointing the finger back at Magalong and telling him that he instead as former CIDG chief could have ended the practice of recycling illegal drugs.

8:30 pm – President Rodrigo Duterte holds a press briefing before leaving for Russia for his second visit as head of state. He says he would decide on Albayalde’s fate after Interior Secretry Eduardo Año finishes his probe into the mess.

"The most proper thing to do, which is in line with procedural due process, is to wait for the closure of the investigation by the Senate," Duterte said.

He continues: ”When it is forwarded to me since the police is under the Department of the Interior and Local Government, it's a bureau under Secretary Año, I will forward it to him, give him a specific period to complete his investigation.”

As policemen cried for due process, senators believed that the rogue cops actually did not follow it in the 2013 incident.

The senators grilled the police officers why it took them too long to send the copy of the dismissal order for the rogue cops, let alone implement it.

"Masakit pakinggan 'yung hearing natin ngayon, kasi I think it is an embarrassment of due process for the PNP…Pero hanggang ngayon, isa ako with you, Mr Chair, na hindi pa rin maintindihan why it took so long to implement a decision na PNP na mismo ang nagbuo at based on PNP processes," Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a manifestation.

(It hurts to listen to our hearing now because it's an embarrassment of due process for the PNP. But until now, I am with you on this Mr Chair, that I still could not understand why it took so long to implement a decision that the PNP had crafted and was based on PNP processes.)

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, meanwhile, took his thoughts to Twitter as the hearing was ongoing: "We are now witnessing the spectacle of a grand cover-up!"

When Albayalde's 2016 call to Aquino was established, Senator Richard Gordon, the Senate blue ribbon committee chairman, exploded without naming names.

"Why are you trying to get the people off the hook? Are you the mafia or the PNP? Before you can be merciful, you must be just!" the blue ribbon panel head said.

Gordon also slammed Baloyo's current position as the deputy officer-in-charge for Tagaytay, calling it a "promotion" even if the latter was demoted in rank.

In a media interview, Gordon said that trust in Albayalde now has "cracks" because of the ghosts of his past. The senator likened Albayade's situation to Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, who wrote to the Board of Pardons and Parole about the bid of his ex-client rapist and murder convict Antonio Sanchez for clemency.

"Wala naman akong nakuhang ebidensya na except for 'yung tinawagan 'nya [si Aquino]. If something is under investigation, you don't call somebody. Parang 'yung Panelo 'di ba," Gordon told reporters.

(I was not able to get evidence except for the fact that he called Aquino. If something is under investigation, you don't call somebody. It's like the case of Panelo.)

The issue resurfaced when Magalong bared the names of the cops involved in "drug recycling" to the Senate in a September 19 executive session. A few days later, the Senate authorized Gordon's committee to make the information public.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra pledged to complete the automatic review of the dismissed criminal case filed against the ninja cops within a month.

As for Albayalde, President Rodrigo Duterte said that he will decide on the top cop's fate after the Senate wraps up its probe and after Interior Secretary Eduardo Año finishes his own investigation.

Will Albayalde survive this controversy before he retires? – Rappler.com

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Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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