Rappler Talk: The future of the PNP-SAF

Rappler Talk: The future of the PNP-SAF
How will new Special Action Force chief Moro Lazo uplift his unit's faltering morale?

MANILA, Philippines – Rappler talked to Chief Superintendent Moro Virgilio Lazo, the newly-installed commander of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF).

Lazo was sworn into office on Tuesday, March 3, at a time when the unit was still reeling from the aftermath of its worst crisis – a clash between opposing troops in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that killed 44 policemen on January 25. A former PNP-SAF commando himself, he replaces Police Director Getulio Napeñas, who was relieved of his post because of the carnage under his watch.

With the faltering morale and a divided top brass, how will the Special Action Force move forward from this crisis? And how will Lazo make it happen?

Watch our interview with Lazo here. – Rappler.com

Click here for the audio-only version:

Here is a transcript of the interview:

Bea Cupin: Hello I’m Bea Cupin and welcome to Rappler. On January 25, 392 troopers of the PNP Special Action Force entered Mamasapano town in Maguindanao to neutralize bomb makers and terrorists Marwan and Abdul Basit Usman. The SAF troopers got Marwan but paid a heavy price. At least 65 people dead including 44 of their own men. It’s one of the bloodiest days in the PNP and the SAF history and the biggest crisis to hit President Benigno Aquino III’s administration. How do you cope with such a tragedy and how do you move forward? Today Rappler speaks to newly installed SAF directer Chief Superintendent Moro Lazo to answer these questions.

Thank you for joining us sir.

It’s been a few days since you were installed as SAF director how has it been so far?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: So far I’m doing okay I had the time to talk with my troops already. Initially we had a review of the problems that we’re supposed to face now, and solve. Slowly also I feel that the people are, my fellow SAF troopers are again trying to stand up, trying to regain their confidence again in themselves and for sure we’ll try our best to be back on our feet as soon as possible.

Bea Cupin: Sir before we talk about SAF of 2015 and moving forward, let’s go back to the beginning of SAF and the beginning of your career and government. In 1984 you entered the SAF as a young lieutenant. Why choose SAF?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: There were 12 of us from PMA Class of ’84 who volunteered to join the SAF. The last guy who volunteered to join SAF which makes us to 13 is out West Point graduate batch mate. The reason why we joined SAF is because at that time, we had problems already in the country. Several problems in the south, we also had problems with the CDP-NPA? and so we told ourselves that since as young lieutenants it is going to be mandatory for us to be assigned in the battlefront. We opted to join the best unit at that time for us to get the best training, and this will ensure our survival in the battlefield. So, following the saying that the more you perspire in training, the less you bleed in battle. So we joined SAF. By the way SAF is – you should volunteer to join SAF it’s not out of money that anybody can just join SAF. That was the reason for us and of course as young lieutenants like the young lieutenants that suffered in Mamasapano, in Tagalog we call it parang kaming walang kamatayan nun, and I can just imagine the feeling of these young lieutenants when they went out to that operation. Adventure, you know, you’re young, you’re carefree, you feel like a superman, parang wala kang vulnerability. 

Bea Cupin: What was the experience like sir, during those early days you were assigned, where were you deployed to when you started out in SAF?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: After our scout ranger orientation course, the difference of an SROC class and a scout ranger class or course, SRC, is the test mission. SROCs, we are not given test missions. So when we joined the PNP-SAF this was where we were given our test mission in combat operations. Initially we have as far as my unit is concerned, I was assigned with the first company and our unit also figured out in some operations against the communist terrorist or the insurgents then. But later on, things evolved and the first company eventually became the anti-terrorist unit of SAF the second company also became the unit which was primarily to be used for counterinsurgency of the nation. That’s how it started. So I got myself into staying most of the time here in Metro Manila while my other classmates were going the country already doing the counter-insurgency operation.

Bea Cupin: One anecdote that General Razon shared to us in an interview before, he remembers this one class of SAF, after training they made a banner daw na, there is nothing in this course but pain, something like that. Ba’t natatawa po kayo sa doon mention na ‘yon (Why are you laughing at the mention of it). As someone who actually went through the training to be a member of the SAF, how difficult, how would you describe the training that SAF’s men and women go through?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Like all the elite forces in the branch of service, the training is really very hard, the casualty rate will show to you the rigidness of the training. And talagang matira ang matibay. So that’s the reason why the class na hinandle nila General Razon mabuti hindi yung klase namin, tama yung sinabi niya, there’s nothing but pain in the training, but anong silbi lahat lahat nito, no pain no gain di ba. So eventually so this will spell your survival in the warzone.

Bea Cupin: Sir typically the SAF is a unit that doesn’t get much fanfare, doesn’t get much attention, you operate on the down low right, in and out. But now, after Mamasapano parang lagi kayong tinatawag na elite force ng PNP, the elite police, ganyan, what makes the SAF elite?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Maybe the kind of recruits that we get? They will really, all of us, when you join SAF, you volunteer to die for country, there’s no question about that. This is something that the civilians do not understand much. This is taken seriously and the Mamasapano incident is a clear manifestation of this love for country, di ba. Number two, we are the only unit that has a test mission after our training. There are similar trainings in other PNP units but wala silang test mission. Here, you do not graduate if, for example, according to our training standards, you are not fit to graduate as a class. Number 3, yung closeness and cohesiveness ng mga tao. Talagang because you trained together, you suffered a lot together, and most of all you fought in combat together, this really connects you very closely to your buddies. Kasi nga, a matter of life and death, you depend on your buddy and your teammates for your survival. These are a few of the things that makes us very different, we have trainings which tests our confidence in ourselves, airborne course, parachute out of the aircraft, we have scuba diving also, but the basic class, the foundation course that we call it the commando course is already more than a training which already will separate us from the normal PNP members. 

Bea Cupin: Sir talking about, experiences in combat on the field, when you started out in SAF, when the SAF started out, it was a very difficult year, difficult years for the Philippines kasi ito yung may mga coup d’etat, revolution, what experiences stand out, now looking back?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: I think for us, we just remember all the time we are practically on alert, based in Camp Crame, ready to respond to any calls for us to prepare and go out it became so normal that it already became a normal way of life for us, being on alert, every time they wake you up and you have to be deployed. Eventually it died down.

Bea Cupin: How did that shape you that you were fresh off at the PMA at that time to be the country’s anti-coup unit, the SAF then was the anti-coup unit, how did that shape you as a young officer?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: If I can speak for our class I was lucky that I was with classmates who are of the same idea, we are supportive of each other, most important of all, we were under officers who really molded us to become officers like us today, very good and snappy officers who really guided us and taught us on how we should be behaving. All of these accomplishments, we were always made to understand and we were always asked not to be very vocal about them, just low key. Just stay on the background, stay behind the shadows.

Bea Cupin: Sir ngayon it’s full circle for you because you started your career in the SAF now you head the SAF. How would you compare the SAF of 1984 to the SAF now of, thirty one years, how would you compare the units?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Oh very different. At that time we knew practically each other by name when we were there. Now we’re a little over 4,000 people, how can you remember each other’s faces? In fact, as we grew bigger, there were times in Camp Crame that when we had these Saturday inspections, we had to form after the Saturday inspection, we had to form two circles. Two circles with each, if you’re on one of the circles you should be facing each other. So parang concentric circles. And we go around shaking each other’s hand, looking at each other’s faces, para alam mo na. Kasi malaki na masyado rin.

Bea Cupin: But in terms sir of function?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: The mission also became more complicated. Mas kokonti ang missions noon, but although there is this – let’s say for example, it is enumerated, ito yung mga missions niyo, 1, 2, 3, 4, but there’s always this last part on the mission which says to perform other tasks as directed. 

Bea Cupin: But that was also there in 1984? 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Yes, always, it’s always been there. You are being asked to do something, even if it’s outside of your mission, of course, we follow. Because I think that’s a command prerogative that’s the decision of the commander. Yun ang catch-all mission, we perform other tasks as directed by national headquarters but we do not complain. For as long as we think we can do the job, I cannot think of any other mission that PNP either hierarchy now can think that we cannot do that job for the PNP.

Bea Cupin: Moving on to the current situation, almost a month and two weeks more or less after Mamasapano, ang daming emotions the week after that. It was a difficult time I suppose for the PNP and the SAF. How are your men now?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: We have to admit that after the incident, low morale sila, low morale. Again as we always say, we are more than brothers and sisters here. It’s very difficult to explain the relations here which binds us together. More than brothers and sisters, and so losing one brother and sister, talagang mabigat sa amin yan. But slowly we’re able to talk to them, even when I was not yet inside, I would visit them, talk to them, slowly naman naibabalik yung bilib nila sa sarili nila. But of course, right now, we are still waiting for the results of the Board of Inquiry, something that is really going to be important as far as our questions are concerned. Especially those who operate it. Tapos we also have to retool ourselves again, yung mga nasawi naming mga kasamahan doon ito yung mga ina-idolize namin, mga talagang beterano. Nakakawala din ng confidence minsan kasi ito yung mga supposed to be alam mo na kasangga mo pag giyera, nauna na sila. We must really have to train more people to become leaders among the ranks to help the officers to bring back this confidence in them. We can again go back to the state that we were in before Mamasapano. In fact, dapat nga better.


Bea Cupin: Sir nabanggit niyo nga kanina, even before you’re told you would be the new director of SAF you went around and spoke to troopers, is it because of your history as SAF kasi I remember I saw you and several former SAF troopers when Secretary Roxas met with the SAF here. Why do you feel the need din po to talk to the current troopers and ask them, kamusta na kayo? 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: ‘Yun nga eh, kapatid yung nawala eh. Sa akin, I never thought na I would be considered, never. Let’s be very honest, in our class now, we are now in a position to become candidates for a regional director. And in the career of a PNP officer, particularly a career officer like us, that’s one position we all aspire for. Because not all of us can become chief PNP. Not all of us can become, DCA, DCO, di ba. Yung pinaka-minimum, kasi nga ang gusto lang namin maka-one star kami, pag naka one-star ka – maliit na ano pero siyempre nung nangyari nga itong insidente we have a thinking of coming back into SAF. Ako lang, yun lang, tropa eh. Ako on my part, I had to come back, talk to them, but the other side of me was also, I came here to tell also the boys, oops, baka mamaya ma-low morale kayo kung anong maisip niyo, pag-isipan niyong maigi. Most likely mali yang iniisip niyo. Kasi yung hatred, the vengeance, alam mo na yung galit ba. Sinasabi ko na, wag, hayaan mo lang mag-die down. Masakit talaga, pero once you are not focused kasi and you are going to do something na ang nasa likod mo, let’s say for example you’re thinking of vengeance pero ang nasa likod mo is hatred naman, you’ll not be able to plan it out properly kasi iba yung nag-momotivate sa’yo eh. Na-ba block off yung ibang situations na dapat i-consider mo. Yun lang, magkakaibigan kasi, malalapit kami sa isa’t-isa.

Bea Cupin: Sir na-mention  niyo ni Secretary Roxas that you’ve went through what the people on the front lines are going through. But what was that experience like, to see these men and I’m sure you were in their shoes years ago. What was that experience like to actually see them, talk to them, yung mga hinaing nila at that time?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Honestly, ako ay, napilitan ako, ayaw ko sana magpakita. I wanted just to grieve. Most of these people that suffered in Mamasapano it’s either nandito ako nung na-recruit sila, maybe na-interview ko sila, or na-interview ko sila sa promotion. By faces, some of them I know, sigurado ako na-interview ko sila sa promotion, yung mga P02, mga P03. Yung mga P01 maybe during their training mga bago pa sila. That’s the period na I was here eh. Siyempre, maki-commiserate, kasi tropa ang nawala. Tapos yung situation pa ay napaka-iba doon sa ineexpect mo na situation na mawawalan ka ng kasamahan. Although I know, they swore to die pero siyempre as much as possible kung pwede mong maiwasan you cannot, kaya nga survival ang pinag-uusapan natin eh. At, mabigat pa rin, kahit na nag-swore ka na you’ll live your life for this country.

Bea Cupin: Sir, siguro the more shocking statements from a SAF trooper when they met with Secretary Roxas si senior inspector Meloria, said out loud na parang this country is not worth, obviously he was very shaken over Mamasapano. Yung ganong sentiments sir, how do you handle that now, especially now that you head the SAF, parang how do you deal with emotions like that. 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: I explained to them dapat we should always look at the situation two sides. Hindi pwedeng yung sa side lang nila. Dapat they should also consider yung side nung kabila. Sa kanila kasi, dahil bata nga sila, yung exposure nila ay limited lang doon sa environment nila na sila sila lang nag-uusap. Sabi ko dapat you think farther up, and consider ano ba yung overall picture naman. Ano kaya yung epekto nung nangyari. Ito na yung ineexplain ko sa kanila na don’t be so in a hurry to make conclusions. Kasi you have your reason for saying that but again, the persons who directed these operations may also have reasons why na, ganon ang naging actuations, up to the Board of Inquiry. Naintindihan naman nila slowly. I always tell them siyempre iba yung pananaw mo as inspector or senior inspector kaysa yung pananaw mo na na let’s say for example, full colonel, senior superintendent, magkakaiba. Sabi ko nga sa kanila eventually you will risk that position and you will also be torn between ano ba, saan ka ba?

Bea Cupin: Kasi that’s a perspective that you understand their perspective and now you understand. 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Dahil hindi pa naman sila naging commander na ng mataas na kagaya ko hindi nila maintindihan. 

Bea Cupin: Pero ngayon naman na sir, it’s almost one month, more than a month since that meeting, since the 42 came back to Manila, ano na ang sentiments ngayon ng mga nakakausap niyo po ngayon na members ng SAF?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: I think I am safe and ready to say that we have, we are slowly moving on and I’ve seen them, they would like to get back again and start going back to the bad guys out there. Honestly, yun ang nakikita ko sa kanila. However, sabi nila, kailangan natin ng equipment ulit. Kasi may kakulangan kasi ng gamit, everything, alam ko ito naman yung general na problema in all government agencies. Kakulangan ng tao, kakulangan ng supplies, kakulangan ng finances, ganon. But you also understand na hindi naman pwedeng hingin lahat. Kaya lang it’s very crucial and these things, itong mga equipments na ito, all these kinds of men, material, then financial resources are very important to us because this gives us the edge against our enemies. Let’s just assume that everything else is equal, parehas kami ng training, parehas kami ng willingness to die for each other’s cause, and dahil sila nga ay di masyadong financed, kami, dahil mayroong gobyerno na tutulong sa amin, of course, when you have, example protective gear that we have. That’s the first difference already, na-do-double yung confidence namin na lumusob kasi alam namin na meron kaming protective gear as compared doon sa kabila. Ito nga yung pinag-aaralan din, no less than the president has called my attention to this one. Wishlist ninyo, i-ready niyo. We are in the process of reviewing again kung what do we have right now, what would we like to be in the future to arrive at this state, what do we need?

Bea Cupin: Sir nabanggit nga po equipment upgrade, capability expansion, training, hazard pay, yung rotation ng mga tropa. What would be our priority in terms of immediate implementation for SAF?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Of course yung equipment. This gives us the confidence to go out there and fight it out with the enemy. And, however, we also have to consider yung morale and welfare ng mga tao natin. Together, always considered yan. Yung mga priorities should be nakatutok sa dalawang portion na to. Things that can help us facilitate, ensure the mission that will be accomplished with as much as possible, zero casualty. Zero casualty leads down to the morale and welfare ng tropa because these should always go together otherwise, as they say, 50 percent lang. You may have achieved the mission but you suffered the casualites, siyempre in a way, hindi talaga 100 percent mission accomplished. Ang dapat na gusto sana natin is we accomplish the mission with minimal losses.

Bea Cupin: How about operational concerns of SAF, the BOI’s supposed to submit on Monday their report to OIC. Will this report affect somehow how SAF operates in the future. 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: I would presume yes, of course. Whatever is the findings of the BOI, I think it will have its effect on the operations that we conduct, on how we’re going to function. In fact, maybe we have to revisit the missions of SAF. Yung mga missions nung, the mandated tasks of SAF when it was created and ngayon, ay applicable pa ba towards the future that you would like to pursue? Kailangan parating maki-organize, marami, marami. This we’re working on right now, although binibilisan kasi we cannot always have the luxury of time in doing these. Especially kung equipment ang pinag-uusapan it has to go through a process. We’re happy that we are again being asked of what do we like, what would we want to do.

Bea Cupin: Sir the BOI report, many sectors, the survivors, the families, the SAF who survived the operation, the public, hopes it will answer a lot of the nagging questions. As far as SAF is concerned or even you personally po sir, as its acting commander, what re the questions you want the BOI to answer with its report?

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Thinking of the operators on the grownd, which lead to the death of the 44 na kasamahan natin, talagang ang question is nasaan ang supposed to be na understanding namin na mayroong reinforcement or mayroong tulong coming from the Armed Forces of the Philippines in terms of mechanized infantry and artillery support. Kasi this spelled the results of the mission. Initially okay, positive, pero nung bandang huli dumating, you can just imagine kung anong usapan ng mga nagkakasama nung panahon na yon. Yung mga nainjure saka yung mga nabuhay, yung mga namatay. Nag-uusap yung mga yun. And so you cannot take it away from the unharmed and the wounded, meron din silang kinakailangang malaman sa sarili nila na, kasi ang feeling nila sabay sabay na lang sana kaming namatay. Kasi when they go out there, patay kung patay. They know, especially in missions like that. It’s a violation of protocol eh. One way in, one way out, there’s only one way in, one way out. But what can you do, that’s the only way. Pero call pa rin nila, why? Maybe because they banked on, depended on the part of the plan that reinforcements from the AFP will arrive.

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: The reason why they stuck it out there is because when they suffered casualties already, ako ito lang ang gut feel ko. And I think I’m very sure na ito ang conclusion ko, may mga wounded na may mga namatay na, ang usapan walang iwanan. Hindi na nila kayang buhatin, sabi nila dito na lang tayo anyway mayroon naman plano for support, may reinforcement naman, may back up naman. 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Remember yung kwento ni Lalan, yung first sergeant niya yung superior niya, sabi niya wag mo akong iwanan di ba sinabi niya. Pero yung sinabi niya sa kanya, kinakailangan may magkwento kung anong nangyari dito. Sige, ganito na rin lang ako, ako na yung diversionary target nila, tumakbo ka na, ako na yung, will catch their attention. Can you just imagine kung si Lalan ay wala rin. Baka statistics na lang yung 36 or 35. 

Bea Cupin: Talking nga po about the survivors, you have the seaborne, you have the survivors of the seaborne and Lalan of the 55th. How are they coping now one month after? 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: They underwent stress debriefing. It’s good to hear as far as the doctors are concerned. In fact, na-release na nga yung iba. When I say release they are already discharged from the hospital. I understand there will be times they will have to undergo talking to the psychiatrist again. Initially si Lalan hindi raw umaakyat sa ward noon ng mga Seaborne. But later on umaakyat akyat na. Siyempre nung nagkaliwanagan na bakit nagka ganoon. He goes along well with the group naman. But of course si Lalan has to, let’s just say he has the most traumatic experience from the group kaya kailangan maalalayan. Pero sinasabi naman niya okay na ako. But he has to be assisted every now and then. We told him na if you want to see, if you think ano ang gusto mo, ibang doktor naman you tell us kasi may naka-ready. So far okay naman bakasyon na ako.

Bea Cupin: I guess this would be your biggest mission as a SAF trooper to head the unit, to steer it in the right direction. The unit was lost or shaken after Mamasapano. What is your vision for SAF, what’s next for SAF under your command? 

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: Ito before I answer that, I would like to state here, maraming peculiarities ang SAF there’s also one very glaring peculiarity ng SAF is that the people unlike any PNP unit, the members are consulted as to who would like, who would they like to lead them. So in short yung SAF yung ibang mga members dito napagtanungan sila. Sa tingin niyo sino ba ang pwedeng ano, marami namang available doon, pero I think ako kasi yung mas narerember siguro nila kasi I came back here 2010, 2013 in short ako ang napili. So when I talked to them sinasabi ko sa kanila, sandali, hindi ako ang on my own lang na naselect dito, you are part of this so tulungan niyo ako, tulong tulong tayo dito. Sinasabi ko nga sa kanila it does not mean that nawalan tayo ng 44 na kasamahan ay namatay na rin tayo. Iiyak yung mga 44 ngayon na nanood sa atin, nasa taas sila pinapanood tayo, kung yan ang gagawin natin bunker down show that we are lost, sabi ko no way. Para mapasaya natin sila and at the same time, their death will have, may kabuluhan ang pagkamatay nila, we should rise up again. Yun dapat ang inspiration natin, sila. Sila nga nauna nang nagsakripisyo, tayo mabuti nandito pa so dapat suportahan natin, i-justify natin yung pagkamatay nila, this is now causing us to stand up be brave, be more courageous, be more fearless, kasi sabi ko aside from the guardian angel you have right now, you have another additional 44, 45 yan, so where can we go wrong? Sinabi ko sa kanila I cannot do this on my own, we have to do this altogether. Sabi naman nila sa akin, they’ll help. I will try my best, I was telling them that I will never break their hearts, pero I cannot do this alone. In fact we in SAF cannot do it alone. The community has to support us. We are overwhelmed with, in whatever way be it donations be it prayers, be it critics, be it whatever, I’m telling them always we cannot thank the people enough for these praises and without the 44, hindi naman hahantong sa ganito na napaka sikat natin parang heroes na rin tayong lahat, naikabit lang tayo sa 44 kasi parang pareparehas na yung SAF. Sabi ko not only the 44 the community, the PNP leadership, the PNP as a whole, the community, we should never let them down. I know, in due time, we go back there and hunt down again those who have warrants of arrests for sowing terror in our communities. Better SAF than where it was before Mamasapano.

Bea Cupin: There’s a lot of things to do sir in the next few months, in the next year for you but thank you for giving us the time today.

CSUPT. Moro Lazo: I also thank you for this opportunity.

Bea Cupin: We were joined by acting SAF director, Chief Superintendent Moro Lazo who spoke about SAF the PNP’s striking force can and will move on after the tragedy in Mamasapano. Again I’m Bea Cupin thank you for joining us.


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