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The supposed shootout at a police checkpoint on a highway in Atimonan, Quezon, last Sunday, which left 13 persons dead, including three policemen and two soldiers on active duty, has roiled the public imagination. The death toll is shocking in itself, but it is the inconsistencies, even the absurdities, in the emerging accounts of the alleged encounter that have scandalized the public.

At this point, only a few facts are beyond dispute. Two vehicles were riddled with bullets; 13 men were killed. The fatalities included a businessman, Vic Siman, and a police officer, Supt. Alfredo Consemino. A police officer at the checkpoint, Supt. Hansel Marantan, was wounded and is now in hospital. Most of the other fatalities were Siman’s bodyguards or Consemino’s aides.

Almost everything else is open to question. Were the vehicles carrying money? Consemino’s daughter, an accountant who says she helped prepare the transaction, asserts that the party was carrying P5 million in cash as bond for a prospective security-agency contract. If so, where is the money? Her father and Siman were described as “industrial partners” in the security agency; was Superintendent Consemino traveling on official business when he was killed? (A perhaps nontrivial question: Was he in uniform?)

Almost from the time the news spread, the question of many was: Did a shootout in fact take place? The original police report asserted that three SUVs (sport utility vehicles) were in the convoy that policemen at the checkpoint had tried to stop, and that the passengers rolled down the windows and started firing. But photographs taken in the aftermath show that the SUV windows were closed. Additionally, only one of the men at the checkpoint was wounded; the 15 other policemen and the 25 soldiers were unscathed. Relatives of some of the slain said their loved ones seem to have been shot at close range, with one apparently shot between the eyes.

The relatives have more questions. A statement released in the name of eight families said: “The guns of the victims are licensed and registered. If they are members of a gun-for-hire syndicate, why are their firearms registered and licensed? Why would they use registered vehicles? Why is it that not one of them has a criminal record?” (The original police report said the fatalities were mercenaries.)

To those questions we can add others: How did 13 men, with 14 firearms, fit into two SUVs? How long did the shootout last? How many bullets were fired in the checkpoint’s direction? Why weren’t the policemen at the checkpoint wearing their uniforms, and why were other protocols in the manning of checkpoints not followed?

The role of Marantan is especially intriguing. As Interior Secretary Mar Roxas has reported, the wounded officer was involved in other controversial shootouts in the last seven years, where an incredible total of 40 persons were killed. “Is he just trigger-happy? Or is he just that brave?” Roxas said. “We want to know the reason why he was involved in many cases of bloody shootouts.”

It did not help Marantan’s reputation when Sen. Panfilo Lacson vouched for his work; Lacson has dodged questions of involvement in a possible “rubout” (the controversial Kuratong Baleleng case) for many years, and the day he assumed the top post in the Philippine National Police in 1999, deadly shootouts broke out in Metro Manila. Marantan, in other words, would be the kind of policeman Lacson is partial to.

The reputation of the slain businessman Siman has also come under closer scrutiny. His sister defended him as a man of charity: “My brother was a very kind and generous man. He helped so many people—children with medical needs, alms for those who lost loved ones and so many others.” But—to respond to the relatives’ claim with the same skepticism we directed at the Quezon police—why would a philanthropist move around with at least three bodyguards?

Some sources say the context for the killings is a struggle for control between rival factions of “jueteng” operators. That may be, and if this kind of violence is to be stopped, the inquiry being conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation must eventually straighten the tangled knots that bind jueteng money, local politics and police complicity.

But the need of the moment is to determine exactly what happened last Jan. 6. The questions the people themselves are asking reflect the questions the investigators must be able to answer.

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