The Atimonan encounter: Overwhelming firepower
The initial Philippine National Police fact-finding report on the encounter between government security forces and an alleged criminal gang on Jan. 6 at a police checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon province, in which 13 people were killed, threw doubts on claims that there was a shootout.
The PNP report said there was a “deliberate effort to make the crime scene look like the sign of a gun battle.” The PNP inquiry also found that “excessive force was used on the victims, as indicated by their gunshot wounds and the number of bullet holes in their vehicles,” according to a report in the Inquirer.
The report, submitted to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), suggested that what happened was not a shootout but “gangland”-style killings, or possibly an ambush by one gang on a rival gang over “jueteng” (an illegal numbers game) or drug trafficking in southern Luzon.
It did not say who were behind this shootout scenario, which appears to be shifting the blame for this carnage to feuding racket lords rather than to government security forces, including the Army’s task force that joined the PNP-led antijueteng operations.
According to the PNP report, three policemen and three soldiers were among the 13 men killed at the joint police-military checkpoint on Maharlika Highway in Barangay Lumutan in Atimonan.
Local police reported that the security forces flagged down down three sport utility vehicles at the checkpoint, but the occupants opened fire. The leader of the police team, Supt. Hansel Marantan, deputy chief of intelligence of Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon), was hit in the hands and foot, prompting the soldiers and policemen to return fire, killing all the occupants of the first two SUVs.
The Quezon police called the encounter a shootout, press reports said, but the families of the 13 men claimed that the victims were summarily executed.
President Aquino found the early police reports hard to believe and full of “inconsistencies,” prompting him to order the NBI to conduct a separate inquiry to find out what really happened.
Among those killed in the supposed shootout was Victor “Vic” Siman, allegedly a jueteng operator in Laguna and Batangas provinces. According to press reports, Siman was one of the two targets of “Coplan Armado,” a police operation against jueteng and guns-for-hire in southern Luzon. The other target was Mayor Joven Hidalgo of Balete town, Batangas. Hidalgo has denied involvement in jueteng and gunrunning in southern Luzon.
The Inquirer reported that the supposed shootout was triggered by the rivalry between the two jueteng syndicates. The PNP report said the “possibility that an ambush happened cannot be discounted.” The PNP inquiry found that “excessive force” was used on the victims as indicated by 75 bullet entry holes in the first vehicle and 45 in the second.
Eleven victims were shot in the head. Multiple bullet wounds in the different parts of the bodies of the victims caused extensive and fatal injuries, resulting in instant death, PNP investigators said.
“The trajectories of the bullets that hit the vehicles showed that the shots were fired from different directions and at different angles, including from elevated positions,” the report said.
It said Leonardo Marasigan, driver of the first vehicle, “initially had no firearm but later a firearm was placed near his hands and head.”
One of the slain soldiers, Air Force S/Sgt. Armando Lescano, “initially had a firearm tucked in his waistline, but later a firearm was placed near his hands, the report said. How a member of the Air Force happened to be in the ranks of a syndicate was not explained.
Involvement in the jueteng racket caused the downfall of President Joseph Estrada. Then Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson’s exposé on the payouts in millions of pesos from jueteng syndicates to Estrada led to impeachment charges and his eventual overthrow by people power in 2001.
Credibility at stake
This episode is not lost on President Aquino, who appears determined to go into the bottom of the Atimonan killings when he ordered the NBI to conduct a thorough inquiry. Malacañang’s concern was reflected by the statement from the Presidential Communications Office that the administration’s credibility was at stake in the investigation of the Atimonan encounter.
Malacañang said the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the PNP had responded by relieving police officers involved in the Atimonan operation. “This is no ordinary event, and the policy that we call ‘straight path and good governance’ would be disputed if we failed to convince the people that we had an exhaustive investigation and hold those responsible liable,” it said. Three policemen soldiers and three soldiers were among the 13 killed in the encounter.
Vicente de Guzman, deputy director of the NBI for Metro Manila, said that whatever the military’s witnesses would say would not change the NBI’s finding that what happened in Atimonan “was not a shootout.”
After a reenactment of the Jan. 6 event last week, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima concluded that what happened was “definitely not a shootout.”
A team that manned the checkpoint two weeks ago was composed of 40 PNP and Army Special Forces personnel. The Army joined in the operation in response to the call of the police for augmentation. Troops from the Army’s Southern Luzon Command responded.
A military source explained to the Inquirer the basic difference between the military and police doctrines in dealing with armed enemies.
When soldiers are fired upon, they are trained to neutralize by forcing them to surrender through overwhelming firepower, or what we call volume of fire or sustained fire. In the course of this sustained fire, the enemy either surrenders or dies, the source said. “With law enforcement, the police doctrine is: You immobilize the enemy…. Of course, you can’ just change the military doctrine to suit a police operation,” he said.
Did we need all that firepower of a trigger-happy Special Forces battalion to overpower three carloads of jueteng operators? That’s the danger of calling in the Army to wipe out racketeers. That makes the police irrelevant. We are not in a state of war or national emergency stemming from an invasion or insurrection.