President Aquino’s decision to adopt the findings of a special inquiry by the National Bureau of Investigation into the Jan. 6 killing of 13 men in Atimonan, Quezon, should make a dent on the culture of impunity that has been fostered by the wider culture of violence and human rights abuse in the country. Agreeing with the report that the deaths were a result of summary execution and not a shootout, the President ordered the filing of multiple-murder charges against the police and military personnel involved.
To face the criminal charges are Supt. Hansel Marantan, leader of the police team at the fateful checkpoint; his former immediate superior, Chief Supt. James Melad; 19 other policemen; and 14 Army personnel. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the probable motive for the killings was territorial rivalry concerning “jueteng” and other illegal gambling rackets in Laguna. It appeared that Marantan was protecting a certain “Ka Tita,” whose jueteng operation was affecting that of Vic Siman, one of the victims.
The President has accepted the findings in full, sending a strong signal that the government would not tolerate corruption in the police and military.
It should be pointed out that Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima did not shield his men from inquiry. He immediately ordered the suspension of the Quezon police chief, Senior Supt. Valeriano de Leon, and Marantan. It was noted that Marantan’s team had violated procedures: An initial PNP investigation found that the policemen at the checkpoint were not in uniform, and that while uniformed officers were stationed 500 meters from the checkpoint, the area was not marked with police signs.
It is to the President’s credit that in tandem with the PNP investigation, he ordered another inquiry by the NBI for check and balance. He allowed the PNP to continue its investigation on the firearms and vehicles used in the alleged shootout, but ordered the findings submitted to the NBI.
The PNP complied and, on Jan. 15, submitted its report to the NBI. Short of saying that there was no shootout, it recommended the filing of criminal charges against the policemen and Army Special Forces who took part in the supposed encounter. It also recommended administrative charges against the policemen involved. The PNP panel found that there was a deliberate effort to make the crime scene look like the site of a gun battle. It found that excessive force was used, indicated by the gunshot wounds on the victims and the number of entry bullet holes on their vehicles: One had 174, and the other, 45. Eleven of the victims were shot in the head. The families of some of them had protested that they were not criminals.
The excessive violence reflects the culture of impunity engendered by the long-suspected common practice of summary execution in the police underworld. The practice has somehow been tolerated by the public, especially when the victims are suspected to be hardened felons. But summary executions serve to disguise the police’s impatience and inefficiency, their sloppy work at investigation and prosecution. And as the Atimonan incident shows, rubouts are employed by men in uniform to eliminate rivals in illegal criminal operations.
Even worse, men in uniform may use the broad anticrime initiatives of the government for their own nefarious ends. In its inquiry, the NBI looked into the role of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission in the killings. Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., who chairs the commission, had denied approving the supposed antigambling operation; as it turned out, the Quezon police carried out the operation against Siman without the commission’s clearance. Supt. Glenn Dumlao, commander of the Calabarzon Public Safety Battalion, claimed that the regional police proceeded with the operation even without clearance on the presumption of regularity; he said it was their job to go after organized crime groups.
What all of this means is that certain members of the police and the military may have so melded with the criminal underworld that the public is hard put to distinguish between a law enforcer and an outlaw. Crime lords and supposed crime-busters have been sharing bread for quite some time now, so that when familiarity breeds contempt, they grab at each other’s throat. According to De Lima, Marantan was trying to eliminate Siman, who was also after Marantan’s head. “It was a race to get each other,” she said.