The circumstances behind the deaths of two criminal gang leaders in the hands of their police escorts, last Monday in Laguna, are an offensive cliché: the supposed attempt to escape, the alleged reaching after the police escorts’ guns, the reported swift and deadly reaction of the policemen. To use the language of the street: “Bumenta na ’yan!”
Really, it is a story that has been sold past its best-before date. Some law enforcers notorious for practicing the same kind of extrajudicial justice have gone on to serve in higher office, their exploits only the more popular of the many such stories about prisoners-killed-while-trying-to-escape-police-custody that attach to some law enforcers like an extra badge.
When the news spread that Ozamiz gang leader Ricky Cadavero and his companion Wilfredo Panogalinga Jr. had been killed while being transferred under police escort, mere hours after the two ex-fugitives had been presented to the press in Camp Crame in Quezon City, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was right to feel “so alarmed.” She said: “I smell something fishy in the whole story because in the first place, why hold a press conference to show that they were turned over from the police to [the Bureau of Corrections]?”—when, that is, there was no such turnover.
That must be the first question the investigators from both the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation must ask: Why did the agencies involved—at this point it is not yet clear who did the organizing, whether it was the PNP or BuCor—call a news conference at the PNP headquarters? Acting BuCor chief Franklin Bucayu and Supt. Venancio Tesoro said they attended the news conference to receive custody of Cadavero and Panogalinga.
But: “General Estipona and Mendoza intervened and advised [us] that the fugitives be brought to their camp [in Dasmariñas City] for the necessary [inquest] proceedings.” In other words, Chief Supt. Benito Estipona, police chief of the Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon region, and Supt. Danilo Mendoza, head of the Regional Special Operations Group, did not transfer custody of the two prisoners as the news conference had advertised.
“What is unusual there is that the fugitive should have been physically turned over to us at Muntinlupa. That’s the practice, and that was why we never expected that they would call us for that purpose (to accompany the police escorts) because they’ve been doing that since time immemorial,” Tesoro added.
Not only did Estipona and Mendoza fail to transfer the prisoners to BuCor, they also ordered the ex-fugitives and their police escorts to take a lengthier route.
An angry De Lima questioned the decision for the police convoy to take the longer and therefore riskier route: “… [I]f you’ve come from Dasmariñas, why go to San Pedro? The police can always go via the expressway but they went farther.”
It was in San Pedro, at around half past six in the evening, that motorcycle-riding gunmen allegedly ambushed the police convoy, leading to that overfamiliar scene: prisoners allegedly wrestling with police guards to get their firearms.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas immediately “ordered the [National Police Commission] and the PNP to conduct a thorough investigation into this incident and submit a report in the soonest possible time.” The PNP chief, Director General Alan Purisima, expressed deep regret: “As the chief and father of the Philippine National Police, I am saddened by the incident, knowing how hard we worked to locate and recapture those fugitives.”
Sensible first reactions, but both Roxas and Purisima must do more and put official pressure on Estipona and Mendoza to explain themselves. Why did they fail to follow the usual protocol? Why did they tell the BuCor officials only at the last minute? Why did they allow the convoy to take the longer route? And, yes, what happened to those alleged motorcycle-riding gunmen?
Unless Estipona and Mendoza can clear the air, the public will be justified in thinking, not only that Cadavero and Panogalinga were killed in a rubout, but also that they were killed because they implicated certain police officers. There’s no two ways about it.