Another explosion has occurred, this time on Monday on busy Sinsuat Avenue in Cotabato City, but the questions regarding the July 26 blast in Cagayan de Oro are still unanswered.
Either obstruction of justice or plain incompetence appears to be the only explanation for the Philippine National Police’s bungling, yet again, of a crime investigation. Within 12 hours after the powerful explosion tore through a popular restaurant-watering hole in Cagayan de Oro, the crime scene was cleaned up by police and first responders. Even PNP chief Alan Purisima was taken aback by the swiftness of the police action, instinctively describing it as a case of “obstruction of justice.” But a day later, he retracted his statement and cleared the cops of wrongdoing.
What made him change his mind? Because, Purisima said, he had been informed that scene of the crime operatives and other investigators had finished gathering evidence from the site by noon of the next day. He was also shown photographs of the alleged evidence gathered, and on that basis was satisfied that his men had done a competent job. Besides, he added, the swift cleanup of the scene of a suspected terror attack would “remove any satisfaction [the terrorists] would get from seeing the fruit of their work.”
This would be funny if only it weren’t so tragic. The explosion ultimately killed eight people and injured 46 others. The fatalities included a provincial government official, a doctor and some medical representatives who were in the city to attend a convention. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, though some investigators have said the explosion appeared to be the handiwork of a local terrorist group allied with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The gravity of the incident—coming as it does in the midst of delicate peace negotiations between the government and the MILF, and the fact that it seems to be no ordinary crime in its objective and grievous outcome—should have indicated to Purisima and his cops that they needed to be more exacting, diligent and deliberate in their investigation. In other countries, crime scenes are effectively locked up for days, even weeks and months, to give leeway to investigators and witnesses to go back again and again to recreate the crime, test new angles and theories, and search for overlooked evidence, and to allow the court to examine the site, if necessary, during the course of a trial.
Tampering with crime scenes and any evidence therein is tantamount to obstruction of justice—a serious crime of which, out of ignorance or incompetence or a combination of both, the law-enforcement authorities in this country appear to be most guilty. One need only recall the aftermath of the Luneta hostage incident in 2010: After the gruesome firefight with the hostage-taker witnessed on global TV, a veritable avalanche of people descended on the hijacked bus, with the police completely forgetting the most elementary requirement of cordoning off the area and letting trained professionals assist the survivors and go through the crime scene. Within minutes the area was completely contaminated, to the incredulity of the discerning sectors of the public and the rest of the world.
And now there’s another explosion site for the PNP to examine. Purisima’s offhand dismissal of the complaints against the behavior of his men in the Cagayan de Oro blast is, at the very least, irresponsible. Police are tasked to handle evidence with the greatest care and thoroughness, if only to ensure that the resolution of a crime does uncover the truth and prevent the miscarriage of justice. Scrubbing a blast site clean within half a day does not sound like the most thorough or vigilant of procedures; it raises the suspicion that the police were scrambling to cover up something or were plain ignorant of the necessity of preserving crucial evidence. Either way, it’s grossly disturbing.
The P2-million reward put up for relevant information may (or may not) result in building up leads. The planned Senate inquiry into the matter may (or may not) help a bit. But what this case really needs is unrelenting attention by the media and the public—until the PNP learns to do a better job.