‘It was murder’
Four soldiers—unarmed and in civilian clothes—were gunned down by nine policemen at a checkpoint in Jolo, Sulu on June 29.
An initial police report described the incident as a “misencounter,” and said that four armed men in a gray Montero had introduced themselves as members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Told to go to the Jolo Municipal Police Station for verification, the group allegedly fled instead, with the police in hot pursuit. When cornered, the armed men supposedly raised and pointed their weapons at the police who, however, quickly shot them in self-defense.
On Wednesday, the police, facing furious backlash from the AFP and widespread public skepticism following the release of photos showing no firearms near the dead soldiers, backtracked on their initial story, abandoning the crucial detail that the Army men had fired back at the policemen, and now called the encounter “a shooting incident.”
That quick retreat was not enough to mollify AFP Commanding officer Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, who denounced the incident in stark terms. “It was murder,” he said, “a rubout,” citing CCTV footage, a witness’ account, and the record of the four-man team belonging to the Army’s 9th Intelligence Service Unit.
The police report, he added, was a fabrication “full of inconsistencies, parang sine (sounding like a movie), and very misleading.”
The unit was led by Maj. Marvin Indammog, 39, a full-blooded Igorot fighter from Class 2006 of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), and was composed of Capt. Irwin Managuelod, 33, of PMA Class 2009, Sgt. Jaime Velasco, 38, and Cpl. Abdal Asula, 33.
“The soldiers were on a mission to identify the location of known terrorists in the area. Based on eyewitness accounts, no altercation transpired between the two parties nor was there any provocation on the part of Army personnel to warrant such carnage,” said Gapay, adding that if a shootout had indeed occurred, the police would not have escaped unscathed.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, emphasized that as undercover operatives on a mission, the Army men would have hidden their weapons under the car seat especially in such a volatile area as Jolo.
AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo also showed photos of the soldiers’ bodies positioned near their vehicle to insist that no firefight had taken place. One of the men was still inside their car, he said. Other witnesses said that Managuelod was working on a report on his laptop inside the vehicle when he was gunned down.
According to Gapay, there were nine policemen involved in the incident, all of whom fled after killing the soldiers. Gapay is right to demand: Why did the cops flee? Weren’t they supposed to secure the site? “Isn’t it that when someone is killed, you have to cordon off the area and wait for the Soco (scene of the crime operatives)?”
Indeed, a video clip posted on social media by former AFP chief Ricardo Visaya showed “many violations” in the handling of the crime scene afterwards, with law enforcers walking all over the area, touching the victims’ bodies, opening the door of their vehicle, and trying to get something inside.
Addressing the Philippine National Police (PNP) leadership, an incensed Visaya wrote: “There have been ‘habitual violent incidents’ perpetrated by unscrupulous policemen. PNP at Camp Crame should stop covering up their abusive men. If you cannot instill discipline in your organization, it’s time for you to go!”
Although Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has ordered the police officers involved in the killing disarmed and placed under the custody of the Sulu Provincial Police Director while the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and the National Bureau of Investigation start their probe of the incident, yawning questions, mainly on police protocol and accountability, remain. After all, this is not the first time that police have gunned down so-called suspects and called it a shootout, with guns usually found in the victims thereafter.
But this time, the police’s “nanlaban” (fought back) narrative, used routinely on poor and powerless drug suspects, stood no chance against the military, cowering and folding up once challenged by a more powerful and better-armed institution. In all likelihood, the AFP’s fury will ensure that the trigger-happy policemen in this case will get their just rewards—a prospect unfortunately absent in the thousands of other killings of ordinary citizens perpetrated by impunity-empowered cops.
But with even soldiers not spared from the police’s penchant to shoot sportingly at anyone they perceive as an enemy, shouldn’t the Duterte administration now realize the utter madness of granting the PNP even more frightening leeway and power under its proposed anti-terrorism law?
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