A bad script

/ 12:38 AM September 30, 2016

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II called it a “riot,” but the melee that erupted inside the most highly secured area of the New Bilibid Prison on Wednesday has provoked public unease because

of who were involved and how government sources explained it away. It does not seem to be an ordinary prison riot.


The total picture that the early and inconsistent statements created was a cliché-studded play, following a badly written script.

The incontrovertible facts comprise a very short list. One convict died; the “drug lord” Tony Co succumbed to multiple stab wounds. Four other convicts were also stabbed but survived: Jaybee Sebastian, Peter Co, Vicente Sy, and a former police officer, Clarence Dongail. The incident happened in the morning, inside Building 14.


Additional, important facts include the affiliation of the stabbing victims. Dongail, Sy, and Peter Co belonged to the so-called Bilibid 19—the group of convicts that the Aquino administration, under then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, identified (and then isolated in Building 14) as the men behind the illegal drugs trade in the national penitentiary. Sebastian has been named by De Lima as a “government asset.”

The controversial “facts” were those provided by Aguirre and the Bureau of Corrections. Aguirre said the Chinese convicts were using “shabu” (methamphetamine hydrochloride) inside their cell. The bureau said the Chinese were having a “pot session”—that is, using marijuana. Whether it was shabu or marijuana, the assertion comes as a surprise, because the Duterte administration had already declared the prison drug-free on account of the deployment of the Philippine National Police’s elite unit, the Special Action Force.

Both Aguirre’s account and that of the bureau agree on what happened next. An inmate named Edcar Singco told Dongail about what the Chinese convicts were doing. The justice secretary quoted Dongail as pleading with Tony Co as follows: “Don’t use shabu here because all of us will be in trouble.” The bureau version does not have the quote, but describes the same scene.

Then, according to Aguirre’s narration of facts, Tony Co, apparently angered, went to Dongail’s cell, which he shared with Sebastian, and stabbed them. In the bureau’s version, Tony Co followed Dongail, not to the cell, but to the mess hall where other convicts, including Sebastian, were watching. Then, according to the Bureau of Corrections version, a “riot” erupted, involving at least eight inmates.

Sebastian’s lawyer, Eduardo Arriba, offered another, even more interesting “fact.” His client, he said, was a target. He said Singco had called Dongail away from Sebastian, by telling him to check on the Chinese; when Dongail left, Sebastian was set upon by another convict, Tomas Donina. His client, he said, only acted to defend himself, which explains the stab wounds on his arms.

As we said and as many must have noticed: We’ve seen this before, in better acted performances. The bureau’s officer in charge, Rolando Asuncion, tried to explain the clash as routine. “Riots are usual in prisons that lack quality facilities and personnel, and not properly segregated inmates. Unless those would be improved, riots such as these will happen.”

Maybe, but these are some of the most high-profile inmates currently inside Bilibid. Highly trained SAF troopers are standing guard. A high-stakes, publicly televised congressional inquiry is investigating the illegal drugs trade reported to still flourish inside. National attention is riveted. It strains credulity for any official to immediately dismiss the incident as ordinary.


De Lima, now a senator and the subject of an intensifying administration campaign to paint her as a coddler of drug lords and the protector of the illegal drugs trade, took to the airwaves to offer her own interpretation. She said the three Chinese inmates were among those who were being forced to testify against her. She hinted at

another target. “The objective was that the gang leader was being forced to testify against me. Just like Peter Co, Vicente Sy and Tony Co, who were also forced but who they could not convince yet.”

Instead of wasting its time and the people’s resources on watching alleged sex video tapes, Congress should investigate the Wednesday incident—and pursue it regardless of where it leads.

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TAGS: Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, New Bilibid Prison, riot
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