2nd of a 4-part series
Nov 24 (Tuesday)
At the break of dawn, Sec Bert Gonzales and I took the earliest flight to Gen Santos City. The medical checkup can wait, both I and Beth agreed. She’s been used to this kind of “sudden take off” schedules since my work as newsman in the 70’s and worsened by being in the presidential beck and call since President Ramos up to President Arroyo.
We motored from Gensan to Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat. It’s less than an hour drive. At the 601st Army brigade headquarters in Tacurong, a noisy crowd was milling within the barbed wire premises. Hordes of media persons whom I personally knew were there at the gate. I told the guards to let everybody in.
10 AM –Briefings were held. Also present were PNP Chief Jess Versoza, EASTMINCOM Commanding General Ding Ferrer, Deputy AFP Chief of Staff Maclang, PNP Regional Chief Serapio. Brigade commander Col Geslani was our host. Initial photos of the carnage were flashed on the screen. Gruesome! At that time, only a few bodies were retrieved from the backhoed area. Sec Bert told the crowd that we were personally dispatched by the president to attend to the situation. The Mangudadatus were there seated across the long conference table: Toto Mangudadatu, his brothers Jong and Mayor Dong of Pandag, Sultan Kudarat Gov. Teng Mangudadatu, Toto’s cousin and others.
They were tense and angry but otherwise trying hard to suppress and control their anger and anguish. They wanted to retrieve the bodies immediately. They demanded justice, immediately. The Ampatuans did it, they said. After Bert and I expressed government’s resolve to do everything possible, Toto Mangudadatu spoke and related the events, how he spoke to his wife on the phone before she was murdered, identifying Datu Unsay Ampatuan as the lead perpetrator. But he ended by saying that, in the meantime, he had appealed to his relatives and followers to refrain from committing any retaliatory action and would leave the matter to the authorities to handle.
12 NOON – A teleconferencing call connected Bert and me to the Palace where the President was presiding over a hastily called cabinet security cluster meeting. They aborted the planned cabinet meeting in Boracay. This had been trademark President Arroyo. She personally would monitor crisis situations with her cabinet members providing inputs. Although I was “crisis manager”, she was always there through texts and calls. She was giving specific instructions to me, Sec Bert, PNP Chief Jess and AFP Vice CS Maclang. Suggestions from the other cabinet members came. The main task was to do a swift investigation, bring in Datu Unsay and the perpetrators, attend to the victims and assist their families, and do preemptive steps to prevent all-out fighting from erupting among the contending parties.
1:00 PM – The crisis management committee was activated. Assisting me were Eastmincom Gen Ferrer, PNP 12 Director Serapio. DOJ Usec Ric Blancaflor’s name was in the box to handle investigation through the NBI.
2:00 PM – Bert left to fly back to Manila. I set up base camp at the brigade HQ. A conference room (functional but hot), a small room with a bed to sleep in, etc were provided by Col Geslani, the commander. Anticipating that I might be in for a long haul, we bought 2 aircon units so the staff would stand the heat.
It was at this time that I operationalized an action plan which I initially formulated that evening for the crisis. It was an old-fashioned plan from past experiences.
3:00PM – Having talked with the Mangudadatus, I decided to go see the Ampatuans in Shariff Aguak. I felt confident. Both families were my friends. And I had direct access to them. Some quiet arrangements were made for my visit. Only with my staff and without military escorts, except for one military officer as guide, I motored to the Ampatuan enclave in Shariff Aguak. The media group which earlier wanted to join me did not follow my vehicle. I was relieved as I would not be able to help them in case something bad would happen along to way. I was not even sure of our own safety due to the tense situation with so many armed elements along the whole route.
3:45PM –I entered the Ampatuan fenced premises and the patriarch Gov. Andal Ampatuan, Sr was there waiting for me. It was my first visit to that house which was a bit interior in location unlike the big palatial house along the main highway in the center of town. With him seated in a native kiosk on the sprawling grounds were several ARMM and Maguindanao officials and relatives. Armed followers were everywhere in full battle gear with armored personnel carriers parked in strategic areas.
As I got seated and with some brief pleasantries, I told Gov. Andal that my purpose in coming was because of the incident and that his son, Datu Unsay Mayor Ampatuan, Jr. was implicated. I said that while the Mangudadatus had given me their assurance that they would leave the matter to the authorities to solve, I told “Bapa” Andal that it would be best that the Ampatuans also “cooperate” and bring him in (Unsay) for an investigation. He immediately said: ” OK. Kausapin mo sya. Basta kayo secretary walang problema.”. I then asked for the whereabouts of the son and he said he would call for him to join us. I told him I wanted to see Datu Unsay as I got reports that he was missing or had escaped. Bapa said: “Hindi yan totoo. Darating si Datu Unsay. Magpakita sya sayo secretary”. Bapa Andal as usual, was a man of few words.
The last time I saw Mayor Unsay was several years ago when I personally went to his Datu Unsay town (evidently named after him) and led in the distribution of relief goods to evacuees due to intermittent fighting with MILF elements.
We waited at the kiosk but Unsay did not come. We then went inside the house to wait for his arrival. In the meantime, ARMM Gov Zaldy Ampatuan and Cong. Digs Dilangalen arrived from the airport. Energy Usec Sam Ampatuan, Atty Cynthia Guani Sayadi, ARMM attorney general and relative of the Ampatuans among others were there too. I felt a bit tense and uncomfortable. But I did not want to start talking about the incident until Unsay would arrive. We were chatting for about an hour trying to divert the issue and loosen up. A lively conversation centered on how many children some of their relatives sired. One relative had 70 children, etc. While we were chatting about other subjects, I sensed that we all shared some discomfort and unease.
4:30PM - We waited. I noticed that Atty. Cynthia , an aunt of Unsay was using her cellphone and taking pictures while we were chatting about that relative who had 70 children “but of course from several mothers”. We would laugh although traces of tension were evident. It was while we were bantering when Unsay arrived and got seated to my left.
(GMA7 that same evening showed some still pictures on TV, me with the Ampatuans smiling. That was taken by Atty. Cynthia when we were bantering about that prolific Ampatuan relative. My wife Beth whom I suddenly had to leave behind in Manila and had since glued herself to the TV, texted me and called my attention immediately when she saw it: ” That picture on TV makes you look insensitive.” I agreed. That was not the end of it. The following morning, the president herself forwarded a text of similar tenor, some viewers criticizing my smiling photo. I did not respond anymore. (I shared President Noynoy’s discomfort when he got the same treatment with his famous smile inspecting the hijacked tourist bus recently, remember?)
5:00PM. – I was becoming worried that darkness would overtake my return trip to Sultan Kudarat. I noted many armed and uniformed men on the highway. One could not tell from what group or unit. Mayor Unsay arrived a little past 5:00 p.m. It was about an hour since the father Bapa Andal talked to him on the phone asking him to come to the house where I was. He arrived sweating and his pants dirtied. He first went inside to freshen up. I knew then that he came from afar and not just within the vicinity. (This observation was material in my insistence later that I should exhaust all means to convince him to peacefully turn himself in. A premature assault without being sure that he was around and within range would be futile.)
When Unsay got seated, I immediately told him that I came because of the serious incident and that initial reports mentioned his name as involved. I told him my purpose in coming was only to be assured that he would cooperate and submit himself to an investigation. He looked at the direction of Gov Andal, evidently seeking guidance how to respond. But the father immediately said: ” Walang problema, magcooperate kami, secretary”. Then taking that cue, Unsay himself echoed saying: “Mag cooperate po kami”. Forthwith, I then stood up and said I would contact them again soon. I also told them that they could get in touch with me anytime as I was staying in the area and not returning to Davao for the night. I gave my cellphone number.
On the way out, it was like “shooting the rapids”. We motored back as if we were running scared. We arrived in Marbel already dark and stayed there for the night.
For all those hours that day, four PNP officers were subjected to restrictive custody and slated for investigation, 46 bodies were already retrieved, and a series of confidential action points were underway. PNP operatives were fielded to start documenting evidences etc. but none had been submitted as yet. Media briefings were conducted. Then I got a text message that the president issued a proclamation declaring a state of emergency in the area. She was becoming impatient at the slow progress of things.
In the meantime, the outrage over the incident had peaked as more bodies were recovered and a clearer picture emerged about the macabre mass murder. People were already getting angry and asking government why there were no arrests yet. I was nonchalant. Some even asked later: “why did you not arrest Unsay right there when he came to talk to you?” Funny thought but I was not even sure I could get back to Marbel safe and sound that night. (To be continued)