Death on the way to the governor’s birthday feast

TACURONG CITY (20 August) – The black Toyota Fortuner of Russman Sinsuat, Sr. was car number four in the seven-vehicle convoy of Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu.

VIPs, particularly high-risk personalities, usually take the middle vehicle, Sr. Supt. Danilo Peralta, provincial police chief, told MindaNews late Wednesday afternoon at the city police station here.

Mangudadatu took the lead car en route to the Genalin Forest Garden Resort here for his 43rd birthday celebration after distributing carabaos, oil palm seedlings and later bags and notebooks, in his hometown and present seat of governance in Buluan, Maguindanao, last Monday.

He recalls that at the Buluan Pilot Elementary School, his project manager announced that the governor and his party were proceeding to Genalin, the resort named after his first wife who led the convoy en route to filing his certificate of candidacy for governor on November 23, 2009 and who was massacred along with 57 others by armed men led by the man who would have run for governor, too: Andal Ampatuan, Jr.,  a former ally with whom he shares the same birthday.

In the convoy of seven, the Sinsuats’ vehicle happened to be the middle car when the bomb exploded as they were passing Alunan Highway (Tacurong-Koronadal highway) at around 3:15 p.m.

Sinsuat’s brother, Datu Bimbo, on Tuesday said Russman’s driver narrated he was overtaking  other vehicles until they became car number four.

Mangudadatu’s taking the lead, according to Peralta, was “unconventional” for VIP security. “That’s what saved him,” he said.

Mangudadatu told MindaNews  he “usually” takes the lead car but with one vehicle ahead of him, though not so near, as it was on Monday.

Mangudadatu’s vehicle, a black Chevrolet Suburban, is bulletproof, Level 5.

If the bomb had exploded while his vehicle passed, would the governor have survived?

“I don’t know,” Mangudadatu said. But he acknowledged the protection offered by Level 5 is “medyo high.”

Mangudadatu sat on the left side of  the passenger’s seat just behind the driver.

Sinsuat’s Fortuner suffered the brunt of the blast, with shrapnels mostly on the right side where he was seated. The car bomb was parked on the right side. He died  nine hours later, at 12:17 a.m. Tuesday, in a hospital here. His son, Russman’ Jr. who sat behind the driver, lost his right leg while his secretary, lost his right eye.

Peralta said Mangudadatu’s security arrangement was unconventional.

Mangudadatu’s predecessor, the three-term governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., had a different security arrangement, aside from wang-wang that he and his clan members became notorious for not only within Maguindanao but beyond, including Davao City where the family’s other mansions are located.

Peralta recalls having seen how Ampatuan Sr., would pass by his province  in a convoy of  all black cars of the same model and the same plate number.

“Ambush me”

Mangudadatu laughed off allegations Monday’s car bomb explosion was an “ambush me” scheme. “I am no Ampatuan…. I could not possibly do that. .Malinis ang kunsensya ko” (my conscience is clear), he told MindaNews.

Ampatuan, Sr.  was reported ambushed at least four times from 2001 to 2009,  the first three in 2001, as candidate in April and as governor on July 23 and September 2.

In the July 23 ambush, heavily armed men were reported to have fired rocket-propelled grenades at Ampatuan’s convoy at the border of Cotabato City and Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, triggering a brief gunbattle in which five bystanders were killed and 13 other persons were wounded.

The incident was criticized as “ambush me,” a term connoting an incident perpetrated by the supposed victim. But it was this claim that made Ampatuan Sr. abandon the provincial capitol in Nuling, Sultan Kudarat – the turf of the Candaos and Masturas – and build a new one in his hometown in Shariff Aguak town, some 400 meters away from the Ampatuan mansions.

The April and September attacks were blamed by the Ampatuans on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  Six of Ampatuan’s bodyguards were killed and five others wounded in April in Datu Odin Sinsuat town while six Army and police escorts were wounded in September.

On June 23, 2006,  a bomb attached to a Multicab vehicle parked on the roadside  near the terminal in Shariff Aguak town,  exploded just as Ampatuan’s convoy passed, killing four or five or seven of his men (the figures vary). The ARMM press release and the Army’s 6th ID said
seven were killed, other reports said five, the governor’s spokesperson, Engr. Norie Unas said four.

The bomb, they said, was intended for the governor.

By then, Ampatuan Sr. had long been traveling in a convoy of usually black cars, heavily-armed police and CVO escorts, their wang-wangs (siren) blaring.

The incident triggered an armed confrontation between his heavily-armed CVOs and police, aided by the military, and the MILF, as the Ampatuan camp blamed the bombing on the MILF, particularly on commanders Amiril Umra Kato and Sahid Pakiladatu of the 105th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces.

Kato and his commanders were in the company of the Joint CCCH (government-MILFjoint ceasefire committee) and the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team in Midsayap, North Cotabato on June 22 and 23, the day of the bombing. Pakiladato denied he was behind the bombing.

That it happened right in the governor’s own turf  set the old man whom then President Gloria Arroyo referred to as “Ama” (Father),  on the warpath.

Like the 2001 reported ambush incidents, the 2006 roadside bombing raised suspicions as to how a roadside bomb could be set off in his tightly secured town.

On the road to 2013

Police had ruled out terrorist attack in Monday’s car bomb explosion. Peralta said based on his interview with Mangudadatu, the bombing was politically motivated. In fact, the case has been elevated to Task Force EGO (Elected Government Officials), a body created in 2009 specifically to look into killings of elected officials.

The registration of  the white KIA Avella car, previously used as a taxi, was traced to one Maureen Ella Macasindil in Davao City. Peralta said investigation showed that Macasindil sold the car to one Jay R. Reyes of Cotabato City who made a down payment of P40,000 on August 4 and paid the balance of  P25,000 on August 5, 10 days before the blast.

Peralta said the police have not found a Jay R. Reyes in Cotabato City. He said it is possible the buyer just used that name. But a computer composite criminal illustration has been made of the buyer based on the descriptions of him by the employees in the taxi company in Davao City.

Text messages immediately went around late Monday evening about the possible culprits, based on the car’s registration. The Macasindils are related by marriage to Tocao Mastura, mayor of Sultan Kudarat town and uncle of Vice Governor Dustin Mastura.

The Masturas’ support was crucial to Mangudadatu’s victory in 2010, the latter having control only of five out of 36 towns in Maguindanao. But the Mangudadatus and the Masturas had a falling out late last year. And in what is widely seen as a move in preparation for 2013, Governor Mangudadatu reconciled with his former allies, the Sinsuats. To recall, Datu Ombra Sinsuat, Russman’s elder brother, was one of two rivals of Mangudadatu for the gubernatorial post. Sinsuat was supported by the Ampatuans.  A “unity kanduli” was held on July 17 between the Mangudadatus and the Sinsuats.

Tocao Mastura is in Saudi Arabia on religious pilgrimage, said the vice governor. A senior member of the clan told MindaNews on Tuesday that whoever the bombers were apparently trying to link them to the bombing.

Mangudadatu  himself did not name the Masturas as suspects. In televised interviews he repeatedly mentioned as suspects the Ampatuans and those who may have grudges against him for having been nominated for the post of OIC Governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). President Aquino is expected to name the OICs for the ARMM before September 30.

One of those eyeing the ARMM’s top post is Mangudadatu’s uncle Pax, former governor and representative of  Sultan Kudarat province. But Mangudadatu  told MindaNews,  “madaming aspirants for ARMM governor. I don’t think my uncle can do this.”

Suspended  ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan who has been detained as one of the suspects of the November 2009 massacre, said through his lawyer that he had nothing to do with the bombing and that he wouldn’t do Mangudadatu any harm because he is his friend.

On Thursday, the police reported having arrested Datu Karim Masdal of Macasampang, Guindulungan, Maguindanao,  minutes after Monday’s blast but withheld the information until cases of murder and frustrated multiple murder were filed that day.

An ABS-CBN report quoted police as saying Masdal drove the KIA Avella and hailed a passing motorcycle shortly before the blast. A digital forensics expert is expected to arrive from Manila on Monday to retrieve data from the suspect’s three cell phones.

Maguindanao and neighboring Sultan Kudarat province, where Tacurong is and whose governor is the Maguindanao governor’s cousin, Suharto “Teng” Mangudadatu, and Cotabato City are still under a state of emergency. These areas were declared under a state of emergency on November 24, 2009, a day after the massacre. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)