Maguindanao one year ago: Day Three. By Jesus G. Dureza

By Jesus G. Dureza

Nov 25, (- Wednesday) – 830 AM. I visited a funeral parlor in Marbel. Some bodies were not identified yet. I talked with the relatives, many parlor-hopping, visiting every funeral parlor and looking at mangled bodies hoping to identify missing loved ones.

I motored back to the 601st Army brigade headquarters. We were frantic for some sworn statements so the legal process could start. It was the third day and there were no arrests yet and the public was getting angry – although I had no first hand information on this as I was not reading any of the newspapers and not even watching the TV during the whole period. I was just getting text messages. I knew from experience that a crisis manager could be affected one way or the other by external public pressure coming from those who were not on the ground, far from the venue of action and usually unaware of the many facts and nuances of certain developing events. I preferred to stay focused on my game plan.

I reconvened the crisis committee and tasked the PNP team to go and visit the Mangudadatus in Buluan and take the affidavits of the witnesses they could immediately present.  The PNP team returned empty handed.  They were told to come back the following day as everyone was engrossed with the search and retrieval operations. Also, the Mangudadatu lawyers would handle the documentation. We understood. I knew parallel investigation and documentation work was also ongoing in several areas. But again, no single document was at hand. Anxious and desperate in having some “paper” in my hands to get Unsay in the event he would not surrender as earlier agreed, I suggested to the NBI team which came from Manila to issue a summons of sorts.  Even the NBI team at that moment said they had no basis yet to issue summons. As a lawyer, I understood perfectly. But how about the public that was already crying for blood?  The PNP said it could issue an invitation but I bucked. Knowing the public sentiment already building up, people would surely mock and say: you ONLY “invite” those criminals?, etc).

12 NOON -Over lunch at the brigade, I consulted with the crisis committee on my plan, which also coincided with the suggestion of Col Geslani that it was time to contact the Ampatuans and call in Datu Unsay to voluntarily surrender as they committed to me the previous day. Without any document in my hands, I thought diplomacy or negotiations would fill in the gap for the moment.  I was also confident that Bapa Andal would be true to his commitment to give Unsay to me.

While this was on my mind, I was already getting a briefing on the operational plans that would be launched to forcibly take Unsay in custody. There was need for time for the augmentation forces to arrive from other parts of Mindanao and even as far as Samar. Disarming the well-armed Ampatuan forces was necessary before any operation was to be launched to minimize resistance and casualties.

2:00PM – I motored back to Marbel to dialogue with all the families of the victims and brief the media on latest updates. My handling of previous crisis situations taught me that as equally important in dealing with criminal elements was properly dealing with families or those affected by the incident. Dealing with the media and providing transparent information flow was also very important. Although there were operational matters that could not be made public in the meantime, explaining this to media and the public would be received favorably through frequent briefings.

I made several calls while en route to the family dialogue. I first called ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan. I told him it was time to bring in Datu Unsay. He told me he would consult the father, Gov. Andal. I said I had only until 5 pm that day to work on this plan. After 5pm, the scenario would no longer be the same, I told him. I sent a soft and veiled warning that if Datu Unsay would not surrender, things would be out of my hands. The military formula would be applied and it would unnecessarily result to lose of lives. I knew Gov Zaldy (Datu Puti to others) was a mild-mannered man and would understand my plan.

While on my way to downtown Marbel, I got a call from the father, Gov Andal telling me that he would turn over to me Datu Unsay but requested that the deadline be moved from 5pm that day  to 10 AM, the following day. I immediately told him I could not guarantee things if the deadline were moved. He said the Ampatuan clan would meet that evening and discuss things and bid goodbye to Datu Unsay. I told him I would get back to him by phone.

Up to this time, the Palace was periodically informed of actual developments on the ground. I then made a call to palace officials with whom I had been consulting and informed them of Bapa Andal’s proposal that he would give to us Unsay the following day instead of that afternoon.
There were objections. And understandable reservations. What if the extension was a ruse to give opportunity to Unsay to escape that evening? What were the guarantees that he would voluntarily surrender during the new deadline? People were becoming outraged not only on the crime but on the perceived slowness of government, so why waste more time?  The forces were ready to strike, so why delay? One palace official said he would agree to move the deadline to surrender the following day but Unsay must be in my personal custody and spending the night with me in the same room. Their concern was understandable. They were getting the public pressure to act swiftly. But I stayed the course.

I also reasoned back: How sure are we that we would get Datu Unsay in the operations? From yesterday’s visit to the Ampatuans, I was certain that he was not there in the immediate vicinity but came from somewhere far and surely physically secured considering that it took him almost 1 hour to arrive after he was called by the father.  I wanted as much as possible a bloodless event. There was too much blood spilled already. An assault would surely cost lives knowing the armaments and the culture. And there was no guarantee we could take Datu Unsay that way.  I also said I believed Gov Andal was sincere when he told me he would bring out his son when needed. To wrap up my point, I said: I would take full responsibility for whatever outcome.

My new timeline was adopted. I called Bapa Andal. Everything was set: 10 a.m. Nov 26 at the Maguindanao capital grounds in Shariff Aguak, the handover would take place.

That night, we reviewed the “pickup” scenario several times and mapped out contingencies just in case things would not go as planned. In the meantime, government troops moved according to operation plans. That evening, I got a call from Atty. Cynthia getting an assurance from me that nothing would be launched that evening until the 10 AM pickup time the following day. I told her that I had full control of the scenario for as long as the Ampatuans would be true to the agreement. Any troop movement they must have noticed was to ensure that the handover the following day would proceed without incident. I knew the troops were prepositioned and in place to ensure our safety if things went wrong, ready to hit if the pickup failed. That same evening, as planned, the troops were moving to neutralize early any resistance.  The Ampatuans must have noticed. Or were tipped off.

Later in the night, another complication suddenly arose. Gen Serapio and Col Geslani informed me that they got information that Toto Mangudadatu, as a show of defiance and determination to continue his  fight, would motor with his followers to file his certificate of candidacy the following morning in Shariff Aguak. That would endanger  the smooth flow of our “pickup” operations in the same venue: Shariff Aguak. I immediately called Gov. Teng Mangudadatu. I told him that there was something afoot the following morning and that, without disclosing what it was all about, I requested if he could convince Toto to move his filing to another day. It was close to midnight and the ground operations were underway. A defiant caravan would mess things up. A few minutes later, Gov Teng called and said the clan agreed.  There would be no movements on the Mangudadatu side the following day, except Gov Teng’s going to Buluan to join the rest of the clan there.

I did not get some good sleep that night.