(This is the 3rd and last episode of the author’s recollections on the hostage-taking incident that happened at the Davao Penal Colony during the first week of March, 1998 while he was presidential assistant for Mindanao under former President Ramos.)
DAY FOUR – “THE ASSAULT” — March 8, Sunday. After hearing Sunday mass with my family, I was ready to fly back to Dapecol earlier than usual that morning. But the chopper taking MILF’S Atty Lanang Ali from Cotabato was delayed. I was in constant touch by phone with some operatives who stayed vigil in Dapecol to monitor things. While waiting to rendezvous with my friend Atty Lanang, I got word that the atmosphere at the hostage area had radically changed overnight. There were also notes smuggled out by hostages through food couriers that night warning that “mag sample sila” meaning they would harm or kill hostages that morning to force us to allow them to leave the prison compound for their escape. Then another information was received saying that the prisoners were overheard planning to take me hostage that morning the moment I would enter the room, then demand that they be flown by helicopter to Camp Abubakar or somewhere else. They would also order the prison gates opened and in their escape, other prisoners would make a rush to escape. A possible mass jailbreak in the offing. I did not anticipate that scenario.
When I and Atty. Lanang arrived at Dapecol, the prison officials had installed a canvass shed outside the hostage room to block the view to the outside. We assessed the situation together. All other prisoners in the other sections were all locked up in their cells and no one was allowed to be at the open field that day. Even the trusted prisoners who were allowed to work as hired laborers in the banana plantation nearby were kept locked in just to be sure. We agreed that I would take Atty. Lanang only up to the window to talk with them and we would all remain outside the door and not enter the room as I did in the last two days of negotiations. Indeed, things were coming to a head!
“DELIKADO NA, SIR” – It was clear. The hostage takers were in a different and belligerent mood. Atty. Lanang and I talked with them through the window. Atty. Lanang’s appeal for a peaceful settlement was not heeded. One woman hostage through the far end of the big window whispered to me: “delikado na sir”. We left the area and proceeded to an open holding area where a press conference was held with me and Atty. Lanang fielding questions. The media was anticipating something serious was developing. Even as the presscon was in progress, my mind was already fixed: I would not allow at all cost anyone of them to leave the controlled area no matter what. If they would start harming the hostages, the assault was a “go”. I relayed this later to the officer in charge and to the other officials.
LEARNING FROM PREVIOUS INCIDENT –Let me digress for a while. My firm resolve not to allow the hostage takers to leave the controlled premises of the RDC room “at all cost” was prompted partly from the lessons I got in a previous hostage taking incident, also at the same penal colony sometime in 1995 or about 3 years earlier. In that incident, Convicted Prisoner Pugoy led several inmates, with hostages, in an unusual caravan along the national highway until the group arrived in Davao City, more than 50 kilometers away. The negotiators and prison officials at that time gave way to their demand to be allowed to leave Dapecol with their hostages in tow. The incident ended in a tragedy. While encamped for the night at the local Metrodiscom command in Davao City, they raped the female hostages (including an Australian volunteer missionary) who were members of a religious sect. The victims were performing religious services to inmates when they were forcibly grabbed. The following day, Pugoy et al then made a futile dash for freedom. They were all killed in a volley of fire together with several hostages, including the young Australian lass. I recall assisting then Mayor Rody Duterte during one futile negotiation at city hall where the Pugoy caravan also made a “stopover” as the hostage drama was nearing its tragic end. That experience was instructive: as much as possible, always keep them in controlled situations. I did not want a repeat of the Pugoy incident.
FLIGHT DIVERSION – As if everything was still normal, I told everyone that I would first accompany Atty. Lanang to Davao City and I would come back immediately. I arranged that all the media join the MILF official in one helicopter while I boarded the other Huey with my close-in staff. Before takeoff, I gave discreet instructions that the other members of the provincial and town crisis committee be contacted to meet up with me at nearby Tadeco (Floirendo banana company) to discuss urgent matters. Momentarily, the two Hueys were airborne heading towards Davao City. After a minute or so, as I originally planned, I asked the pilot to suddenly change course and instead land at Tadeco with instructions to the other Huey to proceed to Davao city without flying in tandem with us.
Unknown to anyone, I had really planned to fly out the media from the site as I knew the critical time had come. A remote broadcast from a radio reporter on site would forewarn the inmates of the preparations outside prior to an assault. I did not want to take any chances. It was only after the assault was over that the media realized my moves. I however explained to them the reasons and apologized. They understood and accepted it.
ASSAULT UNDERWAY –Upon landing at the Tadeco grounds, my phone rang. The assault was underway!
I hurriedly boarded and returned to Dapecol, just a short hop away. As we were still hovering to land, I could see people running in and out, uniformed men rushing out of the RDC area carrying on their shoulders women, apparently wounded. Others were on stretchers, all women. Blaring ambulances were speeding off. I could only utter: “My god, my hostages!” I composed myself as I jumped out of the Huey. A PNP official met me and reported that as soon as I left, there were commotions in the area and the hostages were in grave danger. This triggered the assault. He then crisply reported: “All eight hostage takers neutralized and killed, one hostage killed, Mrs. Corda. Others wounded. All shooters safe.” At first I didn’t say a word. My mind was with Mrs. Corda. “Bless her soul,” I silently said.
I entered the room. The bodies of the eight prisoners were still on the floor, except for Dario Mahumot who was dead lying on his belly astride his sleeping cot . I saw on the floor below his head a grenade partially tied with a nylon string. Someone told me Mahumot was trying to untie the nylon string during the assault evidently with intentions of exploding it when he was first hit by a shooter with a .9mm pistol. But despite the first volley, he was still unwinding the nylon until another shooter stopped him with a .45 cal.
“MY RESPONSIBILITY” –I paced the room for a while. The SOCO members (scene of the crime operatives) were busy doing their tasks. Aside from Mahumot, the fatalities were Edgar Basingan, Roger Gomez, Modi Ammed, Alan Ang, Jose Mabiskay, Roger Maisto and Amid Darino. I felt sad, a feeling of deep melancholy viewing those wasted lives. As I left the room, I told the team members who were huddled: “Tell all the boys I take full responsibility for this.” I sensed a feeling of relief in some after I said that.
DAY OF REMEMBERING – I rushed to the hospitals and visited all the four wounded hostages. They were Clemencia Padon, Lourdes Pantaleon, Emily Mariano and Lourdes Cabrera. Evidently, their captors stabbed them with knives as the assault was underway as shown by their wounds. One of them was hit by a ricocheting bullet. They all survived. To the credit of their suffering families, they understood and accepted the sacrifice they had to undergo.
And to this day, March 8 is a day of remembering, especially to the family of the late Paulina Corda who made the supreme sacrifice.
POSTCRIPTS — Remember Dario Mahumot, the apparent leader who died reportedly attempting to explode a grenade? The very next day after he died, an Order from the Court of Appeals was received by his family. It was promulgated or issued by the appellate court on February 27 or just six days before the start of the hostage taking incident. The verdict: he was acquitted of illegal possession of firearms. Too late and tragic, wasn’t it? He would have been safely home by then – if he did not cross the line.
A complaint was evidently filed at the United Nations charging us, including the assault team and the shooters for the killing of the eight prisoners, hostage takers. I prepared the answer in behalf of all of us. We have not heard anything on it since.
An investigation on the killing was done by the Human rights regional office, Region II, for the alleged “overkill”. The case appeared closed.
I got word that the Dapecol incident became a material for case study by crisis management study groups elsewhere. I’d be glad to discuss more details about it – including nuances not captured by the printed word.
Someone, some years after 1998, handed to me a CD with a handwritten note: ”Confidential: Dapecol March 1998.” I tucked it in somewhere and forgot all about it. I retrieved it from my files recently and watched it for the first time. It was a compilation of video coverage of the incident. It also contained a rough unedited coverage of the actual assault. It helped me recollect with some accuracy. And I will keep it confidential as indicated, as much as I can.
In my first meeting with President Ramos in Manila after the event he merely tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Good work!” That presidential tap, by the way, made those tense and trying moments worth it all.