ADVOCACY MINDANOW: My ‘disastrous moments’; Davao Prison hostage-taking

DAVAO CITY (10 June) — I was invited two weeks ago to speak on disaster management before some media practitioners and disaster management workers. I shared with them some insights on past events. This resulted to the publication last week of my recollections about the Cebu Pacific Flight 387 crash.

This week, as part of my series called “My Disastrous Moments”,  I again recall in this segment those four days of high tension  at the Davao Penal Colony (DAPECOL) in north Davao province some 13 years ago. It came immediately on the heels of the  plane crash  that became my” baptism of fire” upon my assumption as President Ramos’  presidential assistant for Mindanao.

While I relied heavily on my recollections, I had to spend several hours at the Mindanao TIMES editorial office a few days ago, looking at the March 1998 back issues just to re-check facts. Thirteen years had passed since! But to me, the events were so vivid, it seemed just like yesterday.

DAY ONE, HOSTAGE-TAKING — On March 5, 1998, Thursday, as I was preparing to leave for Cagayan de Oro from my home in Davao City to continue my  wrap-up work on the plane crash that took place just four weeks before, I monitored reports from a radio station that a group of prisoners took as hostages female employees of the Davao penal colony in Davao del Norte.

Knowing that the crisis management committee of the province and the town was attending to the situation with the prison officials, I stayed put and merely listened to reports about the developing situation. My operations staff at the Mindanao Economic Development Council  (MEDCO)  was tipped off and also monitored.

Initial reports said that early in the morning, eight  prisoners, evidently  armed, suddenly  entered the DAPECOL rehabilitation and diagnostic center  (RDC), took control of the facility,  held  five  female employees as hostages and demanded that a getaway vehicle be provided for them. They demanded that Gov. Prospero Amatong meet with them. Later that day,  Panabo Mayor Versim  Enad went to the scene and talked with them.

By nightfall, tension was rising in the area. The facility held more than 2,000 sentenced prisoners coming from all over the country. I contacted Mayor Versim who was my student at the Ateneo law school years before. He said my help was needed. I told him I’d be there in the morning.

DAY TWO, FACE-TO-FACE NEGOTIATIONS – March 6, Friday. Around mid morning, I landed in DAPECOL with my close–in staff and some media men aboard two Huey helicopters. (As a rule of thumb, Air Force Hueys almost always fly in tandem.) Of course, the sound of choppers landing within the compound got everyone on their feet. I was sure the hostage takers knew something was afoot.  I first met with some members of the crisis management committee and Dapecol officials and got a quick briefing.   As I walked by the fenced area, I noticed that many prisoners in  the other sections of the colony who were not involved in the hostage incident  were staging some sort of a protest action with some makeshift placards, some banging cans, others just creating some noise and peering through barbed-wire fences in the main open field.   Evidently, they were showing support to the hostage-taking at the RDC area nearby.  After making an initial assessment, I proceeded to the RDC and started talking to the eight prisoners and their five hostages, at first through the iron-grilled windows. After a while I decided that it was best that I enter the hostage room and dialogue with them face to face – which I did although against the  cautionary advice  of some companions around. My wife Beth would kill me if she’d know about this, I told myself. But I was then confident that they were in need of someone to talk to and air their demands. The heli noise introduced me as an arriving VIP.  My calculation was that at that time, they would have no initial aggressive intentions at someone like me who was there to listen and perhaps act on their grievances. I recall they even asked the media to interview them so the outside world would know about their demands. It was a calculated risk.

The RDC section D room was an office facility where incoming new prisoners or those leaving after serving their sentences would be processed for medical checkups, documentation etc.  At that time when the prisoners forcibly barged in and announced they were taking control of the area, there were five female employees:  nurses, receptionists and clerks. They just checked in for the morning tasks. Their head, Mrs. Paulina Corda was a second generation prison employee, her family being permanent residents within the vast “colonia”. DAPECOL covered thousands of hectares, mostly banana plantation, but a big community in itself. Her husband was also a former  Dapecol  employee whose services were  terminated earlier.  Room D had chairs and tables and a little comfort room at the back. It was surrounded by barbed wire fences in the perimeter and located at another section of the prison area, separate from but adjacent to the main prison grounds.
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ENTERED HOSTAGE AREA — I left all my staff and the other officials outside the door and entered alone. They just watched and stood vigil through the grilled windows outside.   I noticed some of the hostage-takers were taken aback when I entered alone. In the beginning, they were not at ease and remained standing with their hands in their pockets when I sat down in their midst. I sensed they were clutching their hidden weapons – perhaps, just in case. (I instinctively reached for my pocket too although I was aware that I had left my reliable back-up “Kurtz” pistol in the car when I boarded the Huey.  I felt so defenseless .  You’ve bet I was a bit nervous but of course I didn’t want to show it.)   After a while, they eased up, talked and intently listened whenever I spoke.  They started giving their complaints.  I took down notes as they spoke. First, they wanted that the prison superintendent, “Super” Poblacion, be immediately removed. They claimed there were anomalies by officials and some few chosen favorites, both among guards and some prisoners. All eight of them said they were Muslims, some “balik Islam” or new converts.  They demanded that a mosque be built, they complained that their food were not halal, their food ration served on them were not worth the daily budget of P25 due to corruption. And the bottom line to them was that they be turned over to the custody of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, particularly under Kagi Murad, (at that time the vice chair of the MILF for military affairs). They demanded that they be brought to Camp Abubakar in Cotabato immediately.

ESCAPE TO CAMP ABUBAKAR –I told them I was there just to listen first. I told them I would work on their demands but someone else higher than me would act on their demands. Although at the back of my mind I knew I had to make some decisions myself, that ploy that I was only an emissary would allow me some negotiating elbow room. I learned this from past experiences as a lawyer. But I promised to send them food and medicines pronto.  I left the hostage room after about 30 minutes of just listening and trying to establish some rapport with them hoping to win their confidence. I told them I would come back the following day. I told them that my paramount mission was to see to it that the hostages were not harmed and that we end the standoff peacefully. I immediately tried asking for an initial release of one or two hostages for goodwill purposes. I saw them looking sick and stressed. Their response:  a prisoner named Dario Mahumot who appeared to be their leader , as I rose to leave, spoke and said  that I could have all the hostages back if I agreed that they all be brought to Camp Abubakar. Nothing less. Then he started chanting “ALLAHU AKBAR” several times and everyone joined in. At that moment, I saw in their eyes what I feared. There was this fierce intensity – fearsome, like they were ready and willing to die. I just kept quiet. I knew at the back of my mind that all what they wanted were “doable” except that last demand of being delivered to the rebel camp.

IMMEDIATE ACTION –After I left the hostage area, I immediately called by telephone Secretary of Justice Silvestre “Bebot” Bello who was then in Manila and apprised him of the situation and my recommendation that Superintendent Poblacion, without prejudice to the results of an investigation later, be immediately removed to ease the situation. Bebot and I had worked together in various capacities long way back even before we joined government. He agreed and said a replacement from Manila would fly to Davao at the first opportunity.

Before I left for Davao, I briefed the media about developments and announced the immediate relief of Mr. Poblacion. I calculated that the hostage takers would also get the news about the immediate action taken since I noticed that they had a transistor radio inside the room and were listening to the broadcast while I was talking with them inside. I was calculating that having acted expeditiously on their demand on the relief of the prison superintendent would somehow soften them and would give them some level of trust in me as a negotiator.

MEDIA HANDLING – Of course, the media people were all over the place. Some came with me from Davao. A big group was there already encamped starting from the first time the story broke the day before. Initially, they were all stopped at the gates but I brought them inside the fenced area and positioned them in a vantage and secure area for better coverage – and “management”. I was a newsman myself and I knew exactly what they needed.  I even allowed, although limited and with some purpose in mind, interviews with the hostage takers and the hostages.  But I had always kept in mind that what the media would broadcast outside, especially “on the spot” remote radio broadcasts, were closely monitored by the hostage takers hence the need to calibrate media statements and releases of information. Aware of the critical role of media in a situation like this, I also formulated a media plan that would entail regular press briefings of as much information as I could release, except those that had tactical and operational implications. I appealed to media for cooperation and emphasized that while their role was to report to the public any and all information, they had to also take into account that their undue disclosures of some vital or sensitive information while  the event was in progress, might  undermine my efforts. And jeopardize the lives of the hostages.  I got their commitment.

FULL CONTROL — Then I met again with some members of the crisis management group and briefed them on what transpired in my face-to-face meeting inside.  I made it clear to them that since I was crisis head,  I had to be in full control of everything, that nothing should be  done by anyone unless with my knowledge and approval.  They all agreed. I gave them my phone numbers so I could be reached 24 hours.   Then I met with the families of the five women hostages who have kept vigil along the fenced perimeter since the incident started. I assured them that my mission was to ensure their safe return to their families. Then I quietly pulled aside a friend who was a PNP officer and whispered to him to form a crack team and prepare for a “worst case scenario”. I got a snappy “yes, sir”.  Then I boarded the Huey with my staff and some mediamen who were rushing back to meet deadlines for a short hop back to Davao City where I would plot my next moves.

FVR’s INSTRUCTIONS — Although I was preparing for the worst even at the outset, I was optimistic about my first day of intervention. What kept bothering me however was the whispered information from RDC chief, Mrs. Corda when I was inside the hostage room, telling me that she was told by her captors that the group agreed to a “jihad” before they executed their plan, meaning they were all prepared to die if their demand to be brought to Camp Abubakar would not be given.

When I arrived in Davao City,  I immediately contacted President FVR  to brief him of the situation. I was able to talk to him briefly on the phone as he was speaking on a stage in some engagement somewhere in Luzon. I just told him that I would fax to him a handwritten report but I was confident of a peaceful resolution of the standoff. I asked for guidance and I still can recall his exact words: “You’re there on the ground. Do what is necessary”. (He must be munching his usual signature cigar the way he sounded.)  I became more confident then knowing I had full presidential backing. (Next Monday episode: DAPECOL, Part 2)

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