DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 07 June) — An encounter or a massacre? Illegal drugs or land conflict?
The chairs of the ceasefire committee of the government (GPH) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the head of mission and members of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) conducted a “joint verification” in Sitio Biao, Kilada, Matalam, North Cotabato on June 1 to determine if the killing of seven persons near midnight of May 25 and two others in the early hours of May 26 was due to an “encounter” as claimed by the police or a “massacre” as claimed by the MILF.
Three other villagers were injured and two were arrested in what the police said was a joint police-military operations against illegal drugs, under Project Double Barrel Reloaded.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in Region 12 has an ongoing investigation on what happened in Barangay Kilada, CHR regional director Erlan Deluvio told MindaNews on June 6. The CHR started its probe on May 30.
Kilada barangay chair Rowena de Leon said some 70 to 80 families fled the village early morning of May 26 and set up makeshift tents on both sides of the Biao road some two kilometers away.
Displaced residents whom MindaNews talked to at the evacuation site on May 30 said they were awakened by gunfire at around 11:30 p.m. on May 25.
Jacqueline Lumopog, who gave birth at 6 p.m. to her second child, a son named Pahodi, found her way to the floor, crawling as she tried to protect her five-hour old baby.
Initial police reports said seven, later nine, suspected drug personalities were killed in the raid conducted on the basis of two search warrants issued on May 22 by Judge Alandrez Betoya for violation of Section 6 of RA 9165, or alleged maintenance of an illegal drugs den, in the houses of Dadting Kasan and Intan Aban.
A combined team from the provincial office and the Matalam police station, along with elements from the 7th Infantry Battalion as back-up, conducted the raid. Senior Supt. Maximo Layugan, provincial police chief, said the troops had no choice but to return fire as Kasan’s and Aban’s group fired at them first.
Arrested were Intan Aban, wife of the slain Usop Sabil Mantis and Kulaga Aban Kasan, wife of the slain Dadting Kasan. Aban’s son and Kasan’s two sons were also killed during the raid.
Layugan said the wives were arrested as they were escaping from their houses along with the children.
Recovered from the scene of the “encounter” or “massacre” were assorted high-powered firearms and ammunition. The May 26 spot report sent to Layugan by Matalam Police Station chief Sunny Rubas Leoncito listed what was seized from Kasan’s house: a homemade caliber 7.62 sniper rifle with 26 live ammunition; a homemade RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), one 7.62 rifle M14, and one homemade 7.62 pistol.
Seized from the house of Aban were a caliber 30 M1 garand rifle and one clip containing six pieces live ammunition of caliber 30; one homemade caliber 30 sniper rifle; three RPG anti-tank ammunitions with three charge powder and one 50 caliber ammunition.
The initial police reports released to media listed the firearms seized but made no mention of illegal drugs.
But Leoncito’s report said “during the (search) and seizure, personnel recovered one piece of heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing suspected dangerous drugs aka shabu” from Aban’s house and five pieces of heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing suspected shabu and two pieces of sachet “containing residue of suspected .. shabu” from Kasan’s house.
Butch Malang, chair of the MILF’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) told MindaNews on May 27 that the nine victims were members of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), not drug personalities and claimed it was not an encounter.
“Ito ay isang massacre” (This is a massacre), Malang said, adding that BIAF members had allegedly identified themselves and turned over their weapons.
Kasan, he said, was a deputy battalion commander in the BIAF’s 105th Base Command.
Malang clarified on June 2 that of the nine persons who were killed, five were members of the BIAF, two were sons of the victims while two others were members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Layugan told MindaNews on June 5 that based on their records, seven persons were killed on May 25. — four in Kasan’s house and three in Aban’s house. He said they did not see the cadavers of the two others who were also reported slain.
According to the police blotter, two slain victims, Teds Salping and Murad Salping, may have been part of a reinforcement team that clashed with government forces after the raid. They were identified by village officials but by then, their cadavers had been “taken by their companions / relatives.”
Layugan said Teds Salping was facing two cases in a Kabacan court for illegal drugs.
“Wala namang massacre doon” (There was no massacre there) but an encounter, De Leon, re-elected barangay captain of Kilada, told MindaNews on May 30 at the barangay hall.
De Leon said the Aban family is not from Barangay Kilada but arrived and settled in Sitio Biao last year and laid claim over some 90 hectares of land which she said are all titled lands registered in the names of the owners.
She said the Abans could not produce documents of ownership and became the subject of complaints that warranted a dialogue the mayor called for in November 2017.
As a result, an agreement was signed by Kulaga, Aban Kasan, Esmael Aban, Junggo Aban and Intan Aban as “claimants” and Angeles Mangawang and Raymundo Reyes and three tenants as “occupants.” In the November 23, 2017 agreement, the Abans promised not to enter the land occupied by Mangawang, Batig and Reyes until the court has ruled on the issue and that they will not harass the occupants but allow them to do their daily activities on the land. The Abans also vowed they would not do anything that would cause trouble between them and the occupants.
The agreement, written in Filipino, was signed in the presence of four Muslim religious leaders and members of the Council of Elders and Mayor Cheryl Catamco and Vice Mayor Oscar Valdevieso, who all signed the document as witnesses.
De Leon said that despite the agreement, the Abans allegedly continued their harassment. She noted reports reaching her and the police that “gabi-gabi nagapaputok ng baril, tinututukan mga farmers, sila naga cultivate ng mga lupa” (they fired shots every night, threatened farmers at gunpoint and cultivated the land) and that the armed men were allegedly involved in illegal drugs.
She said they wonder why they had firearms when Mindanao has been under martial law since May 23 last year.
De Leon said the May 25 raid was coordinated with the barangay and had a certification from the MNLF, the area being an MNLF community, she said.
“Lahat ng kailangan na coordination, nagawa po” (All the needed coordination was done), she said.
Layugan told MindaNews that the operation to implement the search warrants was properly coordinated. “We have all the documents,” he said, including what de Leon said was a certification from the MNLF.
He said the area was an MNLF community under Camp Datu Dima Ambil.
Malang, who claimed MILF members in Sitio Biao are not newcomers but had married locals there was no coordination with the MILF. He explained that MILF members in Sitio Biao are not newcomers but had married locals there.
“The question is bakit hindi dumaan sa protocol ng AHJAG ang PNP (Philippine National Police)? Bakit sumuko na ang mga tao, hindi na nila hawak ang mga baril nila ay pinagpapatay pa? … Ito ay isang massacre” (why didn’t the PNP follow the protocol of the AHJAG. Why were they killed when they already surrendered, they were not armed? .. This is a massacre), Malang said on May 27.
Under the ceasefire agreement with the government, the MILF and government peace panels created an Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) which provides for coordination should government forces operate against suspected criminals in MILF areas.
Aside from the AHJAG, the government and MILF signed an agreement on the conduct of anti-illegal drugs operations in MILF areas.
As early as July 12, 2016, the 12th day of the Duterte administration, government and MILF peace panels had signed an Agreement of Cooperation and Coordination in the campaign against illegal drugs in MILF areas.
On June 30, 2017, the government and MILF signed a 15-page “Protocol of Cooperation on Anti-Illegal Drug Operations and related Activities in MILF Areas / Communities.”
The protocol, which adopts the ceasefire mechanisms of the government and MILF, states that government agencies that will conduct anti-illegal drug operations in MILF areas “shall inform not less than 24 hours prior to the conduct of anti-illegal drug operations, the GPH-AHJAG” which “shall then inform the GPH-MILF CCC in order to avoid misencounter between the GPH and MILF forces.”
Malang added that before signing the protocol last year, they were trained on what to expect during operations, that aside from coordination, there should be a representative of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) particularly in handling the drugs that may be seized, and that there should be witnesses, too.
Leoncito’s report noted that during the search and seizure operation, “social media and barangay official were not able to witness due to ongoing firefight which resulted to troops withdrawal in the area.”
Malang said the June 1 “joint verification” started with a briefing at the mayor’s office where the police, military and the MILF made their presentations, before proceeding to Sitio Biao.
After Sitio Biao, they returned to the town hall where they spoke with the witnesses, the wives of the slain victims who were arrested, and the barangay chair, he said.
Malang, who claims the slain victims were not involved in illegal drugs, expressed fear that what happened in Sitio Biao may have been a case of “mga pulis ginagamit na kasangkapan para mapaaalis ang mga tao at itong drugs ang ginagawang dahilan” (police being used as an instrument to get them out of the land and using illegal drugs as the reason) to conduct a raid.
Layugan maintained the police went to Sitio Biao because of illegal drugs.
The IMT and CHR are still completing their investigations. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews