MANILA, Philippines – On the day he received the 82-page report of the incident investigation and review committee (IIRC) about the Rizal Park hostage-taking incident – and without even a full reading of its contents – President Aquino had blurted out: “Napatapang ‘ata masyado ah. Bakit kasama pa sila Puno, Lim, at Verzosa?” (It’s too strongly worded. Why are Puno, Lim and Verzosa implicated?)
This is according to some of those present at the IIRC’s meeting with Aquino last Sept. 17. The President was, of course, referring to Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, Interior and Local Government Secretary Rico Puno, and then Philippine National Police chief Director General Jesus A. Verzosa, who are among his closest personal and political allies.
The remark caught everyone by surprise. After all, even before he had finished reading the report, the President was already expressing his reservations about including the trio among the culpable parties. He told them he had no problem, however, about filing suit against the other police officers named in the report.
The three are also the most senior of the 10 officials that the IIRC said should face administrative and criminal sanctions for the death of eight foreign nationals after disgruntled Police Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza held hostage a Hong-Thai Tour bus on Aug. 23.
This week, President Aquino announced that Verzosa and Puno would not be facing administrative charges, while Lim would no longer have to worry about criminal charges that the IIRC had recommended to be filed against him. The President approved only the filing of administrative charges for “misconduct and simple neglect” against Lim.
“I pledged from the very start that there would be accountability,” Aquino had said on Monday, when he finally announced his decision on the IIRC’s recommendations, after several postponements.
Saying he wanted to avoid “frivolous lawsuits,” Aquino had also told reporters: “The purpose of the review was to find the viable legal actions which can be taken against the concerned parties.”
But by the accounts of sources in Malacañang and in the IIRC circles, it is not clear whether or not that is the real reason behind the President’s decision to review and revise the IIRC’s recommendations.
In fact, the decision of the President and his lawyers to reverse the most critical findings of the IIRC against the three senior officials closest to him, out of friendship or politics or both, is now sending mixed signals to the public, as well as to his deputies in the Cabinet.
Palace and other sources also note that the President’s decision virtually stomped the one thing that the IIRC process guaranteed: the conduct of preliminary investigation to gather more evidence against Puno, Lim, and Verzosa.
In truth, the work of the IIRC is not even done yet. Days after the hostage-taking incident, Aquino directed the departments of Interior and Local Government and of Justice to conduct a “joint thorough investigation” in two phases.
The finished IIRC report corresponds only to the first phase – “a comprehensive account of the sequence of events leading to the killing of the hostages and the hostage-taker, evaluate police action and the response of offices and private entities to the incident, and recommend the filing of appropriate actions against those found culpable as intermediate actions to focus on the hostage-taking incident.”
The second and more complicated phase of its mandated work, and its corresponding report, may unfold in the next three to six months: “Review operational plans and procedures; conduct a detailed audit and inventory of the training and equipment of responsible agencies; review the Philippine National Police (PNP) standards and procedures in administrative cases involving police officers and personnel; and recommend comprehensive policies and programs as a final and complete report on institutional recommendations.”
For all that, some IIRC members had reportedly opted to work pro bono or without compensation, despite a government offer to give them allowances and honoraria.
The IIRC report was built on two weeks of marathon hearings, in open session and behind closed doors with over two dozen witnesses and resource persons, as well as parallel field work to gather documents and testimonies in the Philippines and Hong Kong by the National Bureau of Investigation and the Hong Kong police.
When the five-member IIRC led by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima submitted its first report to Aquino in Malacañang last month, it was expecting swift action on its recommendations.
But then the President expressed reluctance to pursue criminal and administrative sanctions against Puno, Lim, and Verzosa, and the IIRC members found themselves in a long meeting.
The President skimmed through the first half of the report, snacks were brought in, and while the conferees ate, more discussions ensued. A videotape recording of Aquino’s recent visit with soldiers at a military camp played on, in the sidelines.
By some twisted happenstance, the IIRC report dwelt on the gunfight that killed Mendoza and seven Hong Kong nationals, while the VTR rolled in footage of Aquino in target practice, swift and smooth with guns, a la Rambo.
Reporters had been waiting for two hours by then to get a copy of the report. A Palace official, mindful of the scribes’ long wait, informed Aquino that the report must in time be released to the public.
But before doing so, the President wanted – or wished – two things: a review by Palace lawyers of the IIRC report, and if possible, that the names of Lim, Puno, and Verzosa be stricken off the report.
The first was tricky, but doable. The second was an impossible request, he was told. And there was the public, which was itching to know what the report contained.
The Palace thus crafted an instant political line; the communications team would “dribble” the situation, and tell the reporters a few things: Aquino was still reviewing the report, the Embassy of China will be furnished a copy, and the Palace will publish the complete report in time on the government’s website, www.ops.gov.ph. Quickly, the Palace uploaded the report pages – 1 to 60 to be exact.
Nearly a month later, it has kept secret the next 20-odd pages. Indeed, only the first 60 pages of the report had been uploaded on the online Official Gazette. This is even after the President’s review committee of two – Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and Presidential Legal Counsel Eduardo de Mesa – had combed through the IIRC report and recommended the filing of administrative charges against only seven out of the 10 officials on the IIRC list.
Manila Vice Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domogoso was among those dropped from the list by the Palace committee. In addition, however, the Palace lawyers recommended the filing of charges of disobedience and conspiracy against SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza, younger brother of hostage-taker Rolando.
Among other things, the review revised the IIRC recommendations thus:
• Lim, a long-time friend of the Aquino family who was also endorsed as a presidential candidate in 1998 by the late President Corazon Aquino, will now face administrative charges only for misconduct and simple neglect, before the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). These charges carry a maximum penalty of mere suspension, even as the IIRC had recommended the filing of both administrative and criminal charges against Lim, which could entail expulsion from office as penalty.
• Puno, a long-time shooting and gigs buddy of the President, was simply “admonished” in a private meeting with Aquino. Puno, said the President, did not commit any “impropriety” or violation of the law by assuming the work of undersecretary for peace and order, on the President’s directive.
• Verzosa, a long-time friend of Puno and who had sneaked into Aquino’s favor with his pledge to stand neutral days to the May 10, 2010 elections, had been absolved altogether by Aquino of any culpability. The hostage-taking incident was supposedly a local situation that did not require Verzosa’s participation.
To be fair, the President had explicitly stated that friendship had nothing to do with his decision to go easy on Puno and Verzosa. “All of us are people, none of us is perfect,” he had told reporters.
What report reveals
But a careful reading of the yet unpublished portion of the IIRC report – in particular pages 61 to 82 – show firm and carefully studied bases for the IIRC’s recommendations to pursue criminal and administrative proceedings against these three senior officials.
Thus far, the three-page “Recommendations” section of the report (pages 77 to 79) has been leaked to the media. The PCIJ had obtained a copy of the entire report at the same time but decided to await the review of the IIRC report by the President’s lawyers before releasing the unpublished pages that cover the following sections: Conclusions on Accountability, Recommendations, Highlights, and Epilogue.
Portions of the IIRC report follow:
Re Mayor Alfredo Lim
The IIRC report, in its “Highlights” section stated:
“There is evidence to support the finding that what Mayor Lim actually ordered was the summary execution of Gregorio Mendoza when, in conjunction with the order to arrest Gregorio Mendoza, he also instructed the MPD officials present at the PCP that Gregorio be ‘brought to Tondo,’ a police euphemism for summary execution. This could also be the reason for the desperate run of Gregorio to the media outside the PCP while he was being taken out of the back door and his assertion that he was going to be killed.”
In the Conclusions on Accountability section, the IIRC report said:
“While Mayor Lim claims to have convened the CMC (Crisis Management Committee), there is no showing, however, that its members performed assigned tasks such as reporting to the crisis management operation center (CMOC) to assess and monitor the situation while the crisis was in progress; coordinate and provide support services; prepare and implement contingency measures (4.11, 2.6, Crisis Management Manual)…
“Mayor Lim failed to observe the appropriate degree of attention required by the gravity and highly-volatile nature of the crisis, involving the hostage-taking of 21 foreign
nationals, 3 Filipinos and one local Chinese by a fully-armed and distressed police officer, evincing gross failure to accord due importance to his role and responsibilities as head of the CMC in addressing the crisis.
“As head of the CMC, Mayor Lim’s conduct bespeaks of a weak, if not anemic, response to the hostage-taking crisis, unmindful of its gravity and the urgency of its resolution as every moment of delay in ending the crisis increases the risk to the safety of the hostages, mostly foreign nationals, and the damage to the image of the country before the international community.
“Mayor Lim directed the handcuffing, arrest and forcible taking of SP02 Gregorio Mendoza, the brother of the hostage-taker, at the crucial stage of the crisis, thereby
seriously jeopardizing the negotiation process and putting to grave risk the lives of the hostages. The arrest and forcible taking of SP02 Gregorio Mendoza proved to be the
final tipping point in the violent and tragic ending of the crisis… Mayor Lim enlisted SP02 Mendoza in the negotiation despite full knowledge of his sensitive relationship to the hostage-taker and possible adverse consequences of such a role in the negotiation process. Thus, if SP02 Gregorio Mendoza allegedly turned out to be uncooperative during the negotiation, Mayor Lim should have fully anticipated the consequences of his gamble.
“As such, Mayor Lim’s subsequent orders to handcuff, arrest and forcibly take SP02 Gregorio Mendoza to ‘Tondo’ was completely unjustified, improper, reckless and
contrary to established protocols in negotiations. At that time, Mayor Lim was fully aware that the situation in the bus was turning extremely volatile in light of Mendoza’s
outright rejection of the Ombudsman letter and his hostile action in firing his gun to express his frustrations with the negotiators, whom he accused of having fooled him.
“Despite the collapse of the negotiations highlighted by Mendoza’s outright rejection of the Ombudsman letter, Mayor Lim effectively hindered the immediate revival of the negotiation process by stalling the implementation of the alternative proposal for Mendoza’s provisional reinstatement pending resolution by the Ombudsman of his motion for reconsideration, thereby squandering the remaining opportunity to secure the peaceful resolution of the crisis.
“When the ground commander (Magtibay) and the chief negotiator (Yebra) proposed to provisionally reinstate Mendoza pending resolution by the Ombudsman of his motion for reconsideration and save the situation from getting out of hand, Mayor Lim balked at the proposal and insisted that the matter be subjected to further study and discussion. The hard-line position against the proposal was unjustified as it failed to take into serious account the urgency of securing the safety of the hostages due to the increasing volatility of the situation as reflected by the hostile action of the hostage taker in firing his gun.
“At the most crucial moment of the hostage-taking crisis, Mayor Lim abandoned the command post (which also functioned as the crisis management operation center) and brought with him the ground commander to Emerald Restaurant, thereby effectively transferring the command center thereat, all in gross disregard of the increasing volatility of the situation and the vital need to maintain close contact, coordination and supervision at the ground level to ensure swift reaction in case of adverse turn of events and secure the safety of hostages.
“It was the height of irresponsibility for the Chairman of the CMC to abandon the command post and take along with him the ground commander to Emerald Restaurant on the lame justification that he was hungry and nothing was happening yet (“wala pang nangyayari”). At that time, the protracted 8-hour negotiation had already collapsed after the hostage-taker rejected the Ombudsman letter and resorted to a hostile action by firing his gun, indicating a highly-agitated mental state and obviously warranting close attention and immediate measures to prevent further deterioration of the situation.”
Re DILG Undersecretary Rico E. Puno
The IIRC report, in its “Conclusions on Accountability,” stated:
“Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno revealed that he was the caretaker of the national crisis management committee, and that the local crisis committee was headed by Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, although Puno said that he did not receive any order activating the local CMC. During the entire course of the hostage incident, he admitted getting in touch with the local CMC three to four times only. Usec. Puno cannot and should not have acted as ‘caretaker’ of the national crisis committee because the rule provides for the following organizational structure to which his position as Undersecretary is not found…
“He told the Committee that the hostage incident was treated by the crisis committee, including him, as local and not national despite the fact that majority of the hostages were foreign nationals because: ‘The treatment was … it happened in Manila. That’s one. And also the hostage-taker was a former police officer assigned in Manila. That was the consideration.’
“He was allegedly very sure that negotiations will succeed, while at the same time acknowledging that he was not trained to handle hostage negotiation.
“It did not occur to him at any given time to consider the crisis within the dimension of the national crisis committee: ‘Our assessment was that he was a very cooperative hostage-taker, releasing eight or nine hostages.’
“In his judgment, they had to downplay the situation due to the apprehension that the hostage-taker might ask bigger demands if national officials are seen. Their assessment of the hostage-taker was that he was not a criminal, so they did not take contingency plans.
“Puno said the local crisis committee’s decision to transfer its operation at the Emerald Restaurant in Roxas Boulevard was Lim’s decision. While thereat, he advised the President, and assured him that there will be employment of special units, but when pressed to identify whose liability was the failure to employ the PNP-Special Action Force, he said it was the ground commander’s decision. During the executive session, Superintendent Medina clarified that the President personally ordered him to employ the Special Action Force unit under his command, but when he relayed the matter to General Magtibay at around 3 PM, Magtibay countermanded the President’s order and insisted on the use of the MPD-SWAT.
“As for the presence of media and how they affected the hostage situation, Puno said that bulletins were issued by the Public Information Officer, but did not name who was the PIO or in what form the bulletins were issued and how they were implemented.
“It is the conclusion of the Committee that the improper assumption by Usec. Puno of the functions of the Secretary of DILG as the chairman of the National Crisis Committee, in the light of his admitted lack of training and experience, may have compromised the readiness of the national CMC to take over the responsibility when it became apparent that the local CMC could not properly handle the hostage situation. That readiness could have been the immediate answer to the worsening situation.
“Puno’s failure to call upon the other members of the national CMC to be on standby reflects this lack of capacity. While he may have good intentions, rules must still be followed, and the organizational structure of the national CMC must be maintained.”
Re former PNP chief Jesus A. Verzosa:
“Upon being informed at 10:00 a.m. of the hostage incident, PNP Chief Verzosa called General Leocadio Santiago Jr. of the NCRPO who called the District Commander, General Magtibay, for the creation of the Crisis Management Task Group (CMTG), as the incident calls for application of local protocols. At the same time, he set up a command center at Camp Crame headed by the Director for Operations, General Benjamin Belarmino. He was monitoring the whole incident.
“Verzosa was clearly aware of the national significance of the hostage situation since he knew that foreign nationals were involved, so, by instinct or foreknowledge, he ordered the setting up of a command center. As a consequence of the command center’s activation, the next step expected was the dissemination of notices to the members of the NPOCCMC that a national level crisis arose. But culled from the narration of events both by Puno and Verzosa show that the subsequent call between them made them to agree Verzosa and Usec. Puno may have changed their decision to agree that it be localized.
“Nevertheless, localization of CMC structure still calls for the convening of the National CMC because the protocol provides that the ‘NPOCCMC shall monitor crisis incident situations in the lower levels and be prepared to make decisions on matters referred by such lower level CMC.’ “This being known to Verzosa, it was incumbent upon his command center to have so informed the other NPOCCMC members, but he chose not to.
“Before leaving for Cagayan de Oro City for an official function, he contacted Usec. Puno. His second in command, General Bacalso, went with him to Cagayan de Oro. These actions were made despite the activation of the command center in Camp Crame. As if to show that he was actively monitoring the incident, Verzosa said that he was monitoring the incident on TV in Cagayan de Oro. He then violated the protocol that monitoring shall be at the ‘National Crisis Management Operations Center
(NCMOC) at IRC,NHQ Building, Camp Crame.’
“He said decisions are left to the discretion of the ground commander, including failure of negotiation. The policy is to have no compromise with the hostage-taker. But this is contradictory to what Puno said before him that the plan was to give all the demands.
“These contradictory statements show that Verzosa and Puno either had no communication or misunderstood each other. Either way, their collective failure to pass essential information for an informed judgment affected the responses of the units under them.
“Verzosa revealed that target elimination was an option; and that Magtibay was knowledgeable of crisis situations. MPD was allegedly prepared but ‘variables’ affected the operation. The NCRPO gave guidance to Magtibay, and he, as Chief of the PNP, may take over when EXTREMELY necessary. He was alarmed when he saw Gregorio Mendoza being arrested, but he did not do anything so as not to bother the ‘busy’ ground commander. Curiously, his ‘alarm’ was not translated into an ‘extreme necessity’ to intervene, a serious flaw between his judgment and action based on such judgment.
“As if to extricate himself from protocols which he himself had helped set up, Verzosa insisted that protocols are continuing activities, and are always subject to change.
“Committee Chair De Lima sought Verzosa’s assessment of Magtibay’s decision to arrest Mendoza’s brother, SP02 Gregorio Mendoza, for allegedly conniving with the hostage-taker.
“‘I was alarmed by the sudden commotion and felt nervous something might happen [and] I still believe it was the most critical and tipping point,’ Verzosa said. He said he had thought of calling Magtibay to relay instructions on how to handle the situation, but decided not to. ‘If you were physically present, would you have done that? Immediately ordered Magtibay to desist from arresting the brother?’ Chair De Lima said.
“Verzosa replied: ‘I can [make] that decision. But it has already happened, and it might be hard to repair the observations of the public.’ Despite being alarmed, nervous, judging the situation as critical and a tipping point, and having thought of calling Magtibay, he was more concerned about ‘observations of the public’ rather than the lives at stake.
“Verzosa said the police failed to control the crowd during the hostage crisis. He said crowd control involved keeping away not only kibitzers but also the media, the police, and other personalities who should not be at the site of a hostage-taking. ‘There was a mix-up,’ Verzosa said. ‘The lapses happened because of the failure to [implement] crowd control. We saw some lapses … I think we failed to designate a media center, where media briefings should have been given.’
“Verzosa said Mendoza’s disposition suddenly changed when he saw the letter from the Office of the Ombudsman stating that it would review his dismissal from the PNP. ‘That was the tipping point. His character just changed from then on,’ Verzosa said.”