MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Thursday she is certain that no shootout occurred between law enforcers and suspected criminal elements at a checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon last January 6.
De Lima said two witnesses, whose identities are being withheld, have come forward to shed light on the shooting. A third eyewitness has declined to cooperate in the investigation, she added.
"Well, ang masasabi namin, credible ang aming witnesses and they are really eye witnesses. Wala kaming rason na pagdudahan ang kredibilidad ng mga witnesses na iyon," she said in a radio dzMM interview.
"Kanina sa incident site, kitang-kita namin na alam nila ang pinagsasabi nila. Noong una, ayaw pa nilang magsalita kasi natatakot sila. So we assured them of their safety and the safety of their families," she added.
Asked whether she still believes the claim of the checkpoint police of a shootout, de Lima said: "Definitely, no shootout."
‘Law enforcers fired first’
Accompanied by the witnesses, investigators from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) visited Barangay Lumutan in Atimonan town to re-enact the shooting incident that left 13 alleged members of the Vic Siman gun-for-hire group dead.
Only two of the three witnesses, who are now under the Witness Protection Program (WPP), were present during the re-enactment.
De Lima said the witnesses were on board a truck near the checkpoint when the shooting incident erupted.
According to the witnesses, the policemen and soldiers suddenly pulled out the checkpoint signboards and blocked Maharlika Highway with a military truck, to the surprise of the 13 men on board two Mitsubishi Montero sports utility vehicles (SUVs).
The officers then flagged down the 2 vehicles and a man in civilian clothes, along with 4 uniformed soldiers, approached the SUVs. Finding the doors locked, the man in civilian clothes ordered the passengers to come out.
When they refused, the man then gave the order to shoot the vehicles.
“They were shouting ‘Baba! Baba!’ What is most telling is the claim of the witnesses that no shot was fired [by] any of the passengers of the two vehicles when one with civilian clothes gave the order: ‘Fire! Fire!’” de Lima said in an ANC interview.
Based on the re-enactment, the initial strafing of the vehicles took no less than 20 seconds. The man in civilian clothes then ordered the law enforcers to cease fire.
However, one of the men on the first SUV at the driver’s side fired a shot at the police officers.
“Nakita daw mismo yung shell na tumalsik from that side from the first Montero so that guy in civilian clothes gave that order to fire,” de Lima added.
They said one of the men, allegedly Tirso Lontok, then emerged from the SUV with his arms already raised, showing that he was ready to surrender.
However, two law enforcers – one in uniform and the other in civilian clothes – still shot Lontok at close range.
“Based on the eyewitnesses’ accounts, they were just there during the whole thing that happened. They were civilians and wala sa kwento yung sinasabi ng government forces na shootout daw yun because not a single fire came from either of the two Monteros before the government forces fired at them,” de Lima said.
Third vehicle not part of convoy?
The justice secretary, meanwhile, said they are also investigating reports that a third vehicle was near the scene of the shooting incident.
One of the witnesses earlier confirmed the third vehicle was able to leave before the shooting started.
De Lima, however, said: “There is something we are pursuing at this point which we do not want to disclose, about the possible presence of another vehicle in the area. It does not appear to be part of the convoy of Siman.”
The justice chief also said the NBI has received the statement of DZMM reporter Johnny Glorioso that he saw 2 bags inside the SUVs after the incident. Glorioso was one of the first reporters to reach the Atimonan checkpoint after the shooting.
The two bags – a red bag and a brown leather clutch bag – are missing and were not among the pieces of evidence listed by police as having been found at the scene.
“Those items do not seem to be listed in any of the reports. So where are those items? More importantly ano ang laman,” de Lima asked.
Jueteng turf war?
The legitimacy of the police operation has come under question amid allegations that the shooting incident was actually a rubout.
Before today's re-enactment, the Philippine National Police's fact-finding committee already made its own reenactment on the alleged shootout.
The Calabarzon PNP was also expected to turn over today to the NBI all the pieces of evidence they gathered from the clash site.
One of the 13 slain men in the encounter was Vic Siman, an alleged jueteng operator engaged in a turf rivalry with one of the checkpoint policemen, Supt. Hansel Marantan.
The alleged involvement of Marantan and Siman in jueteng operations triggered speculations that the supposed gun battle was not a simple shootout.
PNoy irked by Pandoy killing
De Lima said authorities are also investigating the killing of Fernando “Pandoy” Morales last Monday amid reports that he was a former aide of Siman.
She said Morales’ death might be connected to the Atimonan shooting “in the sense that the one who was killed was connected to Siman.”
“Duon nga nagalit si Presidente, na ito ngang ini-investigate pa yung Atimonan, there’s another incident that is equally questionable,” she said.
Police confirmed they went to arrest Morales in his house in San Juan, Batangas last Monday. Morales was shot when he allegedly tried to resist arrest.
De Lima, however, questioned the police’s decision to serve the warrant of arrest at 1:30 am instead of waiting for a proper time to conduct the operation.
She also questioned the policemen’s story that Morales tried to grab a gun during the arrest.
A police official earlier said there were at least 20 men who served the arrest warrant on Morales.
Morales’ wife also said the arresting officers did not turn on the lights and used flashlights when they came to the house. She said Morales was forced out of their bedroom while she was ordered to stay inside.
She said she heard gunshots and later found out that the police shot her husband. With reports from Niko Baua, ABS-CBN News; Alex Calda and Johnny Glorioso, dzMM; David Dizon, ABS-CBNnews.com