MANILA - It has been nearly 40 days since the nation mourned 44 of its Philippine National Police-Special Action Force men who came home in flag-draped coffins.
They carried out Oplan Exodus, a PNP operation against suspected terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Basit Usman.
The operation was a partial success: Marwan was allegedly killed but Basit Usman fled his hideout.
Oplan Exodus was carried out in a marshland in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that is allegedly the hotbed of several armed groups including local private armies, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is at the homestretch of peace talks with the Philippine government.
The price of the operation was heavy: 44 dead SAF, 18 dead MILF, and 5 dead civilians.
It would have been easy to excuse the deaths of the 44 as part of the dangerous lives of policemen in the line of duty except that the deaths of the PNP-SAF commandos, supposedly unaided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, were too grisly. Most also died at the hands of BIFF and MILF fighters.
The deaths prompted an emotional response from the PNP officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina when he faced an investigation.
"We seek for clear answers from the other party of the peace process. Ano ba itong overkill na ito na ginawa niyo sa mga tao ko? They were very much alive and you did not allow them to go back home," he said.
"What is this overkill you did to my men? I lost sleep last night when I learned about the medico legal report. Insp. (Rennie) Tyrus, Insp. (Ryan) Pabalinas did not suffer any lethal shots, they were hit in the legs. How did they die? The other one was shot to the head; he was very much alive."
“Another was stripped of his bulletproof vest; you shot him [in] the body. One was shot with a 9mm to the head. There were two fatal shots; you can’t call that suicide because that’s close range."
"Why did you finish off my men? They were 44 and I just cited two. I am not yet through asking our medico legal team. These were simple men. They captured a criminal and yet we ask if this was legal? And you will blame [lack of] coordination? Nobody else will speak for my men but me. The 44 are depending on us all to give them justice. I seek answers for my men."
This was an observation Senator Grace Poe shared in her February 24 speech before the Senate probe.
"We should not forget that the majority of SAF-44 lost their lives at the hands of firefighters apparently belonging also to the MILF and our so-called partner in the ongoing peace process. Many of our SAF-44 were shot at close range as they lay injured at the now infamous corn fields in Mamasapano. They were stripped of their weapons, equipment, uniform and even their personal belongings. They were treated with ignominy with videos of their corpses posted on the internet. Hence, of equal, if not greater importance to our nation is the impact of the Mamasapano incident on the ongoing peace process which the government is undertaking with the MILF."
On social media, a video of a PNP-SAF trooper killed at close range became viral. It was almost shown during a congressional hearing February 11.
The PNP-SAF later confirmed the identity of the victim in the video.
What happened in Mamasapano? At least eight groups started to piece together what happened on January 25, the day the PNP-SAF under then chief Getulio Napenas Jr. set out to get Marwan and Basit Usman.
The PNP established its own Board of Inquiry. The Commission on Human Rights, Department of Justice, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines also had their own separate inquiries and investigations.
The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, through the ceasefire panel, also had its own narration of facts.
These investigations were mostly in the form of interviews and affidavits and inspections. The most public investigations, however, came from the legislature. The Senate and House of Representatives conducted their own separate inquiries within two weeks from January 25.
When the Senate wrapped up its investigation after seven hearings in February, Poe, who is chairperson of the committee on public order that led the investigation, traced the problem to a breakdown in leadership.
In her February 24 closing statement, Poe said: "These hearings have necessarily focused on the undeniable lapses in the conduct of operations leading to 44 deaths of the PNP-SAF."
"It appears that the operation was poorly planned from the start to make matters worse, there was an undeniable breakdown of both leadership and command and control in the PNP. Information about Operation Exodus was deliberately withheld from the Secretary of Interior and Local Government and the officer-in-charge of the PNP."
"Ito po ay malinaw. Umpisa pa lang, ‘yun na ang ating pinag-usapan. The PNP did not coordinate with nearby units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines until both the 84th and the 55th Special Action Companies were already heavily engaged in firefights with hostile forces. Yun din po malinaw."
The breakdown of leadership appeared to go all the way up to the doorstep of the presidency. This was apparent when the Senate began its investigation.
In its February 9 hearing, the Senate was able to establish from Napenas and then resigned PNP Chief Alan Purisima, a former bodyguard and close friend of President Aquino, that the three of them met over Oplan Exodus at least twice before it was launched.
At that time, Purisima had already been suspended by the office of the Ombudsman for corruption allegations.
The first meeting was in December 2014 and the last was January 9 2015, 14 days before the January 25 mission in Mamasapano.
Napenas told the Senate that Purisima brought him and PNP Intelligence Chief Fernando Mendez to Aquino in Malacanang.
In his opening statement at the February 9 Senate hearing, Napenas said: "On January 09, 2015, PDG Purisima, myself and PSSUPT Mendez went to Malacanang and met His Excellency at the Bahay Pangarap for mission update and the new concept of operations. We named this operation Oplan Exodus."
Napenas knew Purisima was already suspended but still he felt compelled to obey what he believed was an instruction from the suspended PNP chief -- to keep DILG Secretary Mar Roxas and PNP OIC Espina out of the loop.
"His Excellency cited about coordination with the AFP that he earlier said in his press statement. After the update, PSSUPT Mendez and myself went out while PDG Purisima stayed behind. It was when he came out that PDG Purisima stated 'Huwag mo munang sabihan yung dalawa. Saka na pag 'andun na. Ako ang bahala kay General Catapang,'" Napenas recalled.
Napenas admitted to congressmen on February 11 that Purisima's advice did not serve them well.
"Dun sa loob nabanggit ko koordinasyon sa AFP. Paglabas niya nag-iba, saka na sabihin sa dalawa. Ako na bahala kay Catapang. Knowing yung closeness, that kind of words put us in a bad situation," he said.
The SAF commander explained that the operation against Marwan was approved by Purisma long before he was suspended.
Napenas claimed he spent a considerable time of his career chasing after Marwan. The authority for the January 25 operation, he claimed, stemmed from Purisima's approval of a 2014 operation against Marwan, codenamed Oplan Wolverine.
He told the Senate: "Your honor, hindi po nagbigay Presidente ng order. It was a mission update that was given. Terminator 1, November 29, was approved by Purisima when he was still chief of PNP."
Napenas also claimed that while the SAF lost 44, police commandos also killed 250 from the enemy side.
In his defense on February 9 , Purisima claimed that he only gave "advice" and not an order to Napenas.
"During my preventive suspension, I didn't give any order to officials regarding Oplan Exodus. If ever I uttered words to that effect, it was a guidance. Napenas knows very well he couldn't and shouldn't follow orders from someone who isn't chain of command. No, your honor, I just gave advice."
Napenas claimed that on January 19, six days before the operation, Purisima even asked him what his plans were.
Later on, it would be revealed that Purisima approved the date of January 25 for launching Exodus upon Napenas' recommendation.
Napenas admitted this during the February 23 Senate hearing.
THE SENATE PRESIDENT: In other words, Purisima gave the approval that you go on the secondary date? Very clear.
MR. NAPEÑAS: Yes, Your Honor.
THE SENATE PRESIDENT: While he was under suspension?
MR. NAPEÑAS: Yes, Your Honor.
THE SENATE PRESIDENT: And, in fact, he also told you not to tell Secretary Roxas and Voltz Gazmin of this operation while he was on suspension?
MR. NAPEÑAS: Yes, Your Honor.
On February 10, Napenas clarified before the Senate that when they met Aquino, the commander in chief gave no express approval of the operation. Napenas maintained he only presented an update of the operation to the President.
The only reminder from the President was to make sure there is coordination with the AFP.
"Dalawang okasyon nagpunta ako doon there was implied or tacit apprioval that mission is go. Wala pong sinabi sa akin una o pangalawa. Walang nakarating na guidance na wag na ituloy ang operasyon. No direct order from President telling me to proceed or mission is approved for that matter."
Purisima himself would confirm this upon questioning by Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.
President Aquino also said something similar on January 28 during a press briefing in Malacanang.
"I was talking directly to the SAF director, and...‘Yung, if at all, baka ‘yung jargon tinutulungan ako ni General Purisima to understand it. But he was involved ‘yung up to the point in time, directly, that he was ordered suspended by the Ombudsman."
JANUARY 26 VIDEO
However, in a video shot a day after the Mamasapano incident but released only on February 27, Napenas was shown telling Roxas that Aquino knew that coordination would be time on target.
The video was taken inside the headquarters of the Army 6th Infantry Division in Awang, Maguindanao, at a little past 11 a.m on January 26, the day after the Mamasapano operation.
Napenas claimed he texted the Army about the operation as early as 3 or 4 a.m. the day before, which was Sunday, January 25.
When he said this, 6th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Eduardo Pangilinan took his cellphone out.
Minutes later, Pangilinan leaned over and showed Gazmin his phone.
Contrary to Napenas' claim, the text message showed it was received at 5:06 a.m.
"Tapos na iyung operation. That's not coordination. Do you call that coordination?" Gazmin told Napenas.
Napenas also said the SAF tried three times to get Marwan and Basit Usman since 2013. This was when Roxas asked him who they were taking orders from.
Napenas said that from the first attempt, he had been answering to Purisima - who was suspended when Oplan Exodus was launched.
Roxas' voice rose when he asked who knew about Oplan Exodus.
He was met with silence by Napenas when he asked who he coordinated the operation.
"I am SILG. I have not heard of these three attempts, nor this last attempt. This involves 400 men. So who did you coordinate with?"
Napenas replied: "General Purisima, sir."
Roxas: "Who was already…?"
Napenas: "On leave, sir. Myself, and Senior Supt. Jojo Mendez, sir. And we briefed the President, sir."
Roxas: "Was there a guidance to keep this from the Armed Forces? Was there a guidance to keep this from the hierarchy of the PNP? Was there a guidance to keep this to yourselves?"
Napenas: "My recommendation when I was briefing the President was we will inform the AFP time on target, sir."
Roxas fell silent for a while, before speaking again. "Now is not the time to… the most important thing is to find out to the care and welfare of these missing, if in fact they are dead."
Napenas told congressmen on February 11: "It was tacit approval for operations had it been opposite that President directed me I'd have no second thought about disclosing it. It would have been favorable to me. I couldn't be accused of breaking of chain of command."
At the Senate, Napenas also dispelled talk that the operation was funded by the office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa. He said it was funded from the regular SAF budget.
Senators repeatedly grilled Purisima about the rationale for keeping Roxas and Espina out of the loop on February 10.
Senate President Franklin Drilon asked, "Do you trust Espina and Roxas?"
Purisima did not respond. Instead, he argued that the two officials were kept out of the loop because "it is in the design of plan to inform every body time on target."
The suspended PNP chief clarified that while he approved the operation, it was Napenas' responsibility to execute it.
He told congressmen on February 11 that Roxas was not part of the chain of command.
"Accordingly, the DILG and consequently its secretary does not have control and supervision over PNP. DILG and DILG Secretary is not part of PNP command guide though DILG sec ex officio chair Napolcom acts as collegial body."
COORDINATION OR LACK THEREOF
In the February 9 hearing, the AFP also told the Senate that Purisima was in touch with AFP Western Mindanao Command Chief Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero to coordinate the PNP-SAF's operation.
On February 10, Purisima clarified he only facilitated a December 2014 meeting between the SAF and the AFP.
The same hearing also showed an apparent distrust between the PNP-SAF and the AFP. Napenas argued that previous operations against Marwan were either botched or had to be called off because Marwan would allegedly get tipped off when the AFP would mobilize.
Napenas also blamed the AFP why they had to call off Oplan Wolverine in April 2014 after the Armed Forces suddenly withdrew its Army's mechanized brigade.
This is when he designed Oplan Exodus, coordination with the AFP was set to time on target - military jargon that means coordination would be done on the day of the operation itself.
Napenas said on February 9: "Whenever major operations against high value targets are conducted as subjects are being coddled by the MILF whose members have a lots of contacts with the AFP and PNP thus the high level of operation security and secrecy are necessary."
Napenas said when he designed the Oplan, he classified the MILF as an enemy.
Roxas, for his part, took the AFP to task for supposedly not coming to the PNP SAF's aid.
"Wala ngang koordinasyon pero saklolo na tinawag ito, SOS na ito. Ano nangyari? Alas sais ng hapon, 5:48 nakapagputok ng white phosporus na di maaaring gawin alas-8 ng umaga."
The AFP, however, maintained the PNP did not really ask for help.
Army 6th Infantry Division chief Edmundo Pangilinan said: "Sinasabi po kanina 6:18 a.m. nagbigay sila ng grid coordinates. Sa aking pagbasa at paghimay-himay, walang urgency. They didn't even mention request for reinforcement, ito pagpapaalam na sila'y na-engkwentro. It's not even addressed to me."
The MILF also claimed it was responsible for the ceasefire since it was the MILF ceasefire panel's chair, Rasid Ladiasan who knew past 6:30 a.m. of January 25 of what was going on and activated the ceasefire mechanism.
Ladiasan told the Senate on February 9: "Unang information ko po pinapa-check ko ano information sa bakbakan sa Tukanalipao. Sabi ko military engaged, unang gagawin ceasefire na natin."
MORE ACTIVE ROLE FOR PNOY
When congressmen started to investigate on February 11 amid a circus-like atmosphere at the Batasan Pambansa, it established that President Aquino played a more active role than what was revealed at the Senate.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares asked: "So noong nagsabi siya sa iyo na mag-coordinate ka, ang ibig sabihin noon sinusunod lang ang plano na time on target tama po?"
Napenas said: "Ganun nga po, your honor."
At first, Purisima did not want to talk about the President's role, going as far as invoking executive privilege. He argued he needed presidential clearance first.
Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon asked Purisima: "Can we disclose the full and comprehensive role of the President with respect to this particular operation from 2011 up to the incident itself?"
Purisima replied: "Your honor, I still have to get clearance to respond to your question with regard to the communication with the President."
Ridon: "Are we invoking executive privilege with respect to this particular question?"
Purisima answered: "Yes, your honor."
Later on February 11, ACT Teachers party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio asked Guerrero about the role of the President in the rescue effort.
Tinio asked: "Puwede po ba nating ikumpirma na nung 1856 hundred hours ng January 25 ay nagpadala kayo ng text kay com6, ibig sabihin kay General Pangilinan ng 6th ID ng sumusunod na text best effort without endangering our reinforcing troops per guidance from the President. Ensure no friendly fires since it is night time. If we can resupply them with ammo and food, how? Puwede po bang makumpirma ni General Guerrero kung pinadala nga niya ang text na ito kay General Pangilinan?"
Guerrero confirmed it.
Tinio then asked: "At nung 1949 hundred hours same dy, again another text from General Guerrero to General Pangilinan, 'Ed give me your con ops on how to rescue or resupply the SAF platoon. The President wants it tonight.' Can you confirm na pinadala ninyo po?"
Guerrero confirmed it and that he was referring to President Aquino.
"We were then in Zamboanga with the President. We were briefing him about the Zamboanga City Guiwan blast and so during that time when reports were coming in we were together. The chief of staff, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of the interior."
When the Senate resumed its hearing February 12, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago lost no time pinning the blame on Aquino, Purisima and Napenas.
"Certainly this was all part of the discharge by the President of his functions as commander in chief of the Philippine Armed Forces. All four must assume responsibility for the failure. In fact, not only failure, the carnage, massacre that took take place," she said.
"I'm naming President Aquino because I don't think it serves public interest to fudge the issue....There were only four people there...Para natin masabi sino sa 4 na ito may kasalanan mahirap dahil we have no evidence."
"He had direct hand from the very beginning. Yun lang version niya. In course he dropped out of line of command because people understood his position. I don't buy that. Ito naman si General Napenas wala nang choice kasi kung pipiliin Purisima will take responsibility aamin nila he violated terms of his preventive suspension."
By this time, both Purisima and Napenas had claimed responsibility for the operation, effectively taking a bullet for the President.
Purisima told the Senate February 12: "Yes, I'm accountable. That is why I resigned."
Purisima then got an earful from Santiago. "You were placed on preventive suspension...Kung tutuusin, you shouldn't even be allowed to live in White House yet you continued to participate in the preparation of operations. You overstepped your limits..."
Just as the political heat was on Aquino , the House stopped its investigation to let the BOI finish its probe.
Colmenares said it was in Malacañang's interests to stop the hearings because it was leading all the way to the door of the President.
"All roads lead to Malacañang. Very reasonable motion na imbitahin siya, wala na talagang sagot sa mga tanong," he said.
On February 23, Purisima confirmed to the Senate that Aquino knew as early as 5:45 a.m. of January 25 what was going on in the Mamasapano mission, consistent with Aquino's speech before the SAF that he knew early on what was happening.
Purisima also admitted the President took two hours before he responded to his first text message on January 25.
PURISIMA TO PNOY: 545 am: sir good morning for info, SAF elements implemented oplan against high value targets. as of now sir result indicate that Marwan was killed and one SAF trooper wounded. the body of Marwan was left behind but pictures were taken. the troopers are now withdrawal phase and progress report to follow."
PNOY TO PURISIMA: 736 am: "why was it left behind? the other 2 targets?"
PURISIMA: "sir accordingly, when the nearest target from the line of approach is M1 and when they hit the primary target, the other house where Basit Usman was located with other elements reacted and fired at the troopers. there were about 15 to 20 armed elements. it was about 430am and it was decided that they pull out after gathering pictures and other evidences. they were not able to reach the secondary targets sir."
However, based on the text messages, Aquino appeared to have the impression that the AFP was part of the SAF operation.
PNoy to Purisima: "If I remember correctly, 160 SAF troopers were directly involved in this operation plus provisions for other PNP and AFP units to assist. The terrain is flat and clear as opposed upland forest or jungle terrain. Why could they not contain and/or overwhelm the 15-20 member opposing force? Are they still in contact with other two targets? If not and the opposing force has escaped, are we now back to square one?"
By 8:17 a.m., Purisima told the President "the AFP was on board."
"They are presently in contact with reinforcing elements from BIFF. The containment forces are the ones in contact right now. They are supported by mechanized and artillery support, sir," Purisima's text message read.
It was only by 6 that evening that Purisima reported to his commander in chief the full extent of the casualty toll.
He told Aquino: "Sir, latest report from operating elements in Maguindanao states that the security elements who were engaged in BIFF/MILF elements suffered heavy casualties. They were reportedly overrun. CCCH and international monitoring team are in the area retrieving casualties. The main effort is still in the process of rendezvous with other SAF and AFP elements."
It was also revealed that the military support was not true because the troops were not able to penetrate the marshland where their tanks would have sunk.
"Wala kami picture. I don't even know how many SAF involved. I informed President. I gave guidance...Di ko po sinasabing pumuputok artillery nandun na tangke ito call ng ground commander ito available sa area. Kung sinabihan kami I could have deployed air assets a day before," Guerrero said.
Purisima told the Senate on February 23: "They moved 0820. I cannot provide direct fires since no fo (forward officer) on the ground... understanding proved costly."
The military clarified there was no order for them to stand down.
The military was hurting from the accusations it didn't help, so much that by February 23, it played out at the Senate.
Napenas halfheartedly acknowledged the AFP's support.
"Mas madami sana nagawang maganda kung nabigay artillery support," he said.
Poe said: "Wala po kaming kinakampihan dito, pero kung ganun po ang pagpapasalamat, na babawian naman po ng pambibintang, ay nawawala rin. Bumabalik po tayo doon sa ating punto na kinakailangan ay tumuloy-tuloy tayo sa pag-usad nito, sa isang produktibong pamamaraan."
6th Infantry Division chief Edmundo Pangilinan said he cannot accept that the military is being thanked and blamed for the Mamasapano carnage.
"Di ko matanggap nagpasalamat pero we're still blamed for the death. Pero paano naman damdamin namin? Paano damdamin ng taong tumulong? I don't want to be emotional here . Thank you for recognizing the effort but for me all efforts done in spite of not coordinating with us," he said.
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV made it a point during the February 23 hearing that none of this could be blamed on Aquino.
"General Pangilinan, sabi ni General Guerrero, hindi nag-holdback ang operational commander nang paggamit ng resources. I-clarify ko lang. General Guerrero, sir, kasama ninyo si Presidente Aquino. Nagsabi ba siya na mag-hold back kayo ng assets ng inyong command?" he asked.
"Wala pong ganoong instruction sa akin, your Honor...I informed the President that we made available kung ano iyong nasa ground na hawak ng tactical commander which is Mechanized Infantry and Artillery. Iyon po iyong available, Your Honor," he said.
By the time of the final Senate hearing on February 24, what was clear was that only Napenas and Purisima were responsible for the Mamasapano incident even if President Aquino allowed Purisima to play a role despite his suspension.
None of the lawmakers asked that question. Poe did say in a February 23 statement that Purisima may have had too much leeway.
"Was there too much power or autonomy given to Gen. Purisima? I think that if we piece all of these things together, it will come up to that. But in the meantime, we have to be a little prudent and cite particular instances that can prove that or can point to that."
PNOY AND PURISIMA
For the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, it is clear that Aquino shares the blame for the Mamasapano incident.
For Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, the President may have violated the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and the code of ethical standards for public officials when he allowed Purisima to have a role.
"Public officials should uphold public interest. Pinapaboran ni President Aquino best friend forever," he said.
Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law, also shared the same view.
"If you're asking what crime could have been committed? 1. inducing, allowing somebody to exercise office 2. in effect defying suspension that was imposed upon Purisima, the one form of contempt or the others or even conferring__ privileges on the person who was not entitled to..."
He also said he is surprised the President is making as an excuse that he got wrong information from his subordinates. This only shows that the President does not check the information, he said.
The Palace has said Aquino has no regrets about his friendship with Purisima despite being allegedly misled by the latter. Aquino himself would explain his role to congressmen when he faced them on February 23 behind closed doors in Malacanang.
For now, the biggest casualty of the Mamasapano incident appears to be the peace process with the MILF, with lawmakers from both chambers hitting the brakes on the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.