Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jnr and Presidential Adviser Secy. Jesus Dureza and Justice Secy. Agnes Devanadera in General Santos City after the politician surrendered peacefully.
A Recollection of Those Four Critical Days.
DAY ONE - November 23 (Monday)
I was monitoring closely reports about a missing convoy in Maguindanao with media friends. Later in the day, reports of mass murder of the Mangudadatus were confirmed. Allegedly by Datu Unsay Ampatuan Jr., et al. My instincts told me this could very well be a very explosive situation. When media called, I said I would recommend proclaiming a state of emergency. At 8 p.m. Secretary of National Defense Bert Gonzales and I met. He told me the President had directed that I act as “crisis manager.”
DAY TWO – November 24 (Tuesday)
Bert and I took the earliest flight to General Santos City. At the headquarters of the 601st Infantry Brigade in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat briefings were held. Initial photos of the carnage were flashed on the screen. Gruesome! Next we met with the Mangudadatus, many of them my personal friends.
They were tense and angry. They wanted to retrieve the bodies immediately. They demanded justice, immediately. The Ampatuans did it, they said. After Bert and I expressed government’s resolve to do everything possible, Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu said they will cooperate. No retaliatory action but government must give justice.
12 Noon – A teleconferencing call connected Bert and me to the Palace where the President was presiding over a hastily called security meeting. We were getting specific instructions from her. So did Bert, Philippine National Police Chief Jesus Versoza and Armed Forces of the Philippines Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rodrigo Maclang who arrived with us. Her voice had that sense of urgency. Inputs from the other cabinet members were also relayed.
1:00 p.m. – The crisis management committee was activated. Assisting me were Eastern Mindanao Command Chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer and Directorate for Integrated Police Operations Chief Supt. Felizardo Serapio.
2:00 p.m. – Bert left to fly back to Manila. Colonel Medardo Geslani, 60ast infantry Brigade commander, assisted in setting up the command center. It was at this time that I operationalized an action plan I quietly formulated in my mind. It was a simple plan drawing lessons from past experiences.
3:00 p.m. – Having talked with the Mangudadatus, I decided to go see the Ampatuans in Shariff Aguak town in Maguindanao. I felt confident. Both families were my friends. And I had direct access to them. With my staff and without military escorts, except for one military officer, Colonel Macario as guide, I motored to the Ampatuan residence.
3:45 p.m. - I entered the Ampatuan fenced premises and the patriarch Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Snr was there waiting for me. With him seated in a “bahay kubo” on the sprawling grounds were several Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Maguindanao officials and relatives. Armed followers were everywhere.
After informing Gov. Andal that my purpose in coming was because of the incident and that his son, Mayor Datu Unsay Ampatuan Jr. was implicated, I told Bapa Andal that it would be best that the Ampatuans also cooperate.
I said that Datu Unsay should submit to an investigation. He immediately said: “OK. Kausapin mo sya. Ipatawag ko si Datu Unsay. Basta kayo Secretary walang problema.” I told him I wanted to see Datu Unsay as I got reports that he was missing or had escaped. Bapa said: “Hindi yan totoo. Darating si Datu Unsay. Magpakita sya sayo Secretary.”
Bapa Andal as usual, was a man of few words. We then went inside the house to wait for the son’s arrival. In the meantime, ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan and Cong. Didagen Dilangalen arrived from the airport. Energy Undersecretary Zam Ampatuan, Atty. Cynthia Guiani Sayadi, among others were there too. I felt a bit tense and uncomfortable. I did not want to start talking about the incident until Unsay would arrive. We were chatting for about an hour trying to divert the issue and loosen up. A lively conversation centered on how many children some of their relatives had. One relative had 70 children. Of course from several mothers, etc.
4:30 p.m. – We waited. I noticed that Atty. Cynthia was using her cell phone and taking pictures while we were chatting. Unsay arrived and got seated on my left. We continued a bit about our light banter until Unsay settled down. (GMA7 later that same evening showed some pictures on TV. My wife Beth texted me and called my attention immediately when she saw it: “Bakit ka smile kasama mga Ampatuan. Not proper.” I agreed. But I was puzzled where the pictures came from and who sent them. There were no media people around. I surmised Cynthia did it.)
5:00 p.m. – I was becoming worried that darkness would overtake my return trip to Sultan Kudarat province. Many armed and uniformed men on the highway. One could not tell what group or unit. So when Unsay got seated, I immediately told him that I came because of the serious incident and that initial reports mentioned his name as involved. I told him my purpose in coming was only to be assured that he would cooperate and submit himself to any investigation. He looked at the direction of Gov. Andal who spoke first: “Gaya ng sinabi ko sayo kanina, magcooperate kami, Secretary.” Then Unsay himself echoed saying: “Mag cooperate po kami Secretary.” I then stood up and said I would contact them again soon. We arrived in Marbel town already dark and stayed there for the night.
DAY THREE - November 25 (Wednesday)
8:30 a.m. - I visited a funeral parlor in Marbel. Some bodies not identified yet. I then directed the Department of Social Welfare and Development Region 12 to attend to the immediate needs of the families, and that Department of Health Region 12 and Office of the Civil Defense Region 12 were to assist. I motored to Tacurong at the 601st Infantry Brigade and met the National Bureau of Investigation team that just arrived from Manila.
I reconvened the crisis committee and mapped up moves on how to fast track work. A team of Philippine National Police investigators were sent to the residence of Buluan Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadatu to get statements but they were told that affidavits of their witnesses would be submitted instead perhaps the following day. I was already aware that the outrage over the killings mounted. And government was being criticized for slow action.
12 NOON – Over lunch at the brigade, I consulted with the crisis committee on my plan: it was time to contact the Ampatuans and call in Datu Unsay to voluntarily surrender as they committed to me yesterday. I was also quietly informed that an operational plan was underway to forcibly take custody of him.
2:00 p.m. – On my way to Marbel to dialogue with all the families of the victims, I made several calls. First with ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan. I told him it was time to bring in Datu Unsay. He told me he would consult the father, Gov. Andal. I said I had only until 5 p.m. that day to work on this plan. After 5 p.m., the scenario would no longer be the same, I told him.
4:00 p.m. – While meeting the families of victims in downtown Marbel, I got a call from the father, Gov. Andal telling me that he would turnover to me Datu Unsay but requested that the deadline be moved from 5 p.m. today to 10 a.m. the following day. I immediately told him I could not guarantee things if the deadline was moved. He said the Ampatuan clan would meet that evening and discussed things and bid goodbye to Datu Unsay. I told him I would get back to him by phone. I made calls and informed some of my colleagues (with whom I had been consulting from the beginning) of the request.
There were objections. Understandable reservations: What if the extension was a ruse to escape that evening? What were the guarantees that he would voluntarily surrender during the new deadline? People were becoming outraged not only on the crime but on the perceived slowness of government, so why waste more time? The forces were ready to strike, so why delay?
But I also reasoned back: How sure are we that we would get Datu Unsay in the operations? (From yesterday’s visit to the Ampatuans, I was certain that he was not there in the immediate vicinity, but came from somewhere far.) An assault would surely cost lives knowing the armaments, the culture and the situation. People were crying for swift action, but I would not agree to precipitate action. I also said I believed Gov. Andal was sincere when he told me he would bring out his son when needed. To wrap up my point, I said: I would take full responsibility for whatever outcome.
My new timeline was adopted. I moved the deadline to 10:00 a.m. the following day.
That night, we reviewed the “pickup” scenario several times and mapped out contingencies just in case things would not go as planned. In the meantime, government troops moved according to operational plans. That evening, I got a call from Atty. Cynthia getting an assurance from me that nothing would be launched that evening until the 10 a.m. pickup time the following day. I told her if there were troop movements, these were in support of the 10 a.m. “pickup.”
Later in the night, another complication suddenly arose. Chief Supt. Serapio and Col. Geslani informed me that they got information that Toto Mangudadatu would motor with his followers to file his certificate of candidacy the following morning in Shariff Aguak. I immediately called Sultan Kudarat Gov. Suharto “Teng” Mangudadatu. I told him that there was something afoot the following morning and that without disclosing what it was all about, I requested if he could convince Toto to move his filing to another day. A few minutes later, Gov. Teng called and said the clan agreed.
D-DAY, Nov.26 (Thursday)
6:00 a.m. - Early morning, government forces took over and occupied the ARMM facilities and other buildings and premises in Maguindanao province. Armed elements loyal to the Ampatuans were taken by surprise and gave up their firearms without resistance.
I was nervous a bit, but confident. The “what if” scenarios kept popping up in my mind. I motored to the 601st Infantry Brigade for the final briefings. The choppers would pick me up from there. Gen. Ferrer and I watched as more newly arrived troops were jumping off towards designated areas.
9:00 a.m. – I was informed that something went wrong with the Philippine Air Force Huey helicopters coming from Cotabato. The Davao choppers were instead dispatched, but would not be able to arrive by 10 a.m.
9:55 a.m. – I got a call from Col. Geslani whom we tasked to liaison with the Ampatuans that they were requesting for a little time as they were waiting for their lawyer who was still on the road to arrive. That was a break I needed. The 2 choppers arrived. We discussed with the pilot and crew contingencies and procedures.
10:45 a.m. - We were ready to jump off upon cue from Col. Geslani. It would be a short 35 minute hop from the brigade to Shariff Aguak. My staff Cecil said she’s getting nervous but insisted on joining. My assistant, Yo, was busy texting. But wait, another problem suddenly cropped up. As we were boarding, one the 2 Philippine National Police officers tasked to escort the suspect said they could not use the handcuff on Ampatuan as the KEY WAS MISSING!
What about the other handcuff with your buddy, I asked. “Ganon din po sir”, he replied. I almost fell from my seat! But there was no more time. We then agreed that he would be strapped with the seat belt and the policemen would firmly clasp the buckles to prevent any unexpected situation while airborne. (When I was asked later by reporters why Ampatuan was not handcuffed, I had a ready curt answer with a straight face: “He is adequately restrained!” Secy. Agnes Devanadera promptly responded with the same line when she was asked upon landing in Manila.)
11:20 a.m. - Two Hueys landed on the Maguindanao province capitol grounds. The Huey engines were not shut off as agreed in case a sudden exit maneuver was necessary. I waited for 20 minutes on the ground. I was getting worried. Finally, I saw my staff, Ollie, with his thumbs up sign.
Col. Geslani signaled they were on their way. My “what if” scare disappeared. The capitol gates opened. The Ampatuan family arrived on board vehicles from another location nearby. Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan clasping my hand said: “Ipaubaya ni amah si Datu Unsay sa iyo” and turned over Datu Unsay to me. We boarded the aircraft with Atty. Cynthia, insisting she had to ride with him.
11:40 a.m. - Helis took off enroute General Santos City where Justice Secy. Agnes Devanadera and her crew were waiting for an inquest proceeding. But again something happened. About a few minutes airborne and while still climbing and gaining altitude, I first noticed some flapping sound outside. I thought, maybe some loose parts of the chopper. The noise kept coming, intermittent. I looked down and maybe I saw flashes but I was not sure. Suddenly the Huey banked sharply to the right and simultaneously, several short bursts from our two Huey gunners at the back. The bursts startled all of us. The evasive maneuver by the pilot also jarred us. All of us kept our heads low as the Huey steeply climbed. My staff Jerry and Col. Mac who was seated beside the open Huey doors ducked. The soldier at the back shouted, “ground fire, sir.”
We still climbed. The flapping sound from outside could not be heard anymore. The gunners later told me ground fire sounded like flapping from the air. The evasive action and the machinegun bursts were Standard Operating Procedures. At 2,000 feet altitude, we cruised. That’s when I saw on the Huey floor an empty shell from the bursts of the M-60 machinegun on board. I picked up the empty shell, and then pocketed it for good luck.
At the Gensan airport, I called the Boss: “Mission accomplished, Mrs. President.”
(Dureza had successfully handled past crises situations notably the “detention” by Moro National Liberation Front rebel leader Habier Malik of Marine Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino and Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Undersecretary Ramon Santos in Sulu province in 2007; the handover of MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari from Malaysian authorities to face rebellion charges in 2002; the surrender of convicted priest-killer escapee Norberto Manero in 2001; the release of Army Gen. Victor Obillo and Capt. Eduardo Montealto by New People’s Army rebel leader Commander Leoncio “Parago” Pitao with the Capalla humanitarian team in 1999; the Cebu Pacific plane crash in Misamis Oriental province in 1998; the Mindanao El Nino crisis in 1998; the Davao Penal Colony hostage situation in 1998. Ed)