MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III Tuesday said he wasn’t exactly impressed with the way police handled the bloody hostage-taking drama at the Luneta Park. Officials admitted “defects” in the police operation.
Looking fresh and relaxed in a nationally televised news conference with bleary-eyed Palace reporters after midnight Monday following the 11-hour crisis, Mr. Aquino said some things certainly could stand improvement.
“How can I be satisfied when there were people who were killed,” he said.
At least eight hostages were killed when Senior Insp. Rolando Mendoza, 55, seized a tourist bus with 25 people aboard, mostly Hong Kong Chinese visitors, and demanded that the Ombudsman reverse his dismissal on extortion charges two years ago.
Mendoza himself was killed in the police assault on the bus after he had earlier freed eight hostages. The rest of the hostages were wounded in the gunbattle, but the driver escaped unscathed.
Mr. Aquino said that among the lessons learned in Monday’s incident was the need for the “redefinition of limitations.”
“What were the limitations imposed on the media, I think none,” the President said, noting that the journalists sought to get “the latest tidbit” throughout the crisis.
Mr. Aquino said that media’s intensive coverage “provided a wealth of information” to Mendoza, whom he noted was watching television on the bus and listening to the radio “throughout the whole time.”
“And each time he got a new piece of information that obviously factored into his equations and it didn’t help our security forces any,” he said.
Asked whether officials erred in not imposing a news blackout, the President said if he ordered one, the media would say that the government was “guilty of censoring a priori.”
“We cannot censor you for things you have to do,” he said, but noted that something could probably be worked out between the government and the media that will see the media being able to do its work without impeding security operations.
‘Over the edge’
The President said authorities initially thought the situation would be resolved peacefully and had intended to “wait it out” but that it “deteriorated rapidly” and resulted in a bloodbath.
Mr. Aquino cited three instances that turned Mendoza around from his initial “cooperative” nature after he spoke to an unknown person on the phone upon receiving a letter from Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, who had promised to review his case.
Tension also rose during the negotiations because of the presence of Mendoza’s brother, SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza, at the scene, he said. The subsequent arrest of his brother, which was covered by the media, also “further agitated” Mendoza.
“He was obviously distressed to begin with. Something put him over the edge,” the President said.
Decision to stall
It was also a “tactical decision” to stall because there was initially no immediate threat to the hostages, Mr. Aquino said, pointing out that Mendoza had earlier freed eight hostages.
“So we were hoping as the stress wore him down, then he’d be more and more amenable to finding an amicable or peaceful resolution to the problem. Unfortunately that changed and it changed quite rapidly,” he said.
The President said he had ordered Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to conduct a “thorough investigation of everything that transpired.”
Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Verzosa said in a statement that Monday’s incident was “unfortunate” that warranted a thorough investigation.
“We will hold passing any judgment on what went wrong or what went right until we receive the final report from a team of experts who will look into all circumstances surrounding the hostage-taking incident,” he said.
Defects in police action
Senior Supt. Agrimero Cruz, PNP spokesperson, said a committee had been formed to look into the case. He said that the police leadership had noted “defects” in the action against Mendoza.
These include the poor handling of the hostage negotiation, “side issues and events that further agitated the hostage-taker,” inadequate capability, skills, equipment and planning of the assault team, improper crowd control, and the noncompliance to media relations procedures in hostage situations.
“There are plenty of observations. Like the broadcasting live (of troops movements) and it was monitored (by the hostage-taker). There were a lot of usis (bystanders) during the assault and immediately after. The usis were there before the ambulances. These things have to be corrected,” Cruz added.
Cruz said that a Special Action Force was on standby but that authorities allowed the police on the ground to continue with the negotiations. “In a hostage situation, whatever force committed there should not be pulled out.”
On the comment that the PNP looked inept before international TV audiences, Cruz said: “There was nothing shameful. That is their opinion, that is what they saw. In our point of view, given the situation and our meager resources, we did well.”
Verzosa, according to Cruz, believed that based on initial reports, the actions taken by the Manila Police District head, Chief Supt. Rodolfo Magtibay were “justified.”
On the possibility of friendly fire hitting the hostages, Cruz said initial reports said the only shots fired were those from a sniper that took out Mendoza, and from Mendoza himself.
He commended the courage of the assault team. “Our policemen were brave. Even without protective clothing, they did their job because the order was to assault.”
“There is nothing perfect. We always have to improve. Even police in First World countries continue to improve their services, continue to improve their skills.”
Cruz also said the investigators would probe the role played by Gregorio Mendoza in the incident. Mendoza’s brother was charged with obstruction of justice Monday night, he said.
Christine O. Avendaño & Alcuin Papa, Phil. Daily Inquirer