MANILA, Philippines—At the Manila Police District (MPD), there’s a faction within the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit known mockingly as “Super SWAT,” an elite squad composed of veteran marksmen and arms experts.
But Super SWAT was kept out of the loop during the Aug. 23 hostage drama at the Luneta Park that left eight tourists and the hostage-taker dead, much to the frustration of its leader, Senior Insp. Jonathan dela Cruz.
“That’s not the SWAT I know,” he said of the unsure, bumbling unit of men whose assault on the bus taken hostage by former Senior Insp. Rolando Mendoza was captured live by cameras and made the subject of international derision.
“It’s embarrassing. We’re going to be used as an example of what not to do in a hostage situation,” he said Thursday night in an interview with some of his team members in a Manila restaurant.
Dela Cruz was supposed to have taken command of the MPD SWAT on Aug. 23, but a petition by some existing members—those who did not belong to his trusted circle—succeeded in retaining Chief Insp. Santiago Pascual as commander and keeping Dela Cruz and his team out of the action.
Pascual was later relieved with three other SWAT leaders as a result of their handling of the hostage crisis.
“Everybody here knows that it’s Dela Cruz who’s good. It’s a shame he wasn’t in command,” an MPD official not connected with SWAT nor with Dela Cruz said in a separate interview.
“Politics did him in,” said the official, who did not want to be named for lack of clearance to speak on the subject.
Watching in frustration
At the height of the crisis, Dela Cruz said he was relegated to the sidelines, watching in frustration as the events unfolded.
“I kept getting calls from people, from SWAT units in Metro Manila and my SWAT friends in the United States and Australia, and even British reporters, asking me what I was doing. They thought I was in command,” he said.
“I just told them: ‘I’m not there.’”
He said even his young daughters asked him, “Nandon ka (Were you there)?” and he felt embarrassed.
He would do it differently
Dela Cruz, 46, said he was not in any position to criticize and point out mistakes the SWAT members committed during the hostage crisis. However, he said he would have done things differently.
First, with regard to intelligence work, he would work closely with the negotiators and interrogate hostages who had been released to determine the positions of those inside the bus, he said. Once their positions were known, the next step would be to determine the entry point and where to breach the vehicle.
He said he would deploy only three people to storm the bus, but all of them must be fully decked in “Level 4” gear with bullet-proof vests and kneepads, Kevlar helmets, flashlights, M-16 rifles and handguns.
“Then we would decide on what action to take during the worst case scenario. If the worst case scenario is that the hostage-taker starts shooting at the hostages, then we go in,” he said.
Breach the front
Dela Cruz said he would order his men to use a detonating cord to blast the front part of the bus, which, in his opinion, was the ideal place to breach.
The three men would storm the vehicle, with halogen lights in position behind them to momentarily blind the hostage-taker. Their M-16 rifles would be equipped with flashlights to immediately zoom into the suspect and shoot him if necessary.
“The most damage he could have done was to shoot one of us, but he wouldn’t be able to take all three of us down,” he said.
“This would have been a good opportunity for Manila SWAT to show what it’s made of,” he said. “If the operation was successful, and I or one of my men died as a result, it would be worth it,” he said.
Dela Cruz was commander of the MPD SWAT from 2007 to 2008, a period his subordinates liked to consider the “glory days” of the unit.
“At that time, we were the ‘Best of the Best SWAT’ in the country, according to the SAF (Special Action Force),” he said.
Super SWAT earned the moniker from its members’ penchant for wearing Level 4 gear all the time—decked out in bullet-proof vests, helmets and kneepads and carrying top-of-the-line M-16 rifles and handguns.
“Some people thought we looked arrogant because we were wearing all our equipment. That’s when they started calling us ‘Super SWAT.’ They said we were elitists,” Dela Cruz said.
One of his men chimed in: “It was not meant to be a compliment.”
But Dela Cruz said: “We would need all that gear and equipment if we’re going to walk into a situation with confidence.”
He said confidence was crucial in dealing with potentially deadly situations, citing one hostage-taking incident when his squad was called in. “When the hostage-taker fired a shot, the men from other units ducked for cover, but we remained standing. Then we walked over to get to the suspect.”
He said his team, composed of less than 20 members, was a tightly knit family bonded together by a common interest in weapons and tactics.
Dela Cruz said a good SWAT unit did not need astronomical funds to be effective. The commander just has to be resourceful in finding equipment for his team, he said. He said this was what he did when he was SWAT commander, constantly on the lookout for new devices and equipment and would improvise based on the resources they had.
“In SWAT you don’t buy your equipment, you make your own,” he said, noting that the MPD SWAT currently uses Kevlar helmets and kneepads that he helped design when he was still commander.
“But more than the equipment and gear, the most important thing in a SWAT unit is the people. These are the people behind you and in front of you. You want men who are skilled and you can trust,” he said.
Trimming the fat
Which was why as SWAT commander, Dela Cruz trimmed the unit’s personnel down from 100 to 25, provoking an outcry from those who did not make the cut.
Dela Cruz said with scarce resources, he did not need 100 men to run a capable and efficient SWAT unit.
“One bullet can give you experience ... It’s not about quantity of the manpower. It’s about the knowledge that your men have,” he said.
He said his team was composed of men mostly in their 30s, unlike those deployed during the Luneta hostage crisis. “Those guys looked like they were still courting girls. They didn’t look like men raising families and building a future.”
In 2008, Dela Cruz left the MPD SWAT to join the team of his former boss, Roberto Rosales, who was then just recently appointed director of the National Capital Regional Police Office (NCRPO). He was assigned to the NCRPO’s Light Reaction Unit. Then early this year, he was recommended to resume duty at the MPD SWAT.
If he had been allowed to re-assume command, he would have trimmed the bloated personnel again. This was probably why the current SWAT members were reluctant to have him on board.
The complaining members sent a petition to Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim asking him to retain Pascual as commander, a request that Lim granted.
“I was put on floating status as a result,” he said.
Sought for a reaction, Lim said he did not know Dela Cruz and was not privy to the internal workings of the MPD SWAT.
Now, Dela Cruz said he had been recommended anew to head the MPD SWAT. But he said he was not confident that he would be reinstated.
“With this interview, I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to go back. But I’m OK with that. I just felt somebody had to say something. Now is the time for everyone to evaluate what went wrong and what should be done,” he said.
A civil engineering graduate of the Technological Institute of the Philippines, Dela Cruz joined the police force in 1987. “I rose from the ranks. I was PO1, PO2 and so on,” he said.
From 1991-1996, he received training in counterterrorism strategy and tactics from specialized police forces in Louisiana, US. The training was sponsored by the US Embassy.
As MPD SWAT commander, Dela Cruz had faced a number of hostile encounters with criminal elements, from hostage dramas to hijacking incidents and pursuits of fugitives. But none were of the scale of the Aug. 23 incident at Luneta.
By reputation, Dela Cruz is seen as something of a loose cannon.
He often terrified subordinates by “trying out” bulletproof gear while they were wearing it, that is, he would shoot it to demonstrate that the bullet would not penetrate it.
He also liked to experiment with explosives as a breaching tool. He admitted that a civilian was injured during one such experiment. “I took care of the hospital bills,” he said.
DJ Yap, Phil. Daily Inquirer