MANILA, Philippines—Government authorities considered the Aug. 23 hostage-taking a “local crisis” even if foreign nationals were involved, and the official in charge of the Philippine National Police was “not capable of handling hostage situations.”
Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno on Friday made these admissions to the fact-finding committee investigating the police rescue operation that left eight Hong Kong tourists and the hostage-taker, dismissed cop Rolando Mendoza, dead.
The first day of the three-day marathon hearing, which was aired on live TV, revealed the seeming cavalier attitude of the national and local governments toward the daylong hostage crisis at Quirino Grandstand in Manila, with Puno banking on the strategy of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim to simply exhaust Mendoza and hope he would release all the hostages unharmed.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima chairs the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) tasked by President Benigno Aquino to look into the police assault on the hijacked tour bus that was aired live on TV. Her vice chair is Puno’s own boss, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who had said he was left “out of the loop” in the efforts to resolve the crisis because Puno was earlier designated by Mr. Aquino to handle police affairs.
Six Hong Kong police officers observed the hearing that began at 9:40 a.m. and continued until past 7 p.m., with Lim taking the witness stand.
PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa and Chief Supt. Rodolfo Magtibay also testified separately for over two hours.
Verzosa admitted that he could have rectified some lapses committed by the police if he were in the area during critical moments in the negotiation.
He said he flew to Cagayan de Oro City on that day to attend an “official function” despite being told four hours earlier that a dismissed policeman was holding captive a busload of Hong Kong tourists.
‘It happened in Manila’
Puno made his admissions while being questioned by IIRC members Herman Basbaño, president of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, and Roan Libarios, governor of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
Libarios asked Puno: “Did it not occur to you that the majority of hostages were foreign nationals? Did it not occur to you to assert that the crisis be considered a national crisis that would give jurisdiction to the national crisis committee?”
Said Puno: “No, sir. ...[I]t happened in Manila, that’s one. The hostage-taker was assigned in Manila, and that was the consideration there. It happened in the jurisdiction of the city of Manila, and the hostage-taker was a former police officer.”
The panel’s questioning of Puno focused primarily on how the national government had handled the hostage-taking that embarrassed the Philippines before the world, and to determine who was in charge as the situation swiftly deteriorated.
Puno said the local crisis committee was constantly in charge but that the national crisis committee, which he headed, was on “standby” in case the situation worsened.
“How significant to you was the element of foreign nationals being held hostage by a police officer?” Libarios asked Puno.
He replied: “It was very significant, but again I reiterate that in [the local crisis committee’s] personal assessment, the hostage took place in Manila and the hostage-taker, a former Manila policeman, was very cooperative.”
“At no point in time from 10 in the morning to 7 in the evening did it ever occur to you to consider the crisis within the dimension of the national crisis committee?” Libarios said.
“No, sir,” Puno said.
Earlier, Basbaño asked Puno if the hostage-taking were considered simply an “ordinary crisis.”
Puno described the incident as “a local hostage-taking situation” that could be handled by the police district director and the city mayor.
“So you just treated it as local crisis. Did it not enter your minds that it was a PNP official taking hostage some ... foreign nationals and there were indications that it would have [an impact on] the country and everybody?” Basbaño said.
The committee granted Puno’s request to explain behind closed doors why the incident was deemed a “local crisis” only. Verzosa joined the executive session.
Libarios pressed on: “So, the primary consideration in the determination of level of response is the identity of the perpetrator? You did not consider the identity of the potential victims of the crisis situation, which could change the magnitude of and the potential government response to the crisis situation?”
Said Puno: “We did not consider that, but the national crisis committee was on standby and we were prepared to take over in case it was elevated to a national crisis. But it was the local crisis committee’s call, and [its] assessment of the hostage-taker was that he was very cooperative.”
He added that the foreign affairs, social welfare and development, tourism, justice, and health departments had been given “instructions” on what to do in case the situation came to be classified as a national crisis.
Even De Lima was baffled by the assessment that the situation was a local crisis.
“The mindset was this was a local incident... Was there any dissenting opinion by anyone, whether by members of the local crisis committee or the national crisis committee, which was on standby?” she said.
“Our assessment was that he was a very cooperative hostage-taker, releasing eight or nine hostages [earlier],” Puno said.
Puno admitted that he was not trained to handle hostage situations. But he took responsibility for the bungled rescue operation.
“I am not capable of handling hostage situations, I am not trained to do that. I do not have the experience to handle hostage negotiations,” Puno said.
He agreed with De Lima when she wondered whether this was the reason he “left the negotiators to do their own thing.”
Puno, a known shooting buddy of the President, said the latter appointed him interior undersecretary for peace and order on July 5, assigned to supervise Patrol 117, the fire and jail bureaus, Public Safety College, and Philippine Center for Transnational Crime.
“But I have also verbal instructions from the President to oversee the PNP,” he said.
De Lima asked Puno if it was confirmed that there was “such an order from the President that you will take care or handle the PNP.”
“Especially on the movements and logistical requirements, and to study certain aspects that would be helping in the operations,” he said.
He added that his role was to observe and give support to the police in terms of logistics and manpower.
Libarios questioned Magtibay, the ground commander, on the possible deaths of four of the Hong Kong tourists during the police assault.
He told Magtibay that “based on the rundown of events,” four of the Hong Kong tourists were hit by “gunfire as a result of the assault.”
“Would you consider that [assault] as successful if four died from the assault?” Libarios said.
Magtibay said he could not confirm Libarios’ statement, but said that if that were the case, “[the] SWAT team, I believe, cannot share the blame alone for that.”
“They tried their best and in fact we avoided a worst scenario whereby all the hostages, including the hostage-taker, will die during the assault,” he said.
Libarios said the information that four of the tourists may have perished during the assault “was raised” during the committee’s executive session with Puno and Verzosa.
“I may not have the privilege to discuss in detail how it happened. But in the course of the executive session, it appears that the four may have suffered the tragedy in the course of the assault. Anyway, that would be a matter of a different discussion later on,” Libarios said.
Panel member Teresita Ang-See also asked Magtibay if he abandoned his post during the crucial hours—when a radio reporter was speaking with Mendoza by phone and was “clogging up the line”—to attend a meeting at the command center at the Emerald Restaurant on Roxas Boulevard.
Magtibay said he did not abandon his post.
He said he had followed Lim’s instructions for him to proceed to the restaurant “to continue our discussion” with Puno and Chief Supt. Leocadio Santiago, the chief of the National Capital Region Police Office.
PNP chief’s absence
Verzosa was questioned by the committee on his absence and his decision to let Manila Police District (MPD) officials handle the situation.
De Lima asked Verzosa if he had the authority to make replacements after the hostage-taker expressed disgust over the chief negotiator, Supt. Orlando Yebra.
“When it is extremely necessary,” Verzosa said. “We don’t want to intervene in the situation of the ground.”
De Lima sought Verzosa’s assessment of Magtibay’s decision to arrest Mendoza’s brother, SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza, for allegedly conniving with the hostage-taker.
The arrest, which was aired live on TV, enraged Mendoza and pushed him to open fire on the hostages.
“I was alarmed by the sudden commotion and felt nervous something might happen, [and] I still believe it was the most critical and tipping point,” Verzosa said.
He said he had thought of calling Magtibay to relay instructions on how to handle the situation, but decided not to.
“If you were physically present, would you have done that? Immediately ordered Magtibay to desist from arresting the brother?” De Lima said.
Verzosa replied: “I can [make] that decision. But it has already happened, and it might be hard to repair the observations of the public.”
Verzosa said the police failed to control the crowd during the hostage crisis.
He said crowd control involved keeping away not only kibitzers but also the media, the police, and other personalities who should not be at the site of a hostage-taking.
“There was a mix-up,” Verzosa said under questioning by Basbaño. “The lapses happened because of the failure to [implement] crowd control. We saw some lapses... I think we failed to designate a media center, where media briefings should have been given.”
Like Puno, Verzosa said he was confident that Magtibay was capable of ensuring a peaceful end to the hostage crisis because Mendoza was cooperative with the police during the early hours.
“There were two considerations in having the MPD address it—[Mendoza] was from the MPD and Magtibay said they can probably settle with the hostage-taker because he was cooperative,” the PNP chief said.
Verzosa said the release of some of the hostages in the first few hours of the situation indicated that the negotiation “going smoothly.”
“In various stages, [the negotiation] was proceeding very well,” he said, adding that he was continuously talking with Magtibay to give instructions.
Verzosa said Mendoza’s disposition suddenly changed when he saw the letter from the Office of the Ombudsman stating that it would review his dismissal from the PNP.
“That was the tipping point. His character just changed from then on,” Verzosa said.