MANILA, Philippines - If National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief Leocadio Santiago had his way, he would have used the police's elite Special Action Force (SAF) in the assault of the bus where a dismissed policeman held hostage Hong Kong tourists.
"If I was given the option and the decision at the moment, I will choose the PNP (Philippine National Police)-SAF," Santiago told the official Incident Investigation and Review Committee on the August 23 hostage crisis on Saturday.
Santiago said he was the "supervising officer" during the hostage crisis. As such, he said his role in the hostage-taking incident was to provide everything the ground commander needed to resolve the crisis.
Suspended Manila Police District (MPD) director, Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, was the ground commander while Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim was chairman of the local crisis management committee.
After Magtibay informed him about the hostage-taking incident before noon on August 23, Santiago said he immediately placed on standby the Rapid Deployment Battalion of the NCRPO's regional SAF unit as well as its Regional Public Safety Battalion.
He said both units were equipped with snipers and assault troops. The SAF group deployed 3 snipers and 9 assault troops while the Public Safety Battalion readied 16 men, also trained on crisis situations.
Santiago said that since his role was to provide resources for Magtibay and the crisis management group, he placed the SAF team and the Public Safety Battalion team at the MPD chief's disposal.
Observations have been made that the hostage crisis may have turned out differently had the police used the SAF instead of the MPD's Special Weapon and Tactics (SWAT) Team.
Hostage-taker police officer Rolando Mendoza and 8 Hong Kong tourists died during the 12-hour hostage drama.
During the Senate hearing on the hostage crisis, Magtibay confirmed that the SAF was placed at his disposal, but he did not use the elite unit because the MPD SWAT commanders assured him they could handle the situation.
The SWAT team, however, failed to breach the bus because the sledgehammer they used could not break the fiberglass windows of the bus.
When the assault operation "stalled," Santiago said he activated the SAF unit that was on standby, and ordered its team leader to assist the Manila police's SWAT team.
He said it was the SAF team that fired 2 cannisters of teargas into the bus, which forced Mendoza to go to front of the bus where there was a clearer view for snipers to shoot the hostage-taker.
Asked why it was only during the critical moments did he order the SAF to support the MPD-SWAT, Santiago said: "Nobody in the organization of the task group took the initiative, so I took the initiative."
Teresita Ang-See, a member of the investigating panel, suggested during the hearing that Santiago should have been the most qualified police official in Metro Manila to lead the police force during the hostage crisis.
"As head of the SAF for three years, I've seen how you worked. The team is a very excellent team," Ang-See said.
She said Santiago could have replaced Magtibay as ground commander when the hostage crisis situation turned for the worse.
"There was no reason to remove or substitute Chief Superintendent Magtibay," Santiago said, adding that the early part of the negotiations went well as proven by Mendoza's moves to release hostages.
Magtibay is more senior than Santiago in the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). Santiago belongs to the PMA Class 1979 while Magtibay belongs to Class 1978.
Ang-See asked Santiago if this was the reason why he could not "overrule" the decisions made by Magtibay during the hostage crisis.
"On official duty, the [PMA] class membership does not count. On official duty, the rank is followed," said Santiago, who is one rank higher than Magtibay.
During the hearing, Santiago also said that if he was the negotiator and there were opportunities to subdue Mendoza, he would have attempted it.
Earlier in the hearing, police negotiator Chief Inspector Romeo Salvador, admitted that there were opportunities to tackle the hostage-taker.
The investigating panel said that it had been informed that the negotiators had at least 3 opportunities to tackle and subdue the hostage-taker.
Santiago said the hostage negotiators told him during debriefing that they did not attempt to tackle Mendoza because they were afraid it would affect future hostage-taking incidents.
"If he [negotiator] faces another negotiations, he would have the background of doing that [subduing hostage-taker]. No one will negotiate or trust him [again]," he said.
Santiago said that if he was the negotiator, "Probably...I will grab the opportunity."
The NCRPO chief said that bringing down hostage-takers should be included in police negotiators' protocol in the future.
However, he clarified that this was just his proposal since he is not in a position to amend the police's protocol on crisis management.
Santiago confirmed during the hearing that he signed a reinstatement order for Mendoza at the latter part of the crisis.
The order, however, did not reach Mendoza.
Santiago said the document is still with Magtibay.
Angelo Gutierrez, ABS-CBN News