MANILA, Philippines—The chief negotiator in the Aug. 23 hostage fiasco said on Monday that the Philippine National Police had no official negotiating team and that the slaughter of eight Hong Kong tourists showed the rescue operation was a “failure.”
“The negotiating team does not really exist, until now, officially,” Supt. Orlando Yebra told the fact-finding committee formed by President Benigno Aquino III to look into the fiasco that prompted global denunciation of his administration for ineptness.
On the third day of marathon hearings by the five-member panel headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Yebra testified that the PNP did not have a negotiation manual and only conducted discussions on what to do during hostage situations.
He said that during the crisis at Rizal Park, Chief Supt. Leocadio Santiago, head of the National Capital Region Police Office, dispatched a three-man team to assist him.
Yebra, chief of the Manila Police District legal office who attended courses in hostage situations in Australia and the United States, said his informal team practically did not have any role in the negotiation.
De Lima asked Yebra if he felt the entire operation was a failure. “Yes, Ma’am,” he replied, “because I wasn’t able to take out all of them. Although there were nine [hostages released]... it was a failure.”
“Our goal is to save the lives of the victims and the hostage-taker,” Yebra said.
The hostage-taker, Rolando Mendoza, a senior inspector who was seeking reinstatement after his dismissal on robbery and extortion charges, was gunned down during the police assault at the end of the 11-hour standoff.
Yebra testified for nearly four hours, the longest for a resource person since the committee began its inquiry, giving a detailed account of the incident as well as his observations regarding the management of the crisis.
“Officially there is no negotiation unit yet in the PNP,” he said. “I proposed for the creation of that already,” in 2007, he said, but a detailed proposal he submitted was not followed up.
No intel support
During the daylong siege last month, he was given no intelligence support, Yebra said, with only one officer backing him up and neither of them having a complete picture of the hostage-taking even hours after the crisis began.
Yebra said that the PNP had supposedly assigned him several men taken from other units, but they never contacted him.
“If there was an intelligence team working the area ... (its presence) was not properly advised to me,” he said. “That would have been crucial to the success of the operation,” he added.
“It is from this group that I can get other information... the background of the hostages, the structure of the bus and probably how many liters of fuel were left in the tank.”
Yebra said a police psychologist could have helped him assess the state of mind of Mendoza when he hijacked the bus with 22 Hong Kong tourists and three Filipinos aboard.
Series of errors
Yebra’s testimony provided the latest in a list of errors during the operation.
City and police officials who earlier appeared before the inquiry admitted to other lapses, including leaving their posts when the gunman began shooting and not using the PNP’s best-trained commando unit to take part in the assault.
Yebra said that even if Mendoza had rejected the Ombudsman’s letter offering to review his case, he believed he was able to salvage the situation with his proposal to hold the police officer’s dismissal in abeyance.
He said he told Mendoza he would bring this up with his “bosses” at the command center, with the aim of buying more time to resolve the crisis.
Yebra said this calmed down Mendoza, who became very angry after his brother, SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza, said that his gun had not been returned.
No TV at command post
Gregorio had gone to the scene to help in the negotiations. The hostage-taker was said to have started shooting after seeing on the bus TV receiver that his brother had been arrested.
Yebra told the panel that he was unaware that Gregorio and his family were resisting arrest because there was no TV or radio at the command center in Rizal Park.
“Do you agree to the call for an assault?” asked Teresita Ang See, a member of the panel representing the Chinese-Filipino community.
“I would say no,” Yebra said, believing that he could still negotiate with Mendoza and end the crisis peacefully.
Gregorio also testified Monday. He told the committee that he himself had been suspended for 31 days over an administrative case filed by a fellow officer and that the suspension order was in force during the hostage drama.
Defending himself from accusations that he had conspired with his brother, Mendoza said he was unaware of this because he had last seen him during the wedding of Rolando’s daughter in Tanauan City last July.
Grilled on his presence near the hijacked bus with a pistol tucked in his waist, Gregorio said he merely wanted Rolando to see him “so I could talk to him.”
The policeman denied that he urged Rolando not to surrender unless his gun, which was seized from him when he tried to get near the bus, was returned to him.
Gregorio said when he accompanied Yebra to approach Rolando to give him the copy of the letter from the Office of the Ombudsman, he merely informed his brother that his gun had not been given back to him.
In his testimony, Yebra maintained that Gregorio told Rolando “not to give up” until he had taken back his 9mm Berretta pistol.
Yebra said this apparently infuriated the hostage-taker, causing him to fire what he said was a warning shot at the negotiators.
Gregorio said that his brother fired his gun supposedly after he “heard (Yebra) telling me that I will be charged as accessory to the crime.”
“I got nervous when I heard the shot. I knew something bad would happen unless somebody could convince my brother to surrender,” Gregorio said.
Nikko Dizon & Marlon Ramos, Phil. Daily Inquirer