Grief haunts SAF44 kin in 5-year quest for justice

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 25 2020 10:41 AM

Members of the police Special Action Force carry coffins of their 44 fallen comrades as their remains arrive at the Villamor Airbase on January 29, 2015. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA – Julie Danao keeps videos of the bloodied body of her son, one of 44 elite policemen killed in a botched raid 5 years ago in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

One viral video showed a gunman kicking her son PO2 Walner Danao in the head and stripping him naked after the encounter. He was killed just about a week after he turned 33.

Five years since, she and other relatives of the slain troopers are still seeking to hold former President Benigno Aquino III and other officials accountable for the massacre.

Yet time has been taking its toll: since the incident, mothers of at least 4 of Walner's comrades have died with justice yet to come.

The Office of the Ombudsman has yet to decide on a recent petition to reopen the previously dismissed homicide complaint against Aquino, said Julie.

And, most recently, the Sandiganbayan junked cases against Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima and former Special Action Force (SAF) head Getulio Napeñas over the anti-terror raid that led to a bloodbath, citing lack of probable cause.

Still, Danao, now 65, remains hopeful.

“Walang imposible sa Panginoong Diyos… Ipinagdadasal ko lang, sana naman bago ako mamatay, makamit namin iyong hustisyang hinihingi namin,” said Julie, who has been ailing with various conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and asthma.

(Nothing is impossible with God. I just pray that before I die, we can get the justice we demand.)

The Jan. 25, 2015 mission to arrest an al Qaeda-linked bomber went disastrously wrong when SAF commandos were ambushed and outnumbered by rebel gunmen in Mamasapano.

The target, Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, and Filipino terror suspect Basit Usman were slain in the operation.

Yet the ensuing gunfights, which allegedly involved members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which just months earlier just signed a peace pact with government, plunged the Aquino presidency into crisis and vaunted efforts to end a decades-long Muslim insurgency.

DUTY OVER FAMILY

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A former caregiver in the US, Julie last saw her son alive in 2004 because he was always on a mission every time she vacationed in the Philippines and only kept in touch through frequent phone calls.

Julie said Walner also chose duty on the day his wife gave birth to their first and only child in September 2013, when instead of being by her side, he fought Moro rebels who laid siege to the southern city of Zamboanga.

On the day of the 2015 massacre, he died holding a photo of his wife and daughter, shared Julie, quoting information from survivor P03 Christopher Lalan who said Walner urged him to save himself as rebels closed in on them.

Walner’s daughter knows that her father was killed in the line of duty.

“Sabi niya, ‘Ang tatay ko pulis, patay na.’ Naintindihan naman niya. Sabi niya, ‘Patay na, nasa heaven na, na kay Lord,’” shared the child’s grandmother.

(She said, ‘My father is a policeman, he’s dead. She understands. She said her father is in heaven already with the Lord.)

Their family, however, still grieves for Walner, who Julie said could have survived if reinforcement came sooner.

"Umiiyak kami, masakit ang loob namin… Nami-miss ko siya,” Julie said of the younger of her 2 sons.

(We cry, we are hurting. I miss him.)

A LOOKBACK: THE MAMASAPANO BLOODBATH

Marwan, a Malaysian bombmaker with a $5 million bounty on his head, had allegedly taken refuge with the MILF, the largest Muslim rebel group in the mainly Catholic Philippines which signed a ceasefire deal with the Aquino government in March 2014.

Purisima, then chief of the national police who was suspended over corruption allegations, admitted he supplied intelligence information on Marwan’s whereabouts, but denied directing the actual operation.

Around 4 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2015, the US-trained seaborne SAF launched “Oplan Exodus,” snuck into the marshy village where Marwan was sleeping, and killed him. But as the commandos withdrew, a fierce firefight erupted.

Military and national police leaders said they were not told of the raid in advance. Army reinforcements linked up with SAF troopers 4 hours into the fight, finally extracting some 27 survivors about 11:30 p.m.

Napeñas, then SAF commander, claimed Purisima instructed him to keep the national police out of the loop until the plan was carried out.

However, the police Board of Inquiry found that Aquino gave the go signal for the operation and tapped an “illegitimate, suspended” police chief to oversee it, said the probe’s leader, former police official and now Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong.

RE-INVESTIGATION FOR ‘SELFLESS HEROES’

Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong joins families of the 44 SAF men killed in the 2015 Maguindanao massacre and representatives of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption as they refile their complaints against the former administration led by then President Benigno Aquino III in relation to the Mamasapano incident, at the Office of the Ombudsman, Nov. 8, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

Magalong serves as primary witness in a plea by some SAF44 relatives and an anti-crime watchdog urging Ombudsman Samuel Martires to revisit evidence in the dismissed complaint against Aquino for reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide.

Martires earlier withdrew charges of graft and usurpation of authority against Aquino due to lack of “sufficient ground and evidence.”

The Sandiganbayan, meanwhile, cleared Napenas and Purisima of the same charges due to lack of probable cause. Sen. Richard Gordon said last week he would investigate their acquittal.

Magalong said he empathized with Gordon’s apparent frustration over the case.

“Hindi lang 44 iyong namatay, ilang civilians pa ang namatay, ta’s walang mananagot? Ganoon na lang ba iyon? Parang tapos na iyong kaso, eto na namatay, wala na” he told ABS-CBN News.

(The death toll is not just 44, there were also some civilians killed, but no one will be held liable? Will it be just like that? It’s as if the case is over, people were killed, then nothing.)

The SAF44’s sacrifice, he said, “saved a lot of potential victims from the bombs of Marwan.”

“They were only thinking about the country, about saving more lives. Hindi na nila iniisip iyong kanilang sarili, iyong kanilang career, kanilang buhay, kanilang pamilya," said Magalong.

(They did not think of themselves, their careers, their lives, their families.)

"Those are the marks of heroes – when they become selfless,” he added.

- With a report from Reuters