by Perry Diaz
The hijacking and hostage-taking of a tourist bus at Luneta (Rizal Park) in front of the Quirino Grandstand — where President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was inaugurated 55 days earlier — resulted in the death of eight Hong Kong Chinese tourists and the hostage-taker, dismissed Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza. It was an incident that will hurt the image of the Philippines for a long time.
Could the incident have been avoided? Maybe. Could the deaths have been avoided? Yes! And that’s the saddest part because the bloodbath that happened after the 11-hour standoff between the Manila Police and the hostage-taker is a big embarrassment for the fledgling Aquino administration.
On the surface what we saw was an inept SWAT squad that made a tragicomedic spectacle of themselves — on television — trying to free the hostages. But what we saw was just the tip of an iceberg. In my opinion, the root of the problem goes deep, deeper than what we have seen.
The slain hostage-taker, dismissed Senior Inspector Captain Rolando Mendoza, was a good cop when he began his career as a police officer in 1981. During the first 28 years of his career, Mendoza received the Medalya ng Papuri (Medal of Honor), PNP Badge of Honor, Medalya ng Kasanayan (Medal of Competence), Medalya ng Kagalingan (Medal of Excellence) and Medalya ng Paglilingkod (Medal of Service). In 1986, he was recognized by Jaycees International as one of the “Ten Outstanding Policemen of the Philippines” of that year.
He was promoted to Inspector in 2002 and Senior Inspector with the rank of Captain in 2005. With retirement in sight and scheduled for January 10, 2011, Mendoza enjoyed the accolades he received and the good reputation he built with honesty and dedication. Indeed, he was on top of the world. Then suddenly in April 2008, in a twist of fate, the world turned upside down on him when he was implicated in a “hulidap” — false arrest (huli) and holdup — caper involving several other cops.
Soon after, criminal and administrative charges were filed against them following an investigation which was triggered by an email (“Beware of a group of Manila cops”) that circulated in the Internet. The email sender accused them of extorting money from his son, Christian Kalaw, who was arrested for alleged parking violation and drug possession, forced to eat “shabu,” and then extorted P20,000 from him for his release and dropping of the case.
Mendoza was meted a 90-day preventive suspension. After the suspension he was reinstated and scheduled to be reassigned to Mindanao. However, on February 16, 2009, Mendoza was abruptly dismissed from his job by Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez while his case was still pending and under investigation. As a consequence, Mendoza lost all his retirement benefits and permanently disqualified from government employment. Mendoza denied any involvement in the crime and claimed that his constitutional right of due process was violated. He asked for a reconsideration of his dismissal but nothing came out of it. Some people believed — including a doctor — that this led Mendoza to depression.
On August 23, 2010, Mendoza snapped and went berserk.
The question is: What was the root cause of the transformation of Mendoza from a good cop to a bad cop? And when did that transformation occur?
A few decades ago, Manila Police was known as “Manila’s Finest” when cops wore their badges with pride and dedication. They were then respected — and trusted — by the citizens they served. They were the protector of the people. But somewhere along the way, the police force gradually transformed from protector to predator. Instead of the police protecting the citizens from criminals, the citizens had to protect themselves from criminals within the police force.
In the 1990s, a spate of kidnapping-for-ransom activities involving a lot of policemen occurred victimizing rich — mostly Chinese — businessmen. Many cases remained unresolved and ended up in limbo.
Last August 26, Senior Superintendent Francisco Villaroman was appointed acting Manila Police District Chief to replace Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, who was relieved because he ordered the bungled rescue operation to save the hostages taken by Mendoza at the Rizal Park. On the same day, sources in the Philippine National Police (PNP) revealed that the Hong Kong Department of Justice had written Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and inquired about an old case against Villaroman who was charged with the abduction and subsequent disappearance of two Hong Kong nationals 12 years ago. The following day, barely 24 hours after Villaroman took over his new post, PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa relieved him due to the existing criminal case against him.
According to documents in the possession of Inquirer, Villaroman was involved with the now-defunct Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) and the PNP Narcotics Group who abducted Chong Hiu Ming and Wong Kam Chong in 1998 and 1999, respectively, for ransom. The allegation was made by Mary Ong, who was then the principal agent in the operations. During an interview with the media last August 26, Ong said: “The two operations started out as legitimate operations but in the end they became more about the police abducting and killing suspected drug lords and selling the drugs for money. It became a money-making scheme.”
According to Ong, the illegal operations were about to be exposed by the former Nargroup intelligence chief, Superintendent John Campos, when he was killed in December 2002 in Parañaque City. Since then, the case dead-ended.
With all the “hulidap” extortion activities that have been going on around the country — just google “hulidap” and you’ll see how widespread it is — involving criminal elements in the police force, Noynoy has a big challenge ahead of him if he is serious about eradicating corruption. And police corruption is the worst kind because it victimizes the powerless people.
Can Noynoy do it? Yes, but he has to be more hands-on in dealing with this kind of problems. His hands-off policy during the hostage-taking standoff does not bode well with a citizenry that expects its leader to take the bull by its horns and subdue it with his bare hands. What Noynoy’s 90 million “bosses” want to see is a “take-charge” leader and that’s the image that Noynoy should project of himself. Anything less wouldn’t cut it.