SAF 44 gallantry did not go in vain: Magalong

The gallantry of the 44 fallen members of the Special Action Forces (SAF 44) during an encounter with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters in Mamasapano, Maguindanao four years ago remain etched in the memories of Filipinos.

Every year after the Jan. 25, 2015 bloody encounter — one of the most tragic in the history of Philippine security forces — retired police Director Benjamin Magalong is reminded of the 44 young men, 14 of whom were Cordillerans, who showed courage in the line of fire.

The death of the troopers did not go in vain, Magalong said, as their passing is a vindication for the neutralization of the most wanted terrorists — Zulkifli Bin Hir “aka Marwan” and Abdul Basit Usman.

Magalong, who chaired the Philippine National Police board of inquiry that probed the case, recalled the day he received a text message from the men while they were in crossfire.

“January 25 is a day of mourning for me. I can still remember ‘yung text message na napapalaban sila and I can’t do anything. Noong hindi na sila makontak, I was trying to get in touch with everyone pero wala naman silang mai-provide sa akin na real time information kaya talagang nalulungkot ako (I can still remember the text message that they were in a battle and I can’t do anything. Then I can no longer contact them, I tried to get in touch with everyone but nobody can provide real-time information, which saddened me),” Magalong said.

He said the wounds of the tragedy are still fresh, not just because he was a policeman but he used to be a former SAF trooper himself and the founder of the Seaborne — an elite group of SAF troopers.

As the country commemorates on Jan. 25 the courageous act of the SAF 44, Magalong said he would offer prayers for his fallen comrades and ask God for justice to be served.

“I am confident that justice will be served, but there should be time for healing, time for forgiveness so that everybody can move forward,” he said.

“Justice is moving, the case is already in court, let’s wait for it. I believe that the justices are very objective making sure that all grounds, all pieces of evidence are well-evaluated. All testimonies are there,” Magalong added.

Questions left unanswered

Four years have passed, yet more questions are still left unanswered.

“Bakit nga ba talaga hindi nagpaputok ng artillery? Ano ba talaga ang nangyari sa Zamboanga? Ano ba laman ng cellphones nila? (Why did they not fire artillery? What happened in Zamboanga? What was the content of their cellphones),” Magalong said these were just some of the questions that still hover over his head.

When Magalong was appointed to head the board of inquiry that probed into the case, they were given only a month to finish the task.

“I still have numerous questions still hanging but it [investigation report] was the best that we can do in one and a half month. If we were given adequate time, four or five months, siguro mas marami pa kaming na-uncover (we would have uncovered more). It would be very impossible to uncover the critical issues and pieces of evidence given only a month. We should have established more facts about the case, uncover a lot more of the critical issues, more pieces of evidence and that would give us a better picture of what really happened),” Magalong said.

The questions would continue to hound Magalong’s mind, and all that he could ask for now is peace of mind for him and the troopers’ families.

Looking back

The BOI was composed of Magalong as chairman, Director Catalino Rodriguez and Chief Supt. John Sosito as members. An Operational Audit Team (OAT) was also formed led by Senior Supt. Robert Po as team leader with Senior Supt. Ronald dela Rosa, Senior Supt. Cesar Hawthorne Binag, Senior Supt. Benigno Durana and Chief Insp. David Joy Duarte as members.

Magalong said there were around 40 policemen who helped do the interviews and around 50 investigators from the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group who were trained on “prosecutorial intelligence” and a talent for “cognitive interviewing techniques”, “burning their lashes” for the target date to be met.

Testimonies from 367 persons — 347 from the PNP, 40 of them had key decision- making roles in “Oplan Exodus”; there were 14 from the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP), four from the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities and three others.

There were also support staff who did the transcription of all the interviews — which the eight-man team had to read, digest, understand and internalize to come up with the 125-pages report.

“It was physically draining. Ok lang sana kung pinabayaan kami na mag-investigate and they stick to their words na hindi kami makikialam pero hindi eh, pailalim eh, gumagalaw na meron ng kinakausap na ibang members ng BOI na i-overrule ang findings. Mabuti na lang and dalawang members hindi rin nagpa-pressure. Supportive din sila (It would have been fine if they stick to their word that they won’t meddle, but they were moving underground, they talk to BOI members to overrule the findings. It was good the two members were unmoved),” Magalong said.

Magalong said when he accepted the job to head the inquiry, he, along with the others, was determined to ferret out the truth.

There were pressures from some personalities, but Magalong said “we cannot be influenced”.

“May mga offer for rewards, na we will be rewarded profusely (there were offers of reward, that we would be profusely rewarded). Very tempting, and it would make you think of the good it would do to your career but at the end of the day, ang dami mong iko-consider (there are many things that you have to consider) — for one you have to protect the integrity of the organization, you have to give justice to the victims and give justice to the families. ‘Yun ang basic consideration namin (those were our basic consideration),” he said.

The findings were submitted on March 13, 2015.

“At least we were able to show that the PNP is a credible organization and we had to fight for those who died, the injured and the civilians who were innocently affected,” Magalong said. (PNA/Liza Agoot)