MANILA, Philippines — Ten weeks after activist Jonas Burgos mysteriously disappeared, the search for his abductors has led the country’s top civilian investigating body to the military’s doorstep.
Acting on tips provided by an informant, a(DoJ) prosecutor Monday directed the National Bureau of Investigation to question six members of the military — including a woman — and verify leads about their alleged involvement in the abduction of the son of the late press freedom advocate Jose (Joe) Burgos Jr.
Of the six, three were purportedly assigned to the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP), while the rest belonged to the Army — the 56th Infantry Battalion based in Bulacan province and the Escort and Security Battalion.
Senior State Prosecutor Emmanuel Velasco, who heads the Presidential Task Force Against Media Harassment, named five of the six as:
• Philippine Air Force members M/Sgt. Aron Arroyo and Cpl. Maria Joana Francisco, purportedly also members of Military Intelligence Group 15 of the ISAFP.
• T/Sgt. Jason Roxas of the Army.
• 1st Lt. Jaime Mendaro of the Army, who is also assigned to the 56th Infantry Battalion.
• Lt. Col. Noel Clement of the Army and assigned to the Escort and Security Battalion.
The sixth military man was a certain T.L. or “team leader,” supposedly also with MIG 15 of the ISAFP.
“If the source is to be believed, it is political,” Velasco said when asked the reasons for Burgos’ abduction. “He is allegedly a member of the NPA (New People’s Army).”
Velasco said the plan to abduct Burgos was supposedly hatched in October last year.
Clement denies involvement
Velasco said he had directed the NBI to also summon Clement because the license plate of the vehicle identified as the one used in Burgos’ abduction was later traced to the 56th IB, where Clement had been previously assigned.
Clement was the predecessor of Lt. Col. Melquiades Feliciano at the 56th IB. Feliciano was earlier placed under preventive suspension while the provost marshal investigated how the license plate ended up on the alleged kidnap vehicle.
Clement expressed surprise he was included in the investigation but said he was ready to face it.
Clement denied involvement but said “I will always be available for investigation.”
Two names dropped
Velasco’s directive came four days after the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported an intelligence agent as saying that a unit within the AFP’s intelligence service was behind Burgos’ disappearance.
ISAFP chief Maj. Gen. Delfin Bangit said the names of officers mentioned by Velasco do not appear in his agency’s roster, the Associated Press reported.
Apparently dropped from the DoJ’s list of suspects were two other Army soldiers who were earlier linked to the abduction — Cpl. Castro Bugalon and Pfc. Jose Villena, both of the 56th IB.
Bugalon and Villena’s names surfaced during police investigation after the license plate of the vehicle seen used by Burgos’ abductors was traced to another vehicle which the two soldiers impounded in an anti-illegal logging operation in Bulacan last year.
The two soldiers later denied any role in Burgos’ disappearance before investigators in Camp Crame and the Commission on Human Rights.
Away on a trip to Malaysia, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. Monday night said he had yet to see the DoJ directive but he would ask Bangit to check.
“If that is allowed as a legal procedure, then so be it,” Esperon said in a phone interview.
But he expressed some reservations on the DoJ’s reliance on an “anonymous informant.”
“They (informants) should also come out so we can face the proper forum,” Esperon said.
Velasco said the NBI was also asked to look into the purported similarities between the artist’s sketches of the male and female suspects in the Burgos disappearance with the sketches of the suspects in the abduction of the “Erap 5” urban poor leaders, or supporters of former President Joseph Estrada.
“The cartographic sketches were furnished by two different police units or agencies,” he pointed out.
Velasco also said two other vehicles were allegedly used in Burgos’ abduction and that he had likewise asked the NBI to investigate this.
The two vehicles — a red Mitsubishi Lancer (WAM-155) and a maroon Toyota Altis (XBC-881) — were allegedly used as backup vehicles.
Velasco also told the NBI to place two witnesses, a security guard and a restaurant employee, under the Witness Protection Program.
“I asked the NBI to come up with their initial report within 10 days because what is involved here is the life of Mr. Burgos. We are racing against time,” he told reporters.
Burgos was abducted by three men and a woman from the Ever Gotesco Mall on Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City, on April 28.
NBI Director Nestor Mantaring and Deputy Director Reynaldo Esmeralda were present at Velasco’s announcement at the Department of Justice.
Higher interest at stake
According to Velasco, his leads came from an informant who approached him last week. He declined to provide details about the informant for the latter’s safety.
Asked how confident he was about the information he got from his source, he said: “That’s why we are asking NBI to double-check the information.”
Velasco said he was not saying the military men were already guilty, when asked if he wasn’t being unfair to the six military personnel.
“No, we said ‘allegedly.’ But remember, there is a higher interest at stake here. The higher interest here is the life of Mr. Burgos. It’s most unfair if we will not do anything to find him. That’s the higher interest, there is a hierarchy of values,” he said.
He said the military personnel could not ignore the NBI summons to appear, saying they had to respect other government agencies.
The NBI will also request pictures and the personnel data sheets of the military personnel.
Velasco said the informant came out because the latter wanted to help save Burgos.
Esmeralda also said the NBI had asked thefor the identity of the owners of the two supposed backup vehicles.
Burgos’ mother, Edita, who hasto the military as being behind her son’s disappearance, could not be reached for comment on Velasco’s announcement despite repeated calls to her phone.
But hours before the announcement, during a meeting with Velasco at the DoJ, Edita said she was grateful that people were coming out to share information about her son’s disappearance.
She also said she would rather wait for the information given him by Velasco to be verified.
“It’s something new, and we welcome all new leads and until it’s confirmed, I cannot be convinced. But we welcome these people who have the guts to come out and add information to what we already have,” Edita told reporters.
She also said she believed that her son was still alive, pointing out that University of the Philippines student Sherlyn Cadapan turned up at a relative’s house months after she went missing.
“I believe he’s still alive. (In) the case of Sherlyn, after 11 months she surfaced alive and well. So I really pray that Jonas is OK,” she said.
Asked if she thought the military would investigate its own people in light of reports that some people in ISAFP might be responsible for her son’s disappearance, Edita said remarks by Esperon were very telling.
She said Esperon had labeled the accusation about the ISAFP as “fantastic.”
“Well, you can draw from that,” she said.
Burgos, 36, had conducted a farming seminar on the day he disappeared. He was later to meet family members but never showed up and did not answer calls to his mobile phone.
Burgos’ abduction is the most high-profile in a series of attacks on left-wing activists.
The local human rights group Karapatan has reported more than 800 people, about half of them left-wing activists, have been killed in politically motivated attacks by suspected security forces since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001. With reports from Volt Contreras, Christine O. Avendaño and Associated Press