D-Day, Nov.26 (Thursday)

6:00AM–Early morning, government forces took over and occupied the ARMM facilities and other buildings and premises in Maguindanao province. Armed elements loyal to the Ampatuans were taken by surprise and gave up their firearms without resistance.

I was nervous a bit but confident. The “what if” scenarios kept popping up in my mind. I motored to the 601stbrigade for the final briefings. The choppers would pick me up from there. Gen Ferrer and I watched as more newly arrived troops were jumping off towards designated areas.

9:00AM – I was informed that something went wrong with the Huey helicopters coming from Cotabato . The Davao choppers were instead dispatched but would not be able to arrive by 10AM.

9:55AM – I got a call from Col Geslani whom we tasked to liaison with the Ampatuans that they were requesting for a little time as they were waiting for their lawyer who was still on the road to arrive. That was a break I needed. The 2 choppers arrived. We discussed with the pilot and crew contingencies and procedures.

10:45AM, we were ready to jump off upon cue from Col Geslani. It would be a short 35 minute hop from the brigade to Shariff Aguak. My staff Cecil said she’s getting nervous but insisted on joining. My assistant, Yo was busy texting. But wait, another problem suddenly cropped up. As we were boarding, one the 2 PNP officers tasked to escort the suspect said they could not use the handcuff on Ampatuan as the KEY WAS MISSING! What about the other handcuff with your buddy, I asked. “Ganon din po sir”, he replied. “Sh_t!” I almost fell from my seat!.(”Sarap sapakin!”) But there was no more time. We then agreed that he would be strapped with the seat belt and the policemen would firmly clasp the buckles to prevent any unexpected situation while airborne. (When I was asked later by reporters why Ampatuan was not handcuffed, I had a ready curt answer with a straight face: “He is adequately restrained!”. Sec Agnes promptly responded with the same line when she was asked upon landing in Manila. )

11:20AM Two Hueys landed on the Maguindanao province capitol grounds. The Huey engines were not shut off as agreed in case a sudden exit maneuver was necessary. I waited for 20 minutes on the ground. I was getting worried. Finally, I saw my staff Ollie with his thumbs up sign. Col Geslani signalled, they were on their way. My “what if” scare disappeared. The capitol gates opened. The Ampatuan family arrived on board vehicles from another location nearby. Gov Zaldy clasping my hand said: “Ipaubaya ni amah si Datu Unsay sayo” and turned over Datu Unsay to me. We boarded the aircraft with Atty. Cynthia , insisting she had to ride with him.

11:40AM, Helis took off enroute Gen Santos City where Sec. Agnes and her crew were waiting for an inquest proceeding. But again something happened. About a few minutes airborne and while still climbing and gaining altitude, I first noticed some flapping sound outside. I thought, maybe some loose parts of the chopper. The noise kept coming, intermittent. I looked down and maybe I saw flashes but I was not sure. Suddenly the Huey banked sharply to the right and simultaneously, several short bursts from our two Huey gunners at the back. The bursts startled all of us. The evasive maneuver by the pilot also jarred us. All of us kept our heads low as the Huey steeply climbed. My staff Jerry and Col Mac who were seated beside the open Huey doors ducked. The soldier at the back shouted, “ground fire, sir”. We still climbed. The flapping sound from outside could not be heard anymore. The gunners later told me ground fire sounded like flapping from the air.

The evasive action and the machinegun bursts were SOP. At 2,000 feet altitude, we cruised. That’s when I saw on the Huey floor an empty shell from the bursts of the M-60 machinegun on board.

I picked up the empty shell, then pocketed it for good luck.

At the Gensan airport, I called the Boss: “Mission accomplished, Mrs. President.”


Day Two – Nov 24 (Tuesday)

Bert and I took the earliest flight to Gen Santos City. At the 601stbrigade in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat, briefings were held. Initial photos of the carnage were flashed on the screen. Gruesome! Next we met with the Mangudadatus, many of them my personal friends.

They were tense and angry. They wanted to retrieve the bodies immediately. They demanded justice, immediately. The Ampatuans did it, they said. After Bert and I expressed government’s resolve to do everything possible, Toto Mangudadatu said they will cooperate. No retaliatory action but government must give justice.

12 NOON – A teleconferencing call connected Bert and me to the Palace where the President was presiding over a hastily called security meeting. We were getting specific instructions from her. So did Bert, PNP Chief Jess Versoza and AFP Vice CS Maclang who arrived with us. Her voice had that sense of urgency. Inputs from the other cabinet members were also relayed.

1:00 PM – The crisis management committee was activated. Assisting me were Eastmincom Gen Ferrer and PNP 12 Director Serapio.

2:00 PM – Bert left to fly back to Manila. Col Geslani, brigade commander assisted in setting up the command center. It was at this time that I operationalized an action plan I quietly formulated in my mind. It was a simple plan drawing lessons from past experiences.

3:00PM – Having talked with the Mangudadatus, I decided to go see the Ampatuans in Shariff Aguak. I felt confident. Both families were my friends. And I had direct access to them. With my staff and without military escorts, except for one military officer, Col Macario as guide, I motored to the Ampatuan residence.

3:45PM —I entered the Ampatuan fenced premises and the patriarch Gov. Andal Ampatuan, Sr was there waiting for me. With him seated in a “ bahay kubo” on the sprawling grounds were several ARMM and Maguindanao officials and relatives. Armed followers were everywhere.

After informing Gov. Andal that my purpose in coming was because of the incident and that his son, Mayor Datu Unsay Ampatuan, Jr. was implicated , I told “Bapa” Andal that it would be best that the Ampatuans also “cooperate”. I said that Datu Unsay should submit to an investigation. He immediately said: “ OK. Kausapin mo sya. Ipatawag ko si Datu Unsay. Basta kayo secretary walang problema”. I told him I wanted to see Datu Unsay as I got reports that he was missing or had escaped. Bapa said: “Hindi yan totoo. Darating si Datu Unsay. Magpakita sya sayo secretary”. Bapa Andal as usual, was a man of few words. We then went inside the house to wait for the son’s arrival. In the meantime, ARMM Gov Zaldy Ampatuan and Cong. Digs Dilangalen arrived from the airport. Usec Zam Ampatuan, Atty Cynthia Guiani Sayadi, among others were there too. I felt a bit tense and uncomfortable. I did not want to start talking about the incident until Unsay would arrive. We were chatting for about an hour trying to divert the issue and loosen up. A lively conversation centered on how many children some of their relatives had. One relative had 70 children. Of course from several mothers. Etc.

4:30PM – We waited. I noticed that Atty. Cynthia was using her cellphone and taking pictures while we were chatting. Unsay arrived and got seated on my left. We continued a bit about our light banter until Unsay settled down. (GMA7 later that same evening showed some pictures on TV. My wife Beth texted me and called my attention immediately when she saw it: “Bakit ka smile kasama mga Ampatuan. Not proper.” I agreed. But I was puzzled where the pictures came from and who sent them. There were no media people around. I surmised Cynthia did it.)

5:00PM. – I was becoming worried that darkness would overtake my return trip to Sultan Kudarat. Many armed and uniformed men on the highway. One could not tell what group or unit. So when Unsay got seated, I immediately told him that I came because of the serious incident and that initial reports mentioned his name as involved. I told him my purpose in coming was only to be assured that he would cooperate and submit himself to any investigation. He looked at the direction of Gov Andal who spoke first: “ Gaya ng sinabi ko sayo kanina, magcooperate kami, secretary”. Then Unsay himself echoed saying: “Mag cooperate po kami secretary”. I then stood up and said I would contact them again soon.

We arrived in Marbel already dark and stayed there for the night.


Day One —Nov 23 (Monday)

– I was monitoring closely reports about a missing convoy in Maguindanao with media friends. Later in the day, reports of mass murder of the Mangudadatus were confirmed. Allegedly by Datu Unsay Ampatuan Jr. et al. My instincts told me this could very well be a very explosive situation. . When media called, I said I would recommend proclaiming a state of emergency. At 8 p.m. SND Bert Gonzales and I met. He told me the President had directed that I act as “crisis manager”.