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.”

D-DAY, Nov. 26 (Thursday)
Before daybreak, without warning, government forces as planned took over and occupied the ARMM facilities in Cotabato City including other buildings and premises in Maguindanao province. Armed elements loyal to the Ampatuans were taken by surprise and gave up their firearms without resistance.

8:00AM—I had little sleep and it was already 8 o’clock but my body refused to rise immediately. I was nervous a bit but confident. The “what if” scenarios kept popping up in my mind. I motored to the 601st Brigade for the final briefings. Two military choppers from Awang, Cotabato would pick me up from there in time for the agreed 10 a.m. pickup. In between sips of coffee and some final points, Gen Ferrer and I watched from the grounds as more newly arrived troops from Samar with armor and all were jumping off towards designated areas.

9:00AM – I was informed that something went wrong with the Huey helicopters from Cotabato. The Davao choppers were instead dispatched but would not be able to arrive by 10AM. It was a full hour flight from Davao airport to my location. I was worried. I would not want the Ampatuans to abort the pickup and blame my failure to come at the agreed time.

9:55AM – About 5 minutes to pickup time in Shariff Aguak but my choppers from Davao had not arrived yet. But a good break came. I got a call from Col Geslani to whom we gave the task 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. It was a great relief! They were the ones asking for more time.

10:45AM — The helicopters finally arrived. We were ready to jump off but we were waiting for word from Col Geslani when to take off. We reviewed again with the helicopter crews the exit procedures and the abort or trouble scenarios, like landing and taking off avoiding low elevation approach and departure due to reports of possible ground fire, etc. It would be a short 35-minute hop from the brigade to Shariff Aguak. My staff Cecil Desisto said she’s getting nervous but insisted on joining. My assistant, Yo Montenegro was busy texting, perhaps reassuring lady love Venus everything was okay. But 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. I almost fell from my seat! I jumped out of the helicopter and looked for something to use to “restrain” the suspect. I found a fighting cock nearby and started removing its string – to the cock’s great resistance. But there was no more time. We then agreed that Unsay would instead be strapped with the seat belt and the two policemen on his sides would firmly clasp the seat belt buckles to prevent any unexpected situation while airborne.

When I was asked later by reporters why Ampatuan was not handcuffed, it would be a long story and I was too embarrassed to disclose why. But I had a ready curt answer with a straight face: “He is adequately restrained!” I reckoned Sec Agnes promptly responded with the same line when she was asked upon landing in Manila about the absence of handcuffs. Of course, the critics went to town saying it was one indication that Ampatuan was getting VIP treatment. Cool!

11:20 AM — Two Hueys landed on the Maguindanao province capitol grounds. I saw that friendly troops were already in control of the area. 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. We were there in center field, Hueys’ propellers whirling noisily and a crowd watching with anxiety, most of them media crews covering and documenting every move. Finally, I saw my staff Ollie Dagala with his thumbs up sign. Col Geslani who was with the Ampatuans in another building outside the capitol grounds signaled on his cellphone that they were on their way. Suddenly, my “what if” scare disappeared. The capitol gates opened. The Ampatuan family arrived on board vehicles from another location nearby. I stood and waited for Gov Zaldy who approached me and while clasping my hand said: “Ipanapaubaya ni amah si Datu Unsay sayo” and turned over Datu Unsay to me. I walked him towards the helicopter and then suddenly hell broke loose. Ampatuan relatives and supporters, as a parting gesture started wailing and some were clutching on Unsay seemingly preventing him from boarding the aircraft. Others tried to clamber aboard the helis. We boarded the aircraft with Atty. Cynthia , insisting she had to ride with him. We had to eject my aide Nonoy Orgo and he joined another aide, Enu Domingo, in the 2nd chopper.

11:40AM — Helis took off. We were heading for Gen Santos City where Sec. Agnes and her crew were waiting for an inquest proceeding. The original plan was to hold the inquest in Manila but Sec. Agnes decided to do it at the Gensan airport so the complaining parties could be present in the “confrontation”. Unsay was looking relaxed. The Huey seats were rearranged so I was facing him. As we were gaining altitude, he motioned forward towards me and to my surprise asked: “Sec Jess, saang hotel ako e-check-in sa Manila? Para mapahabol ko pamilya ko”. I suppressed any reaction to that question and simply told him that I had no idea where he would be eventually brought but all I knew was that we would go to Gensan and I would turn him over to Sec. Agnes. From there, I would have no more role to play as the DOJ would take over. But I would escort him up to Manila as I committed to his family to see to it that nothing untoward would happen to him during the trip, I assured him.

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 hitting the underbelly. 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 from our own gunners startled all of us. The evasive maneuver by the pilot also jarred us. Atty. Cynthia was close to hysterics. All of us kept our heads low as the Huey steeply climbed. My staff Jerry Dureza and Col Macario who were seated beside the open Huey doors moved their bodies inward and 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. At 2,000 feet safe elevation, we cruised. That’s when I saw on the Huey floor an empty shell (not slug, as some quarters said ) from the bursts of the M-60 machinegun on board.
I picked up the empty SHELL, then pocketed it for good luck . I now recall some doubting Thomases saying my story about the aerial firing was hard to believe. Picking up on the heli floor a SLUG from the ground fire would indeed be a tall tale. But it was an empty shell -not a slug, not from the ground fire but from our own gunner at the back firing a few bursts to ward off hostile fire, a standard operating procedure. On hindsight, my assessment was that it was not hostile fire from the ground. I surmised some Unsay followers fired their firearms to bid him goodbye.

We landed at the Gensan airport and I handed over Datu Unsay to Sec. Agnes Devenadera. Another problem surfaced. The inquest could not proceed unless Atty. Fortun, the Ampatuan lawyer was present. A quick check showed that Atty Fortun was actually at Awang Airport by that time ready to fly by commercial flight from Cotabato back to Manila where he thought the proceeding would take place. I had to ask the Air Force station chief to fly the lawyer to Gensan on board a small Layanglayang bomber plane. It was so small and “shaking all over” that Atty. Fortun swore he would not take a similar flight ever in the future.

By sundown, we were seated aboard an Air Force plane en route to Manila with Sec. Agnes with Unsay and some companions, including some PNP officers and men who were taken into custody.

Upon disembarking at Villamor air base, media crews and reporters who were cordoned off went into action. I sported a smirk lest someone again would spot an out-of-place smile. Then I heard someone shouting out a question: “Why is he getting VIP treatment. He is not handcuffed?” I turned to Sec Agnes. She murmured something. Then and there, I could not suppress a smile. I even laughed.

From Villamor Airbase, we motored to the NBI detention area. It was there that Datu Unsay was “billeted”. Not in some hotel where he thought he would be checked in. Or to Malacanang where that bribery witness falsely accused me of promising the Ampatuans.

Day Three -Nov. 25, (Wednesday)

830AM, I visited a funeral parlor in Marbel. Some bodies not identified yet. I then directed DSWD 12 to attend to the immediate needs of the families, and that DOH 12 and OCD 12 were to assist. I motored to Tacurong at 601stbrigade and met the NBI team that just arrived from Manila. I reconvened the crisis committee and mapped up moves on how to fast track work . A team of PNP investigators were sent to the residence of Buluan Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadatu to get statements but they were told that affidavits of their witnesses would be submitted instead perhaps the following day. I was already aware that the outrage over the killings mounted. And government was being criticized for slow action.

12 NOON –Over lunch at the brigade, I consulted with the crisis committee on my plan: it was time to contact the Ampatuans and call in Datu Unsay to voluntarily surrender. As they committed to me yesterday.

I was also quietly informed that an operational plan was underway to forcibly take custody of him.

2:00PM – On my way to Marbel to dialogue with all the families of the victims, I made several calls. First with ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan. I told him it was time to bring in Datu Unsay. He told me he would consult the father, Gov. Andal. I said I had only until 5 pm that day to work on this plan. After 5pm, the scenario would no longer be the same, I told him.

4:00PM – While meeting the families of victims in downtown Marbel, I got a call from the father, Gov Andal telling me that he would turnover to me Datu Unsay but requested that the deadline be moved from 5pm today to 10 AM, the following day. I immediately told him I could not guarantee things if the deadline was moved. He said the Ampatuan clan would meet that evening and discuss things and bid goodbye to Datu Unsay. I told him I would get back to him by phone. I made calls and informed some of my colleagues (with whom I had been consulting from the beginning) of the request.

There were objections. Understandable reservations: what if the extension was a ruse to escape that evening? What were the guarantees that he would voluntarily surrender during the new deadline? People were becoming outraged not only on the crime but on the perceived slowness of government, so why waste more time? The forces were ready to strike, so why delay?

But I also reasoned back: How sure are we that we would get Datu Unsay in the operations? (From yesterday’s visit to the Ampatuans, I was certain that he was not there in the immediate vicinity but came from somewhere far.) An assault would surely cost lives knowing the armaments, the culture and the situation. People were crying for swift action but I would not agree to precipitate action. I also said I believed Gov Andal was sincere when he told me he would bring out his son when needed. To wrap up my point, I said: I would take full responsibility for whatever outcome.

My new timeline was adopted. I moved the deadline to 10:00 AM the following day.

That night, we reviewed the “pickup” scenario several times and mapped out contingencies just in case things would not go as planned. In the meantime, government troops moved according to operational plans. That evening, I got a call from Atty. Cynthia getting an assurance from me that nothing would be launched that evening until the 10 AM pickup time the following day. I told her if there were troop movements, these were in support of the 10 AM “pickup”.

Later in the night, another complication suddenly arose. Gen Serapio and Col Geslani informed me that they got information that Toto Mangudadatu would motor with his followers to file his certificate of candidacy the following morning in Shariff Aguak. I immediately called Gov. Teng Mangudadatu. I told him that there was something afoot the following morning and that without disclosing what it was all about, I requested if he could convince Toto to move his filing to another day. A few minutes later, Gov Teng called and said the clan agreed.

Nov 25, (- Wednesday) – 830 AM. I visited a funeral parlor in Marbel. Some bodies were not identified yet. I talked with the relatives, many parlor-hopping, visiting every funeral parlor and looking at mangled bodies hoping to identify missing loved ones.

I motored back to the 601st Army brigade headquarters. We were frantic for some sworn statements so the legal process could start. It was the third day and there were no arrests yet and the public was getting angry – although I had no first hand information on this as I was not reading any of the newspapers and not even watching the TV during the whole period. I was just getting text messages. I knew from experience that a crisis manager could be affected one way or the other by external public pressure coming from those who were not on the ground, far from the venue of action and usually unaware of the many facts and nuances of certain developing events. I preferred to stay focused on my game plan.

I reconvened the crisis committee and tasked the PNP team to go and visit the Mangudadatus in Buluan and take the affidavits of the witnesses they could immediately present. The PNP team returned empty handed. They were told to come back the following day as everyone was engrossed with the search and retrieval operations. Also, the Mangudadatu lawyers would handle the documentation. We understood. I knew parallel investigation and documentation work was also ongoing in several areas. But again, no single document was at hand. Anxious and desperate in having some “paper” in my hands to get Unsay in the event he would not surrender as earlier agreed, I suggested to the NBI team which came from Manila to issue a summons of sorts. Even the NBI team at that moment said they had no basis yet to issue summons. As a lawyer, I understood perfectly. But how about the public that was already crying for blood? The PNP said it could issue an invitation but I bucked. Knowing the public sentiment already building up, people would surely mock and say: you ONLY “invite” those criminals?, etc).

12 NOON -Over lunch at the brigade, I consulted with the crisis committee on my plan, which also coincided with the suggestion of Col Geslani that it was time to contact the Ampatuans and call in Datu Unsay to voluntarily surrender as they committed to me the previous day. Without any document in my hands, I thought diplomacy or negotiations would fill in the gap for the moment. I was also confident that Bapa Andal would be true to his commitment to give Unsay to me.

While this was on my mind, I was already getting a briefing on the operational plans that would be launched to forcibly take Unsay in custody. There was need for time for the augmentation forces to arrive from other parts of Mindanao and even as far as Samar. Disarming the well-armed Ampatuan forces was necessary before any operation was to be launched to minimize resistance and casualties.

2:00PM – I motored back to Marbel to dialogue with all the families of the victims and brief the media on latest updates. My handling of previous crisis situations taught me that as equally important in dealing with criminal elements was properly dealing with families or those affected by the incident. Dealing with the media and providing transparent information flow was also very important. Although there were operational matters that could not be made public in the meantime, explaining this to media and the public would be received favorably through frequent briefings.

I made several calls while en route to the family dialogue. I first called ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan. I told him it was time to bring in Datu Unsay. He told me he would consult the father, Gov. Andal. I said I had only until 5 pm that day to work on this plan. After 5pm, the scenario would no longer be the same, I told him. I sent a soft and veiled warning that if Datu Unsay would not surrender, things would be out of my hands. The military formula would be applied and it would unnecessarily result to lose of lives. I knew Gov Zaldy (Datu Puti to others) was a mild-mannered man and would understand my plan.

While on my way to downtown Marbel, I got a call from the father, Gov Andal telling me that he would turn over to me Datu Unsay but requested that the deadline be moved from 5pm that day to 10 AM, the following day. I immediately told him I could not guarantee things if the deadline were moved. He said the Ampatuan clan would meet that evening and discuss things and bid goodbye to Datu Unsay. I told him I would get back to him by phone.

Up to this time, the Palace was periodically informed of actual developments on the ground. I then made a call to palace officials with whom I had been consulting and informed them of Bapa Andal’s proposal that he would give to us Unsay the following day instead of that afternoon.
There were objections. And understandable reservations. What if the extension was a ruse to give opportunity to Unsay to escape that evening? What were the guarantees that he would voluntarily surrender during the new deadline? People were becoming outraged not only on the crime but on the perceived slowness of government, so why waste more time? The forces were ready to strike, so why delay? One palace official said he would agree to move the deadline to surrender the following day but Unsay must be in my personal custody and spending the night with me in the same room. Their concern was understandable. They were getting the public pressure to act swiftly. But I stayed the course.

I also reasoned back: How sure are we that we would get Datu Unsay in the operations? From yesterday’s visit to the Ampatuans, I was certain that he was not there in the immediate vicinity but came from somewhere far and surely physically secured considering that it took him almost 1 hour to arrive after he was called by the father. I wanted as much as possible a bloodless event. There was too much blood spilled already. An assault would surely cost lives knowing the armaments and the culture. And there was no guarantee we could take Datu Unsay that way. I also said I believed Gov Andal was sincere when he told me he would bring out his son when needed. To wrap up my point, I said: I would take full responsibility for whatever outcome.

My new timeline was adopted. I called Bapa Andal. Everything was set: 10 a.m. Nov 26 at the Maguindanao capital grounds in Shariff Aguak, the handover would take place.

That night, we reviewed the “pickup” scenario several times and mapped out contingencies just in case things would not go as planned. In the meantime, government troops moved according to operation plans. That evening, I got a call from Atty. Cynthia getting an assurance from me that nothing would be launched that evening until the 10 AM pickup time the following day. I told her that I had full control of the scenario for as long as the Ampatuans would be true to the agreement. Any troop movement they must have noticed was to ensure that the handover the following day would proceed without incident. I knew the troops were prepositioned and in place to ensure our safety if things went wrong, ready to hit if the pickup failed. That same evening, as planned, the troops were moving to neutralize early any resistance. The Ampatuans must have noticed. Or were tipped off.

Later in the night, another complication suddenly arose. Gen Serapio and Col Geslani informed me that they got information that Toto Mangudadatu, as a show of defiance and determination to continue his fight, would motor with his followers to file his certificate of candidacy the following morning in Shariff Aguak. That would endanger the smooth flow of our “pickup” operations in the same venue: Shariff Aguak. I immediately called Gov. Teng Mangudadatu. I told him that there was something afoot the following morning and that, without disclosing what it was all about, I requested if he could convince Toto to move his filing to another day. It was close to midnight and the ground operations were underway. A defiant caravan would mess things up. A few minutes later, Gov Teng called and said the clan agreed. There would be no movements on the Mangudadatu side the following day, except Gov Teng’s going to Buluan to join the rest of the clan there.

I did not get some good sleep that night.

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.

2nd of a 4-part series

Nov 24 (Tuesday)

At the break of dawn, Sec Bert Gonzales and I took the earliest flight to Gen Santos City. The medical checkup can wait, both I and Beth agreed. She’s been used to this kind of “sudden take off” schedules since my work as newsman in the 70’s and worsened by being in the presidential beck and call since President Ramos up to President Arroyo.

We motored from Gensan to Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat. It’s less than an hour drive. At the 601st Army brigade headquarters in Tacurong, a noisy crowd was milling within the barbed wire premises. Hordes of media persons whom I personally knew were there at the gate. I told the guards to let everybody in.

10 AM –Briefings were held. Also present were PNP Chief Jess Versoza, EASTMINCOM Commanding General Ding Ferrer, Deputy AFP Chief of Staff Maclang, PNP Regional Chief Serapio. Brigade commander Col Geslani was our host. Initial photos of the carnage were flashed on the screen. Gruesome! At that time, only a few bodies were retrieved from the backhoed area. Sec Bert told the crowd that we were personally dispatched by the president to attend to the situation. The Mangudadatus were there seated across the long conference table: Toto Mangudadatu, his brothers Jong and Mayor Dong of Pandag, Sultan Kudarat Gov. Teng Mangudadatu, Toto’s cousin and others.

They were tense and angry but otherwise trying hard to suppress and control their anger and anguish. 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 spoke and related the events, how he spoke to his wife on the phone before she was murdered, identifying Datu Unsay Ampatuan as the lead perpetrator. But he ended by saying that, in the meantime, he had appealed to his relatives and followers to refrain from committing any retaliatory action and would leave the matter to the authorities to handle.

12 NOON – A teleconferencing call connected Bert and me to the Palace where the President was presiding over a hastily called cabinet security cluster meeting. They aborted the planned cabinet meeting in Boracay. This had been trademark President Arroyo. She personally would monitor crisis situations with her cabinet members providing inputs. Although I was “crisis manager”, she was always there through texts and calls. She was giving specific instructions to me, Sec Bert, PNP Chief Jess and AFP Vice CS Maclang. Suggestions from the other cabinet members came. The main task was to do a swift investigation, bring in Datu Unsay and the perpetrators, attend to the victims and assist their families, and do preemptive steps to prevent all-out fighting from erupting among the contending parties.

1:00 PM – The crisis management committee was activated. Assisting me were Eastmincom Gen Ferrer, PNP 12 Director Serapio. DOJ Usec Ric Blancaflor’s name was in the box to handle investigation through the NBI.

2:00 PM – Bert left to fly back to Manila. I set up base camp at the brigade HQ. A conference room (functional but hot), a small room with a bed to sleep in, etc were provided by Col Geslani, the commander. Anticipating that I might be in for a long haul, we bought 2 aircon units so the staff would stand the heat.

It was at this time that I operationalized an action plan which I initially formulated that evening for the crisis. It was an old-fashioned plan 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. Some quiet arrangements were made for my visit. Only with my staff and without military escorts, except for one military officer as guide, I motored to the Ampatuan enclave in Shariff Aguak. The media group which earlier wanted to join me did not follow my vehicle. I was relieved as I would not be able to help them in case something bad would happen along to way. I was not even sure of our own safety due to the tense situation with so many armed elements along the whole route.

3:45PM –I entered the Ampatuan fenced premises and the patriarch Gov. Andal Ampatuan, Sr was there waiting for me. It was my first visit to that house which was a bit interior in location unlike the big palatial house along the main highway in the center of town. With him seated in a native kiosk on the sprawling grounds were several ARMM and Maguindanao officials and relatives. Armed followers were everywhere in full battle gear with armored personnel carriers parked in strategic areas.

As I got seated and with some brief pleasantries, I told Gov. Andal that my purpose in coming was because of the incident and that his son, Datu Unsay Mayor Ampatuan, Jr. was implicated. I said that while the Mangudadatus had given me their assurance that they would leave the matter to the authorities to solve, I told “Bapa” Andal that it would be best that the Ampatuans also “cooperate” and bring him in (Unsay) for an investigation. He immediately said: ” OK. Kausapin mo sya. Basta kayo secretary walang problema.”. I then asked for the whereabouts of the son and he said he would call for him to join us. 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.

The last time I saw Mayor Unsay was several years ago when I personally went to his Datu Unsay town (evidently named after him) and led in the distribution of relief goods to evacuees due to intermittent fighting with MILF elements.

We waited at the kiosk but Unsay did not come. We then went inside the house to wait for his arrival. In the meantime, ARMM Gov Zaldy Ampatuan and Cong. Digs Dilangalen arrived from the airport. Energy Usec Sam Ampatuan, Atty Cynthia Guani Sayadi, ARMM attorney general and relative of the Ampatuans among others were there too. I felt a bit tense and uncomfortable. But 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 sired. One relative had 70 children, etc. While we were chatting about other subjects, I sensed that we all shared some discomfort and unease.

4:30PM – We waited. I noticed that Atty. Cynthia , an aunt of Unsay was using her cellphone and taking pictures while we were chatting about that relative who had 70 children “but of course from several mothers”. We would laugh although traces of tension were evident. It was while we were bantering when Unsay arrived and got seated to my left.

(GMA7 that same evening showed some still pictures on TV, me with the Ampatuans smiling. That was taken by Atty. Cynthia when we were bantering about that prolific Ampatuan relative. My wife Beth whom I suddenly had to leave behind in Manila and had since glued herself to the TV, texted me and called my attention immediately when she saw it: ” That picture on TV makes you look insensitive.” I agreed. That was not the end of it. The following morning, the president herself forwarded a text of similar tenor, some viewers criticizing my smiling photo. I did not respond anymore. (I shared President Noynoy’s discomfort when he got the same treatment with his famous smile inspecting the hijacked tourist bus recently, remember?)

5:00PM. – I was becoming worried that darkness would overtake my return trip to Sultan Kudarat. I noted many armed and uniformed men on the highway. One could not tell from what group or unit. Mayor Unsay arrived a little past 5:00 p.m. It was about an hour since the father Bapa Andal talked to him on the phone asking him to come to the house where I was. He arrived sweating and his pants dirtied. He first went inside to freshen up. I knew then that he came from afar and not just within the vicinity. (This observation was material in my insistence later that I should exhaust all means to convince him to peacefully turn himself in. A premature assault without being sure that he was around and within range would be futile.)

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 an investigation. He looked at the direction of Gov Andal, evidently seeking guidance how to respond. But the father immediately said: ” Walang problema, magcooperate kami, secretary”. Then taking that cue, Unsay himself echoed saying: “Mag cooperate po kami”. Forthwith, I then stood up and said I would contact them again soon. I also told them that they could get in touch with me anytime as I was staying in the area and not returning to Davao for the night. I gave my cellphone number.

On the way out, it was like “shooting the rapids”. We motored back as if we were running scared. We arrived in Marbel already dark and stayed there for the night.

For all those hours that day, four PNP officers were subjected to restrictive custody and slated for investigation, 46 bodies were already retrieved, and a series of confidential action points were underway. PNP operatives were fielded to start documenting evidences etc. but none had been submitted as yet. Media briefings were conducted. Then I got a text message that the president issued a proclamation declaring a state of emergency in the area. She was becoming impatient at the slow progress of things.

In the meantime, the outrage over the incident had peaked as more bodies were recovered and a clearer picture emerged about the macabre mass murder. People were already getting angry and asking government why there were no arrests yet. I was nonchalant. Some even asked later: “why did you not arrest Unsay right there when he came to talk to you?” Funny thought but I was not even sure I could get back to Marbel safe and sound that night. (To be continued)

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”.

(Note: Right after the Maguindanao incident, Dureza, then presidential adviser for Mindanao, wrote a personal account as “crisis manager” which was published and carried by media. Now back in the private sector and actively managing Advocacy MindaNow Foundation, he is writing his “recollections” with additional annotations on a day-to-day account recalling the four critical days of the incident. This will be a 4- part series starting today).

DAY ONE — Nov 23 (Monday) It’s one year ago, to the day. I was in Davao City that day and was finalizing arrangements for me and wife Beth to fly to Manila in the late afternoon flight for her usual medical check up. By noon, I was getting text messages from several sources about the missing convoy. I started inquiring.

General Santos City Inquirer Correspondent Aquiles Zonio told me over the phone that he was supposed to be with the convoy from Buluan to Shariff Aguak on board the Mitsubishi Lancer of Mindanao Bulletin Editor Joseph Jubelag, who was driving. But Joseph decided to peel off from the convoy and proceeded to the pension house in Tacurong where they stayed the previous night to pick up some belongings. They did not try to catch up with the convoy anymore.

At 9:30 a.m., Joseph said he called by phone Bulletin Correspondent Bong Reblando who was ahead in a rented van with the convoy en route to Shariff Aguak. He told Bong that they decided not to proceed anymore as they were delayed in Tacurong but would catch up with the group when they return to Buluan from Shariff Aguak for the scheduled press conference after the planned filing of the certificate of candidacy of (Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael) Toto Mangudadatu. That was to be the last phone call with Bong.

Bong was a close friend and a kumpadre, being ninong to one of his sons. I found close kinship with Bong because both of us had similar beginnings. I was Bulletin correspondent, too, during my early days as a journalist. He was always supportive of my work in Mindanao, in the peace process, as press secretary, etc. I recall Bong’s naughty practice of calling me by phone and telling me that his article about my latest statement was published in the Manila Bulletin issue that day. When I asked what it was all about since I had not issued any new statement, he would simply say: “Just confirm it, Kumpadre. It’s about moving the peace talks forward”. He knew me so well that press statements I issued a long time ago he would be able to recycle and spin aligned with current events. I would always caution him though: “Pakiusap lang kumpadre. Please always tell me ahead what statements I had supposedly issued to you before you report. It may trigger a war!” And we would laugh together.

From all accounts, the Mangudadatus knew of the dangers they were facing in opposing the Ampatuans. They were political allies before. The filing of the certificates of candidacy was a declaration of war. The media delegation to be part of the convoy was a security cordon. Most of them were from General Santos City.

Joseph later related to me that on November 22, he stayed overnight with some mediamen, together with Bong, Aquiles, etc. at a pension house in Tacurong in preparation for the activity organized by the Mangudadatus. The following day, at 6:30 a.m. Monday, he drove his vehicle to Buluan where the convoy was supposed to assemble before the jump off.

Joseph said there was some discussion, before the convoy left Buluan about the security concern as they learned that there was no security escort provided by the authorities. Joseph said they contacted by phone Maj. Gen. Alfredo S. Cayton, then 6th Division commander based in Awang, Maguindanao just outside Cotabato City who said that while there were no security escorts, there should be no concern. Joseph, however, got worried. That’s when he decided to just let the convoy go ahead and instead drove to the Tacurong pension house to first pick up his belongings. On board his vehicle were media friends Aquiles and Paul Bernardo. His close buddy, Bong, rode in a van and went ahead with the group. There were 6 vehicles in the caravan. Joseph’s Lancer would have been vehicle No. 7.

Aquiles remembered that while they were at the hotel lobby, and while Joseph went up to the room for his belongings, one of the waiters approached him. The waiter was nervous. He told Aquiles that when they left the hotel early that same morning, some unidentified and suspicious-looking men arrived and asked about the identities of those who joined. Aquiles suspected something was wrong and got nervous. He recalled that they were not able to catch up with the convoy as Joseph stayed in the comfort room for a long time. “Thank god for that bad stomach, I survived,” Aquiles in hindsight told me. Unknown to Aquiles, Joseph had already decided not to proceed to Shariff Aguak and his upset stomach was due to tension and fear. Being an old hand in the area, he trusted his instincts. He decided not to go. That’s when they called Bong at 9:30 a.m. and told him about the decision that they would not be able to catch up and join. The next call at 10:30 a.m. to Bong’s cellphone and all the frantic calls that ensued were no longer answered, except for one call to another mediaman’s phone and someone with a Moro accent answered briefly then cut the line.

Later that day, the gruesome massacre of the Mangudadatu convoy, including the media contingent, was confirmed. At first it was a feeling of denial. Almost all of the mediamen in the group were my close friends. Every time I made trips to GenSan or Cotabato before that, many of them would always be there covering my events. To some of them who joined the Mangudadatu delegation, perhaps, it was another opportunity to do a job. And I can tell you, media work especially in the provincial press, although exciting at times, is a hard, dangerous grind. For one, it does not pay well. But many stick to it for what I call “psychic income” – not the cash rewards, but of course it also counts, but more for the adventure and the excitement of getting a good story out. That’s why they are a special breed – and for all of their faults too. That was the reason why when I was press secretary, to the discomfort of some sectors in Manila, I was giving priority to the provincial press. I recall changing the format of presidential coverage’s. Where the usual practice was the accompanying Manila press took the front seats and got the first shot of asking the first questions with the provincial media at times sidelined or even excluded from the event, I revised this, giving the locals priority even in the physical arrangements. For a change, Malacañang hosted Christmas parties on a regional basis for the provincial press while I was there. I knew how it was as I was once one of them.

By the way, the tragedy befalling our media victims could not be sufficiently vindicated, even if all the perpetrators were sent to jail. For some sectors to even say or suggest that I received bribe money from the Ampatuans to help quash the cases is mercifully wrong. Even my visit at the military hospital as part of my work as in charge of Mindanao affairs to check on reports that Bapa Ampatuan was reportedly getting VIP treatment was dramatized as another telltale evidence that there was bribery. I was fortunate that the emissary of the Ampatuans who was always sent to me during the whole period came out and gave his full story of how I even declined to lift a hand on the case, knowing that many lives of my friends were lost aside from the fact that it was ridiculous – if not dangerous – for me to get a payoff to quash a case totally outside of my control. I asked for a separate investigation but nothing happened up to now. But I guess that’s par for the course for public officials like me. Too bad for me. So you will all understand why being back now in the private sector is so liberating! But it’s another story altogether.

That fateful day was a media tragedy unmatched anywhere in the world. The unfolding of the gruesome event continued later in the day. And being in charge of Mindanao for the Palace, I braced myself.

I was trying to piece together the events of the day as more reports came in. When media called for a statement, I said I would recommend proclaiming a state of emergency. Late afternoon, as I was boarding my flight to Manila with my wife Beth, Defense Secretary Bert Gonzales called by phone. “Do you know what’s happening?” he asked. I simply said: “It’s unbelievable!” He told me to proceed to the lobby of Edsa Shangrila hotel in Ortigas immediately upon landing. At 8 o’clock that night Bert told me that the President directed us to go to Maguindanao immediately. I was designated “crisis manager”. (To be continued)