Inside Mamasapano: When the bullets ran out

December operation

We pieced together these events based on our interviews with police officials privy to the January 25 SAF operation. (For the military’s explanation of their failure to send reinforcement, read: Inside story: SAF kept the military out of the loop)

Rappler learned of a botched SAF operation to get Marwan in December 2014. 

The SAF commandos were already in Mamasapano but had to abandon the plan because they were spotted by men believed to be MILF members. Firefight ensued and they pulled out with the help of the military that immediately responded to help them. There were no casualties.

This was confirmed by a friend of a slain SAF commando who said the latter did mention to him a cancelled December operation when they saw each other last Christmas. (READ: Slain SAF talked about December operation)

One source said they tried to get Marwan at least twice in December. Several Rappler sources said there was an advice from high-level security officials to postpone the hunt for Marwan until after the visit of Pope Francis on January 19, due to concerns about possible retaliatory attacks from Marwan’s networks.

The January 25 attack came 6 days after the Pope’s return to the Vatican.

The SAF has always been obsessed with Marwan. “Wala na kaming ginawa kung hindi Marwan (We didn't do anything else except [those related to] Marwan),” said a SAF commando.

He laughed but he knows it’s for a good reason. “Kapag pinutol mo ang ulo, matagal ulit tutubo ng bago (If you cut the head off, it will take some time before it grows another).” Marwan, who settled in the Philippines in 2003, has been training Filipino terrorists in bomb making. (READ: Marwan's ties that bind)

SAF reviewed its December plan and made adjustments.

For the January 25 attack, they put road security forces to make sure they would not engage the same group of MILF near their staging areas. The Seaborne team also jumped off 10 pm Saturday night, January 24, to make sure they wouldn't lose the element of surprise. 

Still, they were delayed by the difficult marshland terrain.

All PNP

The PNP announced there were a total of 392 SAF troopers inside Mamasapano, an indication that it was meant to be an all-PNP operation. 

They were deployed there for road security, according to two sources privy to the plan. They had to make sure that the other MIILF fighter units near the area of operation did not get involved in the firefight. 

It was on that roadside that the military had positioned its tanks, too, the closest place to the encounter area where the tanks could be placed. The marshland was not “tankable.” 

A COUNTRY IN MOURNING: DILG Secretary Mar Roxas leads the welcoming of SAF members who were killed in a clash with Muslim rebels at the Villamor Airbas. Photo by Dennis Sabangan/EPA

A COUNTRY IN MOURNING: DILG Secretary Mar Roxas leads the welcoming of SAF members who were killed in a clash with Muslim rebels at the Villamor Airbas.

Photo by Dennis Sabangan/EPA

Some 100 of the SAF troopers supposedly tried to reinforce the 55th SAF Command, but they were unable to penetrate the defenses of the MILF. “Makapal na kasi ang MILF (We were surrounded by MILF),” said the source.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a lot of questions are raised about the SAF operation that was kept a secret from the military, which was more familiar with the treacherous terrain of the MILF territory, and even from the top echelon of the PNP.

Sacked SAF commander Police Director Getulio Napenas Jr has taken full responsibility for the operation, but various sources have confirmed to Rappler that it was suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima who was on top of it.

A number of probes have been set – the PNP Board of Inquiry, the Senate probe, the House probe, the Ombudsman probe, and even a supposed Truth Commission. 

An elite soldier who has operated in Maguindao for years lamented that many of the questions are distracting the country from the main issue. “The problem has always been: Why are there terrorists inside MILF area?” he said. It is what prompted the SAF to keep the operations a secret, but which the MILF has denied. (READ: MILF: We didn't coddle Marwan, Usman)

FROM MILF TO BIFF: File photo shows BIFF leader Ameril Umbra Kato, former commander of the MILF 105th Base Command. AFP file photo

FROM MILF TO BIFF: File photo shows BIFF leader Ameril Umbra Kato, former commander of the MILF 105th Base Command.

AFP file photo

Strained ties

The January 25 bloodbath also exposed the difficult relationship between the police and the military. At camps, cops and soldiers have been assessing the operation and blaming each other.

Soldiers are questioning the SAF strategy and how the SAF commandos failed to reinforce their own men. A military officer based in Maguindanao said the rest of the SAF commandos could have engaged the MILF on the side to disperse the rebels. This way, firepower would not have been concentrated on the trapped SAF members.

But SAF commandos speak of usually quick reinforcements from the military, such as the Marines, when they operate in other areas in Mindanao. “Bakit 'yung Marines sa Basilan at Sulu, ang bilis mag-reinforce kahit walang coordination? Ang iniisip namin magagalit sila, pero mag-reinforce pa rin sila,” said a SAF trooper.

(Why could Marines in Basilan and Sulu quickly send reinforcement even if we didn't coordinate with them? We'd think they would get offended, but they would still reinforce us anyway.)

Indeed, the January 25 operation may have killed a terrorist. But the cost is difficult to measure Rappler.com