(An excerpt from my coming book I WALKED WITH PRESIDENTS, on the 1998 DAPECOL hostage incident during Pres. Ramos’ presidency.)
A guy called “Bato” was one of the assault shooters who successfully ended a four-day hostage incident inside the Davao prison farm. “Bato” is Ronald de la Rosa, formerly the PNP head of the Davao City police when Rodrigo Duterte was then City mayor, later national PNP chief and now a Senator of the Republic. He grew up in a barrio outside Digos in Davao del Sur called “Bato”. He is also a hulk — with a robust body “like a stone”. Hence the nickname.
AS CRISIS MANAGER –Unknown to many, on Day 2 as crisis manager, I directed that an assault team be composed and prepare for any contingency as I conducted negotiations with the hostage takers. Then Davao del Norte provincial police director, Col. Wilfredo “Garic” Garcia, (who rose to become one of the top police generals in Camp Crame) together with other PNP officers and men did the preparations in coordination with newly assigned prison Superintendent Boy Gozon who was flown from Manila upon quick orders from then Justice Secretary Silvestre “Bebot” Bello to replace the sitting prison head Supt. Poblacion who was one of the objects of the prisoners’ grievances.
MOCK ASSAULTS –“Bato”, still a junior officer then, was one of those who volunteered and chosen to compose the assault team. They were all trained sharpshooters with handguns. On Day 3, with the help of an unnamed Israeli commando expert, the shooters prepared for a possible assault operations as the situation was deteriorating. While I was conducting intense negotiations inside, somewhere outside the Dapecol area, a mock-up model of the actual hostage room of the rehabilitation unit was set up and simulated practice attacks were repeatedly done. They even clocked the mock “assaults” and reported to me that in a best-case scenario, they could do it in twenty eight (28) seconds, from the actual start of the assault to the last gunshot. But I was still worried that the prisoner with the fragmentation grenade could release and explode it within that time and kill the women hostages. The hostages could also be stabbed. Those “what-if” scenarios, of course, kept me awake late into the night during the duration of the crisis as I weighed my options. As crisis manager, I knew I had to take full responsibility for those judgment calls and their outcome. But I was a bit confident. The crisis management team was assisting me. The women hostages were also secretly giving me information through handwritten notes every time I would enter the hostage room or talk with them through the open window. So I knew how to calibrate my actions.
NERVOUS — Shooter “Bato” remembered every detail of the assault. “Of course I was nervous. I could die right there,” he said when asked to recall how he felt while waiting for the “go” signal. He recalled that suddenly, a commotion and some shouting and women crying came from the hostage area. At that precise instance, it was a “go”. An “accoustics bomb” to initially shock the armed prisoners was detonated just outside the room to start the assault. “Bato” was shooter No. 1 as he was to be the first, together with Shooter No. 2 (PNP Officer Art Evangelista) and Shooter No. 3 (PNP officer Wilkins Villanueva) who engaged targets from the open grilled window. Unexpectedly, the entry of the assault shooters assigned to barge into the room got delayed by a few seconds due to the padlocked door. (As a pretext of delivering some food and T-shirts to the armed prisoners in the room, the disguised operatives intentionally left the door padlock unlocked to facilitate fast entry for the planned assault. However, we found out later that one hostage taker padlocked it back.)
Shooter No 1 “Bato”, and Shooter No. 2 ( former CIDG head Art Evangelista) had to shoot the first volley from the grilled window outside because of the delayed entry of the shooters, while Shooter No. 3 (now PDEA head Wilkins Villanueva) led the remaining shooters assault inside the hostage area.
When the smoke cleared, all the eight (8) hostage-takers were killed, unfortunately including one lady hostage Mrs Paulina Corda. (God bless their souls.) The other women hostages were injured by stab wounds and some from bullet ricochets. Someone clocked the actual assault. It was over in about fourteen (14) seconds, cutting by half the period timed during the mock exercises. Shooter “Bato” recalled that the prisoner who had the hand grenade was in the process of removing the scotch tape from the pin when he was fatally shot after several volleys.
I remember immediately calling on the phone President Ramos to report. He was on some stage somewhere in Luzon attending a program. (On Day 1 when I first sought guidance from him, he merely said : “Do what you have to do. Just keep me posted”. I did. When I called after the assault on Day 4, his reply was short: “Congratulations ￼, good job!”.
EERILY QUIET — Then off I went to the hospitals to tend to the wounded and condoled with the families. Before going home to Davao city that day, I returned to the hostage area. The DAPECOL area was quiet. I felt a strange, eerie feeling. The thousands of prisoners who were usually freely and noisily frolicking within the barb wired grounds were nowhere to the found. Earlier during the day, they were all tucked in securely in their cells, a precautionary move to pre-empt the reported mass jail break plan.
HEAVY ORDEAL — When I arrived back at the Dapecol hostage area, the assault team members were still all there including Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa, Art Evangelista, Wilkins Villanueva and others. The tension must have somehow already eased. Some were chatting in whispers but several were just sitting there and staring blankly afar and in deep thought. The toll of having to go through that ordeal must be heavy, I told myself. They did a job. They executed it putting their lives on the line. And they did well.
I gathered them around. “Shooter No. 1” Bato was silent. I told them: “I’m sorry this had to happen. But congratulations ￼, you did a good job. Don’t worry. I take full responsibility for what we all did.” I immediately sensed a feeling of relief among them after that conversation. I went home that day relieved — but sad.
Years later, I learned that the Dapecol hostage incident was used as an example of how hostage situations should be handled. It was described by many as a “successful” operation. The human rights complaint lodged against us with the United Nations did not prosper. Our own human rights office considered the matter closed.
Shooter No.2 Art Evangelista had this recollection:
“The funny thing in the Dapecol story sir Jess is, being the CIDG head I was supposed to be the SOCO Team leader, but because of the prodding of Ronald and Wilkins to then Regional Director PROXI Gen. Joey Lalisan that I was also an SAS (Special Air Service) graduate specializing in Special Aircraft Assault Operations during hijacking incidents, they both recommended that I be included in the assault team. Thus I suddenly found myself being Shooter No. 2 in the assault team. By the way, Sen. Ronald “Bato” was a US Ranger Course graduate. We were all shooters and prior to the incident, every weekend we all went to Camp Catitipan firing range for shooting practice.”
UNFORGETTABLE. That was really a tragedy that we all cannot forget. The loss of lives of the eight (8) prisoners and the lone woman hostage (Mrs. Paulina Corda) was something I, now Senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa and others who participated in the incident, can never forget!