EDITORIAL: OVER A CUP OF TEA

Killing of Journalist collateral damage in response to Duterte’s
Drug War?(Part 2)





Background:
A hard-hitting Filipino journalist and radio commentator, Percy “Lapid”Mabasa, was recently gunned down (October 3, 2022) by a hired killer riding in tandem with someone on a motorcycle, as Percy was about to enter the gate of the subdivision where he lived. With CCTV around and dashcam on the victim’s vehicle, the gunman’s identity was caught on camera and prominently flashed on TV and other media platforms. A cash bounty amounting to Php6.5 million in total (from volunteer sources) was publicly announced by the government’s Department of the Interior and Local Government in an effort to solve this crime. This prominent media attention reportedly “scared” the hired gunman, believing that whoever hired him would eliminate him soon, so he decided to surrender to the Philippine National Police, with the gun he used to kill Percy and told how he, together with five others, executed the order to assassinate the journalist. The gunman identified himself as Joel Escorial, who then named his companions (the motorbike driver, two siblings who did surveillance work, and two middlemen from “Bilibid”[jail system]). Escorial, in his signed confession, said his group was paid Php550,000 pesos ($10,000) to kill Percy Lapid, and that the person who contacted him to do the job was a Jun Villamor (one of the two middlemen), an inmate in the National Bilibid Prison under the Bureau of Corrections (of the Dept. of Justice).


Now, the head of the Bureau of Corrections is an appointee of the former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Director-General Gerald Bantag, famously known as the only bureau director ever who had the guts to clean up the National Penitentiary of criminal activities such as drug dealing, gambling and casinos, “tilapia-for-sale” or prostitution, and keeping of guns, ammunitions, knives, cellphones and other banned gadgets/materials by inmates. Bantag also removed the “kubols” or special “condos” of wealthy, privileged inmates such as drug lords and other notorious criminals, and “floated” employees who have been corrupted by and connived with, them.

Bantag as Person of Interest in Percy’s Slay

The journalist’s killer who surrendered — Joel Escorial — named inmate Jun Villamor as the one who contracted him (via phone) … and the fact that Villamor is an inmate — directly pointed to the source of the order to come from within the National Penitentiary. Unfortunately for Director-General Gerald Bantag, he was a subject of Percy Lapid’s on-air accusations as being a corrupt government official who had 11 vehicles, a mansion, and unexplained wealth. Listening to the recorded relevant portion of the slain commentator’s taped radio broadcast about Bantag, one could right away think that indeed Bantag could be the mastermind behind Percy’s killing. Until Bantag was interviewed by a respected journalist, Anthony Taberna, inside Bantag’s residence — a rented house — and vehicles belonging to the government and neighbors. Then on the same day that the surrendered gunman was presented to the public via a press conference, the middleman (inmate Jun Villamor) died under mysterious circumstances.

The second independent autopsy done revealed that Villamor died of asphyxia and the “killer/s” used a plastic bag to do the job. Metamphetamine (shabu/drugs) was also found in Villamor’s urine. This finding resulted in the conclusion that this middleman was murdered to silence him.

Then the elder sister of Villamor came out to present a text message of Villamor a few hours before he died, revealing that in case he dies, to tell Escorial that three gang commanders inside the prison will kill him in accordance with the orders of “Tanda” (Elder) from the “office.” Authorities therefore considered this a dying declaration and focused on General Bantag as the one directing from the “office.”


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General Gerald Bantag was replaced — supposedly in a temporary capacity — by retired AFP Chief of Staff General Gregorio Catapang, famously known as a member of RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement) that helped oust the late President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and who became Chief of Staff under Pres. Noynoy Aquino. Catapang is therefore identified by Marcos Loyalists as clearly part of the “opposition team” out to destroy Bongbong Marcos’ presidency. Catapang, as soon as he took Bantag’s post, recalled Bantag’s security men as well as their guns and vehicles. He also put back employees “floated” due to corruption charges (and who hated Bantag for “cleaning” the prison system the way he did), justifying his action by saying he wanted to lift the morale of prison employees. Current investigation by government law enforcers pointed to former Bureau of Corrections Director-General Gerald Bantag as the alleged mastermind in the killing of journalist Percy “Lapid” Mabasa. Those directly involved in this crime — the gunman — issued an additional signed statement naming Bantag as the mastermind the gang members already identified as killers of Villamor, likewise pointed to Bantag who allegedly promised them freedom if the middleman was disposed of.

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Editor’s note: It is interesting to note, however, that the focus of accusation is Bantag, never the drug syndicate that wanted him eliminated. The connection between the gunman, the middleman, and their employer, German Agojo (the last two in prison for drug offense and murder of the judge that convicted Agojo) seems to have been ignored at this point. If the goal is simply to arrest and charge someone in relation to a journalist’s killing, then the goal will be reached easily with Bantag’s conviction. It would be unthinkable to consider Percy’s killing as just a “collateral damage” to oust Bantag, the druglords’ nemesis in Muntinlupa National Penitentiary. It would be a disgrace to speak against a dead broadcaster’s “revelation of corruption” despite lack of strong evidence of proof. It would be scary to charge the police of forcing the gunman to point to Bantag (in exchange for drug wealth) … but recent drug busts in the Philippines amounting to billions of pesos involved police officers, including a decorated police “drug buster”! It is indeed difficult to trust anyone in law enforcement when millions of money are used to entice them. The Department of Justice and the National Police never pursued any other angle but the belief that Bantag masterminded the killing of Percy because of his on-air accusation of corruption against Bantag. None of the 160 other persons Percy lambasted in his program was ever questioned, and the drug-connection of Agojo-Escorial-Villamor was ever looked into.

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As of this writing, General Bantag and his deputy have been charged as the masterminds for the killing of Percy and Villamor (the middleman inside the Muntinlupa penitentiary). It seems the “evidence” solely accepted as truth was the chorus of inmates (in the Maximum Security prison) that participated in the killing of Villamor that it was Bantag, through his deputy, who ordered the killing. The same inmates even talked about “raising funds inside the prison per direction of Bantag” in order to pay the gunman who killed Percy Php550,000. What? Keep in mind that this prison system has been notorious for the country’s monstrous drug activities.

For the information of my readers, Gen. Gerald Bantag is from Baguio City, belonging to the Ibaloi tribe, and his records clearly show that Bantag has been a tough fighter in former President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. His famous anecdote was when a group of drug dealers went to his office and hurled a grenade to kill him. Bantag immediately grabbed the grenade and hurled it back to the group, killing 10 of them. I am eagerly waiting for what will happen next. Bantag has declared that in case the investigators find him guilty of the crime he did not commit, he will be fighting to the death, because to be in prison means death to him who fought hard to impose discipline and eradicate drug cartels inside Muntinlupa. In addition, after a warrant of arrest has been issued, Bantag surely will be incarcerated indefinitely during the trials, and this is not acceptable to him nor to millions of Filipinos who strongly believe in and support him.

I don’t know Bantag personally, but as a journalist myself who has seriously followed this case every waking hour for almost three weeks, I think it will be unjust to charge Bantag as “mastermind” at this point. I am not a lawyer, but I would know if the motive is shallow and the evidence is incredibly concocted to frame-up someone disliked by a powerful foe.

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On Nov. 11, General Gerald Bantag went online on YouTube’s channel of Rev. Pastor Apollo Quiboloy to clear his name and refute the charges being hurled at him (as mastermind in the killing of Percy Lapid) by the Department of Justice led by Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, his boss. Bantag strongly accused Remulla of being a druglords’ protector, a narco-politician, who recently released two druglords (whom he named) and placed them under Witness Protection Program. He likewise revealed that German Luna Agojo, the druglord who ordered the killing of Judge Voltaire Rosales (the judge who convicted Agojo and sentenced him to life imprisonment) was likewise recently placed under Witness Protection Program and whose papers for his release are being prepared by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The question is: Why would drug lords convicted of high crimes merit to be released under the Witness Protection Program? More importantly: Where is Agojo? Was it him who arranged to kill Lapid in order to take revenge against Bantag, the enemy of druglords in jail? At whose orders and why?

Last October, Remulla’s eldest son, Juanito Jose, was arrested by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) for importing cannabis (marijuana) amounting to more than a million pesos. PDEA’s head was sacked a few days after and replaced by a new appointee (of the new administration). Bantag posed the question on the possible existence of a “middleman” and a “mastermind” as well. Bantag called for the resignation of Remulla, saying that Remulla has lost his credibility and moral ascendancy to his position as Justice Secretary. He said Remulla wanted a great media exposure in preparation for his senate ambition a few years from now…at his expense.

I wish there were an Adrian Monk in the Philippines…