Officers’ Jailbreaks Show Deep Division in AFP

What now looks like an emerging series of escapes from jail by leaders of the Magdalo group, which tried to stage an armed uprising at the Oakwood Hotel in Makati City on July 27, 2003, is not just a matter of lapses in security. More than that, it shows a deep division within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). This does not bode well for a regime that is hard-put to defend itself from numerous challenges to its rule.


On Jan. 17, Army Captain Nathaniel Rabonza and First Lieutenants Sonny Sarmiento, Lawrence San Juan, Patricio Bumindang escaped from their detention cells in Fort Bonifacio, Makati City.

They were not the first to escape. Marine Captain Nicanor Faeldon slipped away on Dec. 14 from his military guard after a hearing on the mutiny case filed against Magdalo leaders. He has since started his own website and issued several statements calling for civil disobedience against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.Their escapes are made interesting, to say the least, by the circumstances that attended their jailbreak and – in Faeldon’s case – the events that have transpired following his feat.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon tried to explain the Jan. 17 escape by saying that the jail guards were distracted when Atty. Roel Pulido, a counsel for the Magdalo group, was negotiating against his clients’ transfer to another detention center. The official AFP line thus far is that the four officers slipped out of their cell while their guards were preoccupied. The four were said to have scaled the high wall of Fort Bonifacio using chairs placed on top of each other as an improvised ladder.

TV footage of the route the four supposedly took show a Fort Bonifacio wall heavily laden with barbed wire on top. It would have been next to impossible for them to have slipped out so easily just by scaling it. On the road at the other side of the wall are a series of checkpoints where the escapees could have been quickly stopped and hauled back to prison.

It is also quite impossible for any jail guard to be distracted long enough to allow four detainees to bolt out of their cell.

Besides, where could they have taken the chairs from?

In Faeldon’s case, his website contains several photographs of him visiting military and police detachments after his escape. His visits included no less than Camp Crame in Quezon City which is the national headquarters of the Philippine National Police (PNP). Before that, he had posted on his website pictures of himself visiting the AFP’s Western Command headquarters in Palawan (an island province south of Manila) and Southern Command (Southcom) headquarters in Zamboanga (Mindanao, southern Philippines).

Faeldon remains at large in spite of moving freely about. This, even as a nationwide manhunt was earlier ordered and he should be easy to recognize given that his pictures have been on the front page of newspapers since his escape. His posting of photographs of his visits to military and police detachments is causing great embarrassment to the AFP and the PNP.

The Jan. 17 escapees have confirmed widespread suspicions that they got help from the inside. They admitted in a recent statement that their fellow soldiers let them get away. Meanwhile, the fact that Faeldon has been able to freely roam around though he is now in the order of battle shows that in the lower ranks of both the military and the police, there is little interest in going after him.

The extent of active support for the Magdalo group, from the ranks of both the AFP and the PNP, is not yet known. But there is certainly widespread sympathy for them from their fellow soldiers and even from the police rank and file.

Things were bound to come to this for Macapagal-Arroyo.

In 2001, Navy Rear Admiral Guillermo Wong tried to expose anomalies in the procurement of equipment in his service branch. He was rewarded by being placed on floating status, and his case was never heard.

The Magdalo group declared that they resorted to the Oakwood uprising as a way of exposing their sad experiences with corruption in the military – after failing with more peaceful means. The persons they directed their protests against have not been punished but have even been promoted.

Military analysts say that there are many in the armed forces and even in the police who may not have been behind Wong and the Magdalo group but who had grievances they wanted to be brought out into the open. The non-resolution of the issues raised by Wong and the Magdalo group – which called attentions running in the AFP and the PNP long before Macapagal-Arroyo came to power – resulted in unresolved grievances piling up.

The broad opposition to the Macapagal-Arroyo regime due to questions on its legitimacy, alleged corruption and human rights violations, and imposition of what are considered “anti-national and anti-people” policies is increasing demoralization among those called upon to defend the government. Day by day, they are learning to ask why they are under orders to risk life and limb to protect a government that has earned the ire of the public and is getting more and more isolated.

Incoming Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor warned that the Arroyo administration will fight “fire with fire” if rebel soldiers attempt a coup. But in the event that the administration mobilizes soldiers against a coup, how can it be sure where the soldiers’ guns will be pointing at?

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