Carol Pagaduan-Araullo | More than meets the eye

Streetwise/Business World
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The story could have come right out of an American-made suspense thriller with the mysterious death of a nondescript fellow followed by a suspicious cover-up by government officials and the murder of a likely whistleblower. It has the makings of a classic whodunit except that this time it’s for real. Thirty-three-year-old Gregan Cardeño, a native of Zamboanga Sibugay, was recruited by a private military contractor to work as an interpreter for US Armed Forces (USAF). On February 2, a day after he started work in a supposed AFP facility in Marawi City, he was found dead. The police called it a suicide and stopped investigating.

Less than two months later, Philippine Army Captain Javier Ignacio – a family friend who helped recruit Cardeño – was gunned down while on his way to a meeting with groups conducting an independent probe into the case. Ignacio, a member of the AFP Military Police, said he had vital information to share. He had earlier spoken of attempts by undisclosed parties to bribe him into keeping silent followed by death threats should he persist in seeking the truth behind Cardeño’s death.

One would think that the sudden death of a civilian employee of a USAF contractor would warrant a more careful, thoroughgoing and transparent investigation on the part of all concerned, i.e. the US military under whose authority Cardeño was operating, the AFP which controls the military camp where the incident occurred, as well as the police investigators who were called to the crime scene.

This did not happen. To this day, more than four months since the incident, the entire circumstances of Cardeño’s death have been inexplicably withheld from his family by both US and Philippine military officials. It is known that US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are on the case as well as the AFP’s Judge Advocate General’s Office but the family has been kept completely in the dark as to the results of their investigations.

Local police investigators have pursued the suicide angle to the exclusion of possible foul play. This despite the fact that a re-autopsy conducted by the Commission on Human Rights (upon the family’s request) affirms asphyxia by hanging as the cause of death but cannot rule out that someone else could have wrung the victim’s neck but made it appear like a suicide. Capt. Ignacio’s murder appears not to have pricked the interest of the police in so far as its possible connection to the Cardeño case.

What makes this more than just another unsolved crime are the circumstantial evidence pointing to something else going on, something worthy of an official cover-up by no less than two governments.

On paper, Mr. Cardeño was hired by Skylink Security and General Services to work as a security guard with the agency from Feb. 1 to April 30, 2010. The real nature of his employment, however, was as an interpreter for US troops; aside from Filipino and English, Cardeño was fluent in Tausug, Visayan, and Bahasa Indonesia.

Skylink was utilized by DynCorp International to hire locals for jobs with US troops in the Philippines. DynCorp is described in an Esquire article by journalist Tucker Carlson as “an American firm that specializes in high-risk contract work for the Pentagon and the State Department”,

According to Carlson, DynCorp had a peculiar track record. He wrote: “Pick an unsafe country and DynCorp is likely to be there. In Afghanistan, DynCorp bodyguards protect Hamid Karzai, the most imperiled president on earth. In Colombia, DynCorp pilots fly coca-killing crop dusters slow and low over drug plantations, an integral part of Washington’s Plan Colombia. DynCorp is in Kosovo, Israel (three of its employees were blown up and killed in Gaza last year), East Timor, Sarajevo, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Liberia, and many other sketchy places. Last spring, DynCorp … came to Iraq.”

While told that he would be working in Camp Sionco in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, Cardeño was whisked to Marawi City instead. His sister, Carivel, found out about this on February 2 at 7:30 am through a text message from him. By 2:00 pm the same day, Cardeño called Carivel saying, “This is not the job I expected, this is so hard.” According to her, he sounded like he was crying. When asked what his actual job was, he did not reply. He asked Carivel to contact Skylink, ask for his salary, and request that he be pulled out of the “US military facility” where he had been assigned. He also said the only Filipinos working in the “US military facility” were himself and the cook, who goes home every afternoon. The call was then cut off.

Two hours later, Cardeño called his wife, Myrna, and said, “I’m in Marawi, they brought me here… I’m in a very difficult situation.” She advised him to return home after which the call was cut. Later that same day Cardeño called Myrna again, asking, “If ever I go home, would you still accept me?” Myrna asked him if he did anything wrong but before he could reply, the line went dead.

At around 2:00 pm the next day, Carivel received a call from her brother’s mobile phone. A certain SPO3 Ali Guibon Rangiris of the Marawi City Police told her that Cardeño hanged himself at the barracks of the Philippine Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade at Camp Ranao, Brgy. Datu Saber, Marawi City.

The police report on the incident identified Cardeño’s assignment to be with the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE), a unit of the US military, based in Camp Ranao.

According to an article in the Military Review by US Army Col. Gregory Wilson, “Anatomy of a Successful COIN Operation: OEF-Philippines and the Indirect Approach,” the work of LCE is as follows:
“Deployed at the tactical level, SF (special forces) advisory teams called liaison coordination elements (LCE) are small, tailored, autonomous teams of special operations personnel from all services. They advise and assist select AFP units in planning and fusing all sources of intelligence in support of operations directed at insurgent-terrorist organizations.”

According to the Leftist organization, Bayan, Cardeno’s death exposed the existence of an LCE unit based in Marawi City, a fact hitherto undisclosed to the public. It raises important questions about possible clandestine operations of US forces being conducted outside the purview of Philippine laws and even in violation of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

In addition, Bayan questioned the US forces’ engagement of Filipino civilians for undisclosed operations or work, via private military contractors and local sub-contractors. What guidelines are being followed by both governments to ensure the rights of these workers are being protected and that labor laws are being followed?

We join the call of Cardeño’s family, human rights group Karapatan and Bayan for a thoroughgoing and impartial investigation into his death and the related killing of Capt. Ignacio. There should be full disclosure regarding the nature of the Philippine operations of private military contractor DynCorp and its subcontractor Skylink. A probe into the presence of US troops in Marawi City and other areas where they may be conducting clandestine operations is warranted together with full disclosure of the real nature of the LCE units deployed in Mindanao.

There is much more than meets the eye in the death of this Filipino who merely hoped to earn good money doing a seemingly benign, short-term job for the US military. This Independence Day is an auspicious date to bring national attention to a case that underscores the continued undermining, if not outright violation, of Philippine sovereignty by the presence of US military troops in the country.

*Published in Business World
11-12 June 2010

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