As chair of the board of Inquiry on Mamasapano, Gen. Benjamin Magalong stood his ground—and ultimately won himself peace of mind, as well
By Rafael A.S.G. Ongpin
Photograph: Kai Huang
If you met Benjie Magalong at, say, the mall, or in the parking lot of a church, you would more likely take him for an ordinary salaryman than a decorated combat veteran. Philippine National Police (PNP) Major General Benjamin Magalong is indeed soft-spoken and mild-mannered, almost self-effacing. His calling card does not list his rank or position. It simply says “Benjie Magalong – Public Servant.”
Yet, this is a man who has been in dozens of combat situations, wounded twice, a man who has returned the stare of Death himself. He is also the man who, as chair of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) into the Mamasapano event, stood his ground, and fought for the truth.
Meeting someone like Magalong is a fascinating insight, not only into a person, but into a system and an institution. Magalong is emblematic of the police leadership, and arguably, the best of it. It would be hard to argue that he has not served his country when you hear his story.
The BOI report on the Mamasapano event was remarkable. Instead of a whitewash, as many expected, it was a hard-hitting indictment of command errors, including those of the President himself and the PNP Director on leave, that ultimately led to the deaths of 44 soldiers. Magalong, the chairman, is head of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), a police institution whose record has been frequently marred by allegations of corruption and political color—in other words, the first place one might expect a whitewash from. Instead of that, the public was served the truth, or something close enough to it, caustic enough to burn the administration politically.
Perhaps President Aquino and his men made a mistake by appointing him as the head of the BOI, if what they wanted was a whitewash. Or perhaps, quixotically, they really wanted someone credible to lead the investigation; that’s certainly what they got. Looking at Magalong’s record of both combat and political involvement, it would have been a mistake to expect otherwise.
Benjie Magalong graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1982, and joined the Philippine Constabulary (PC), assigned to its 62nd Battalion in Abra. This was a combat post, and the 62nd was suffering a steady stream of casualties. It was the sunset of the Marcos regime (behind the scenes, Marcos had been stricken ill, although this was not publicly known), and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) insurgency had achieved what it calls an “advanced strategic stage” in Abra, as well as Davao. In Abra, the NPA had no less than five “front committees” or armed groups of significant size, all headed by rogue priests, one of whom was the later famous Father Conrado Balweg.
The 62nd Battalion was under constant attack, suffering regular ambushes and skirmishes. Magalong recalls that the Constabulary and police in Abra had a history of abusive behavior, so the insurgency had widespread support. “I am not proud of how the PC was, in those days,” he says. “The people were against us, and I could not really blame them.”
It was in Abra where Magalong was wounded for the first time, and later, where he was promoted to Captain. In the 1990s, Magalong was assigned to Agusan Del Norte, where he also saw combat. Later, he was assigned, for the first time, to the CIDG, but asked to be transferred out after a few months. He was quite uncomfortable with the heavily politicized nature of the post. “I decided that this was not my world.” It was the early days of integration, where the PC and Integrated National Police (INP) were being merged into one force, the Philippine National Police (PNP). From the CIDG, he was transferred to the PNP Special Action Force (SAF). The SAF had been founded in 1983, by then General Fidel Ramos of the PC. Upon integration, it took over the PC’s combat function.
“I was very happy at SAF,” Magalong says. He headed the SAF’s Special Operations Battalion, which was the PNP’s counterterrorist group. He spent 1997 to 2001 as battalion commander in Mindanao, operating in Basilan, Jolo, and Cotabato.
Magalong admits he has been very much identified with then Sec. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, who had been head of the PNP. When the administration changed, with the fall of President Joseph Estrada, Magalong was accused of plotting to assassinate the new president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “It was a false charge; my name was used by some parties who wished to ingratiate themselves with the new administration.” Under investigation, Magalong was reassigned to hazardous duties, back to the Cordillera in 2001, and back to Mindanao in 2003. “In those years, we were going after Jemaiyah Islamiyah (JI), so things were hot there.”
Magalong was cleared of charges in March 2005, and reinstated at the SAF. “Finally, they realized that they made a mistake about the alleged assassination plot.” Less than two weeks later, Magalong found himself again in the thick of combat, ironically in Metro Manila, when the Bicutan Siege erupted.
Six inmates at Camp Bagong Diwa, all identified as members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, were able to seize weapons from guards, and take over a portion of the prison. There was about a day of negotiations, during which the rebel inmates alternately promised to surrender and changed their minds, ending in a full-scale assault by 64 SAF troopers, led by Magalong. This was widely covered by media, but all we saw and heard on our TV screens was smoke pouring out of the windows and the rattle and flash of gunfire.
It was a textbook operation, although it resulted in 27 dead inmates. Some of the survivors pleaded a massacre and human rights violations, but they didn’t get much sympathy from a public who had grown to hate the terrorist group.
A Kevlar helmet hangs on the wall of Magalong’s office today, as unremarkable, at a casual glance, as the man himself. Closer inspection reveals two bullets embedded in the helmet, acquired during the Bicutan siege. “I keep it around, just to remind myself, tama na yung pa-warrior-warrior mo, Benjie, you have a family now.”
But life for Magalong wasn’t getting any simpler. In the 2006 elections, the SAF was used by political elements to steal ballots. “We didn’t like it,” says Magalong, by this time SAF Chief of Staff. So he and his commander, Gen. Marcelino Franco, as well as Gen. Danny Lim of the Scout Rangersm and Col. Ariel Querubin of the Marines, got together and decided to make a demonstration against the use of the military for political purposes. 300 Scout Rangers, 400 Marines with one tank, and 1,000 SAF troopers with six tanks went on the march. “Everyone was relying on us (SAF) to lead. The Scout Rangers, the Marines were scattered, while we were together.” They ended up, unsurprisingly, being accused of plotting rebellion.
“I surrendered, admitted my role in the plot, and was imprisoned for three months.” The administration decided to arrest the principal officers, but none of the men, involved in the incident. After his release from prison, Magalong was floating (with no assignment) for a few months. He believed his career was over, and made a decision to leave the PNP. However, he was appointed to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Authority (PDEA), a civilian agency, first as Chief of Staff, then regional director for Metro Manila.
Magalong was eventually returned to the SAF, but still floating. He decided anew to resign, and went on leave for a month. This was the last months of the Arroyo administration, in any case, and he decided to “stick it out.” When Aquino came to office, Magalong was promoted to general, and once again assigned to the Cordilleras, as PNP regional director.
“Abra was still challenging. We were able to keep peace in Abra during the local elections. The tension in this time was no longer the NPA, but private armed groups. We were able to convince them to stay largely peaceful. During the actual elections, there was ‘only’ one assassination, on the night before the elections.” Compared to the full-scale bloodbath they had expected, this was considered a success.
After this episode, Magalong was reassigned once again to the SAF. “I came back home to retire.” One day before the announcement, Magalong was preparing to go to his new assignment, as head of the Directorate for Intelligence (DI). “The Secretary of the Interior and Local Governments (Mar Roxas) called me, in Abra. ‘Benjie, we’re giving you a more challenging role. We want you to head the CIDG.’ I didn’t want to do it.” Magalong had been assigned to CIDG before, and was very uncomfortable with the culture. He actually tried to exchange commands with Gen. Charles T. Calima, who had been appointed as Head of the DI in his place, but the latter wanted no part of CIDG, either.
With no choice but to follow orders, Magalong took over the CIDG, and more or less immediately, set about implementing a transformation program. He set up a 14-member National Advisory Council (NAC), consisting of religious, business, education, media, and other private sector personalities, taking care to find some members who have been openly critical of the PNP. One member, Fr. Archie Intengan, SJ, was actually a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The vision of the group is articulated as “Patrolman 2030.” It is operationalized as a set of new, and often unfamiliar behaviors, notably transparency in funding and expenditure. All financial transactions at the CIDG are now reflected instantly, making it very difficult to cook the books.
Magalong himself admits that the transformation program is “a boring topic,” in the sense that it has not been widely picked up by the media. However, it is a strategic initiative, and hopefully, should transcend any administration. Already, the CIDG has emerged first in the scorecard established by the NAC.
In the midst of this, Mamasapano happened. “It was emotionally challenging for me. I’m very much attached to the seaborne company, which suffered the most casualties. I founded it. I always considered them the elite of the elite.”
We asked if there was a lack of coordination. “I’ve operated in that area. I’ve experienced the same frustrations. Sometimes there are leaks, compromises. But I would have continued to coordinate, prior conference, meetings. I’ve been pinned down there before, during the Gawang incident in 2005. There were 48 of us, SAF troopers, versus 400 MILF. We were surrounded, but we were backed up by air, artillery, armor. There was coordination with the ceasefire committee, but it still took them five hours to stop the firefight. The MILF didn’t want to stop. We ended up with just one wounded casualty. We had cover and concealment, people on high ground. In Mamasapano, they had no backup, no cover.”
Magalong says the SAF was pressured to execute the plan quickly, without adequate development. He says there was a lack of coordination, at least by the dictionary definition of making people work or act in unison and synchronization. “You cannot achieve coordination when you are already on the target.”
The call to investigate the incident was the first time for the PNP to constitute a formal Board of Inquiry. The original idea was to get a retired justice to head it. But instead, the job was dropped into Magalong’s lap.
Doreen Yu of the Philippine Star, a member of the NAC, asked him, “How can you guarantee it will be a fair investigation?” Magalong answered, “We’re no longer thinking of our careers.”
He admits agonizing over the report many times. He asked advice from his peers and former commanding officers. Despite pressures, he elected to tell the truth as he saw it. “I knew it would be a defining moment for me. In the end, I knew I could not live with myself if I did not tell the truth.”
The rest is history. The President and the suspended PNP Chief were not spared from culpability, and the report has caused a ruckus over fundamental issues, such as the chain of command, and how the PNP is led.
Magalong himself is now on the home stretch, 20 months before retirement, putting in place the elements that will enable the Transformation Program to spread and reach fruition many years from now. “The PNP has already changed a lot, especially from my days in the PC, in Abra. It is much better now.” There is, of course, still much room for improvement. But the fact that such a thing as Magalong’s BOI report could be released, and that the institution could withstand the resulting terrific political pressures, perhaps gives one cause for hope.
“I have peace of mind,” he says. “Bonus na ito.”