The Mamasapano Clash that transpired on 25 January 2015 remains as one of the most controversial issues that haunted the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III.
Stemming from a counterterrorism and law enforcement operation designed to neutralize Malaysian terrorist Marwan who was hiding in Mamasapano, the incident resulted in the deaths of 44 Special Action Force or SAF troopers.
The high number of fatalities from the government forces, the Mamasapano Clash prompted direct criticisms hurled toward Aquino due to his alleged irresponsibility and inaction.
Major Criticisms Against President Aquino Arising From The Mamasapano Clash
Authorizing a Suspended General to Participate in the Operation
Results of the separate investigations conducted by the PNP Board of Inquiry and the Senate of the Philippines revealed that Aquino had knowingly allowed then PNP General Alan Purisima to participate in the high-profile SAF operation called Oplan Exodus.
Note that the Office of Ombudsman preventively suspended Purisima on 4 December 2014 for six months due to a graft complaint about an alleged anomalous contract with a courier company. However, despite under suspension, he played a key role in the execution of the operation on 25 January 2015.
Purisima denied leading the operation. He was supposedly staying at his home in Nueva Ecija. However, he admitted that he was part of the late-stage planning stages. Furthermore, during the operation, he directly updated the former president about the developments concerning the botched operations.
Nevertheless, Aquino was indicted for graft and usurpation of authority on 14 July 2017. The Office of the Ombudsman eventually charged him with graft and usurpation of authority on 8 November 2017 with the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan. The Ombudsman noted that the former president “willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously” allowed Purisima to participate in Oplan Exodus.
Keeping Key Police and Government Officials Out of the Loop
Another major criticism hurled toward Aquino regarding the 2015 Mamasapano Clash centered on his failure to include key police and government officials in the planning and execution of Oplan Exodus.
Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and then PNP office-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina only found out about the operation on the morning of 25 January itself, particularly when the SAF troopers were already caught in the clash. Then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was also clueless about the planned operation.
The former president also admitted that there was a lack of coordination between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF. Critics argued that a proper communication between the two factions would prevent the unwarranted firefighting between the SAF troopers and the MILF.
However, Aquino failed to explain why Roxas, Espina, and Gazmin were kept out of the loop. In his own explanation, Purisima noted that the operation was kept as confidential as possible to avoid spoiling the plan and leaking pertinent details to unintended parties.
Failure to Respond Promptly and Appropriately During the Incident
There are also allegations that the former president failed to respond promptly and appropriately during the incident, particularly while the SAF troopers were trapped in a heated firefight with enemy forces composed of the MILF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and other armed factions.
Note that Aquino was in Zamboanga City with Roxas and Voltaire during the entire day of 25 January for a security briefing after a car bomb exploded on 23 January. According to critics, the former president went around the city and pretended as if nothing was happening as evident from his failure to provide orders, as well as inform both Roxas and Voltaire.
There were also allegations that the former president intentionally held back at ordering the AFP from extending support to the trapped SAF troopers. In one of the assertions, former peace adviser Teresita Deles allegedly recommended not to send out the military because it could endanger peace talks with the MILF.
Of course, the delayed action from the AFP was logical for two reasons. First, the AFP personnel in the area lacked information regarding the exact locations of the ensnared SAF companies. They cannot simply fire artilleries or send air support without risking the lives of innocent individuals. Second, the AFP noted that the SAF companies assembled to provide support failed to give them appropriate assistance.