23 Surigao cultists killed

- Perseus Echeminada -
Twenty-three people died in a night of violence as police went to arrest the politically well-connected leader of the cultist group Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA) last Tuesday on an island off Surigao del Norte.

Ruben Ecleo Jr., 47, finally surrendered yesterday after a night of bloody fighting between law enforcers and armed PBMA followers on the island of Dinagat, Caraga police director Chief Superintendent Alberto Olario said.

The shootout erupted as a joint team of Philippine National Police (PNP) and soldiers of the Army’s 20th Infantry Battalion — with air support from two MG-520 helicopters — tried to serve Ecleo a warrant of arrest in connection with the murder of his wife, fourth-year medical student Alona Bacolod Ecleo, in Cebu City last Jan. 6.

As the violence on Dinagat island escalated, Ben Bacolod, Alona’s brother and the only witness to her murder, was shot dead in his home in Mandaue City, Cebu, along with his father Elpidio and mother Rosalia by a man armed with an Ingram pistol and an Uzi machine gun.

Witnesses said that as the Bacolod family was cut down by automatic fire, the gunman finished them off with shots to their heads. A neighbor of the Bacolods, engineer Paterno Lactawan, was also killed in the hail of bullets.

The gunman, who died after he opened fire on pursuing policemen, was identified as Rico Gumonong, 28, a confirmed active PBMA member and security guard of Postal Bank in Cebu City.

Olario, quoting initial reports, said16 members of the PBMA, one of them Ecleo’s bodyguard and co-accused in the murder of his wife, Juriven Padero, were killed as they tried to prevent the lawmen from serving the warrant at the Ecleo mansion in San Jose town on Dinagat Island. Some 30 heavily armed PBMA followers opened fire on the lawmen.

Police Officer 3 Rogelio Mordante of the Surigao del Norte Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was killed during the gunfight, while PO1 Jubert Montenegro and another unidentified police officer were wounded.

The dead and wounded PBMA members were mostly part of the White Eagles, an elite security team hand-picked by Ecleo as his personal bodyguards, and sometimes known as "the armed angels."

The firefight began at 5:35 p.m. Tuesday, after last-ditch efforts to persuade Ecleo to surrender failed. Olario and his men also tried to get the 2,000 PBMA followers who barricaded the Ecleo mansion, forming a human shield around their divine master’s home, and refused to give way to the lawmen.

Some armed PBMA members in the crowd opened fire on the lawmen, forcing the police and military personnel to return fire and engage the White Eagles in a sporadic, three-hour firefight.

The violence erupted as the town was set to celebrate its fiesta, the "Araw ng San Jose," when it suddenly became a battleground.

Ecleo finally surrendered to Olario at the Ecleo mansion at 9 a.m. yesterday. He was accompanied by his mother, Rep. Glenda Ecleo, his brother Benny, a certain Attorney Salatandre and his close aides.

Two armed PBMA followers were also arrested: Tanasio Cabahug, 50, and Generoso Ermac, 49. The suspects yielded a caliber .38 revolver with six bullets. Police also seized M-19 rifles, one .60 caliber machine gun, two .30 caliber machine guns, three Armalite rifles, an Ingram machine pistol, one PAL machine pistol, three hand grenades, three grenade launchers, one M-14 rifle, several handguns and two shotguns during mop-up operations.

Ecleo was reportedly addicted to drugs and it was said that he murdered his wife in a fit of rage after she asked him to seek rehabilitation for his drug habit.
Silencing the witness?
Evelyn Bacolod, Ben’s sister and their younger brother Ricky survived the initial hail of gunfire, but Evelyn succumbed to her injuries a few hours later at an undisclosed hospital. Ricky is still fighting for his life and is under heavy police guard as of press time.

The Bacolods’ assailant was slain after the incident when he engaged pursuing policemen from the nearby Subangdaku police station in Mandaue City.

The attack on the Bacolod family came just minutes after Ben had said Ecleo asked his followers to wage all-out war on the PBMA leader’s enemies, during a telephone interview broadcast over local radio station dySS at 9 p.m. that night

Ben had also been the leading witness in the parricide case against Ecleo before the Cebu City regional trial court. Ben also said on the air that Ecleo had surfaced and told the police that if it was war they wanted, it was war they were going to get.

Minutes after the radio interview, the gunman stormed the Bacolod home and opened fire, instantly killing Ben, his mother, father and Lactawan.

Ben’s wife, Baby, who survived the attack unhurt, said she went inside the house to get something when she heard the gunshots. She told police that when she rushed out of the room she was in, she looked out the window and saw a man in a blue shirt calmly walking away from their home.

It was only when he was accosted by the police that the Bacolod family’s assassin tried to flee.

Witnesses who saw the massacre site said the Bacolod home looked like a slaughterhouse, with the slain and fallen family members awash in their own blood.

Dozens of spent shell casings littered the ground.
Needless violence
Sen. Robert Barbers, who had been negotiating for Ecleo’s peaceful surrender since January, said "(the Ecleo family) have expressed their intention to surrender Ruben several times. I have postponed several appointments ... to ensure his safe surrender but to no avail." Barbers added that he had gone through 10 attempts to successfully negotiate Ecleo’s surrender before the PNP and their military backup were forced to serve Ecleo the arrest warrant. "They (Ecleos) themselves are to blame for what happened because they refused to surrender (Ruben)."

Barbers said the bloodshed could have been prevented if Ecleo had surrendered in January. He added that it "depends on the investigation of the police" whether or not Ecleo will be held liable for the deaths of his 16 followers, one policeman and the injuries sustained by several others as a result of the violence. "It is unfortunate we lost lives here, including those (killed) in Cebu."

In the last minutes of his life, Ben said Ecleo had been hiding in his mansion all the time he had refused to surrender and only surfaced to bless PBMA members who were willing to lay down their lives for their divine master.

Speaker Jose de Venecia said yesterday Ecleo should have surrendered earlier to avoid the blood bath on Dinagat Island. He also said that he spoke with Rep. Ecleo regarding the need for her son’s surrender days before Congress ended its first regular session: "I told her that if her son did not want to give himself up to the police, she could bring him to me and I would guarantee his safety and make sure that his rights are protected."

De Venecia added that on Tuesday night, just hours before the Dinagat encounter and the Mandaue massacre, police and military officials sought his intervention to get Ecleo to surrender her son, "but Glenda failed to bring him in. She had apparently lost control over him."

Ecleo said in a radio interview that he had long wanted to surrender to Barbers, "but my followers won’t let me." Olario corroborated Ecleo’s statement, telling reporters that Ecleo told him, "I’m sorry, general, that it came to this point because my followers did not want me to surrender."

Police will charge Ecleo with the death of Mordante and the wounding of Montenegro and another police officer, as well as for illegal possession of firearms and explosives found in the Ecleo mansion.

President Arroyo said yesterday that the full force of the law will be applied in Ecleo’s case, both for the massacre of the Bacolod family and the parricide case he faces for the murder of his wife.

The President told Palace reporters that Ecleo’s arrest was reported to her by outgoing PNP chief Director General Leandro Mendoza, whom she called up on Tuesday night to express her displeasure at the lack of progress on the Ecleo case.

"He (Mendoza) told me that (Ecleo) was being protected by his 50,000 supporters (on Dinagat Island). What will happen, really, (if) the law has to be enforced, will be bloody," Mrs. Arroyo quoted Mendoza as saying.

The Chief Executive expressed sadness over the bloody outcome of Ecleo’s arrest, but added that "the law has to be enforced."

Mendoza described the operation to arrest Ecleo a success, adding that the policemen who were slain and wounded during the operation would be promoted to the next rank.
Flown to Manila
Barbers and several provincial officials of Surigao del Norte accompanied Ecleo to Manila and insisted that the arrested PBMA leader be brought to Camp Crame, where the central office of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group is located.

However, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) chapter in Cebu City said Ecleo must be brought to Cebu City, to face parricide and murder charges before the Cebu court.

The VACC also filed yesterday before the Mandaue regional trial court five counts of murder for the massacre of the Bacolod family.

Meanwhile, Olario said he relieved last Monday two Caraga police officers assigned to the Ecleo case: Surigao del Norte police director Superintendent Ricky Nerbez and Police Regional Mobile Group director Superintendent Celso Curitana.

The two police officers were relieved and ordered by Olario to stay away from the Ecleo case after complaints reached him that they were staying in the Ecleo mansion at the height of massive manhunt operations for the PBMA leader.

Police officials have decided that Ecleo will be detained in Cebu, to face murder and parricide charges leveled against him there, among other criminal suits filed against the cult leader.

Ecleo was presented to the media by Barbers. The man who wielded almost godlike power over the ranks of the PBMA wore a checkered shirt and denim pants, looking helpless and hazy in his handcuffs.— With Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz, Jaime Laude, AFP, Freeman News Service

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