Lessons from a hostage tragedy
- Nikko Dizon () - May 31, 2003 - 12:00am
A year after a group of Pasay City policemen bungled the rescue of four-year-old hostage victim Dexter Balala, their colleagues say they have moved on from the trauma of the incident, which has been described as an "eye-opener."

"There was really a need for us to be trained and develop special skills in various situations like a hostage taking," said Senior Police Officer 3 Danilo Unico.

Unico said he has learned a lot from the month-long training he and his colleagues were made to take by their incensed superiors at the Philipine National Police (PNP).

"We were able to recover fast," city police chief Senior Superintendent Oscar Catalan told The STAR. "And the people of Pasay could say that there was an improvement in our performance."

Both Catalan and Unico cited the policemen’s rescue of another young boy taken hostage by a drug-crazed man, as one incident that could attest to the success of the training held in Subic.

But even without saying it, one of 13 policemen cleared by the Internal Affairs Service (IAS) of administrative liability still showed signs of the trauma brought about by the incident.

"It’s okay for me to be interviewed, but please don’t mention my name anymore," he said.

Days after the May 31 incident, he said, his family bore the brunt of a scathing press coverage and an outraged public.

And a year after the incident, the policemen, a ranking officer, said he is thankful that at the very least, he still has a career. The officer is still assigned at the Pasay City police and has even held an important position.

Eight of the 22 involved in the incident were dismissed from service by the IAS, including then police chief Superintendent Eduardo de la Cerna.

"I heard some of them filed an appeal, but nothing has come out of that yet," he said.

The policeman said the trial for the homicide charge as a result of gross negligence filed against him and his colleagues is about to wind down.

The case is being heard by Regional Trial Court Branch 113 Judge Caridad Grecia Cuerdo.

He remains hopeful that the case against him would be dismissed "because my conscience is clear."

The officer added that he never hired a lawyer since he cannot afford one. "I’d rather buy rice for my family."

He attended all of the hearings. The officer also said last year that he was not certain if his colleagues were able to raise P250,000 for the boy’s impoverished parents, in exchange for the dropping of charges.

Darius and Salvacion Balala, of San Fernando, Pampanga, submitted an afffidavit of desistance during the preliminary investigation last year.

"I did my job there. It was really the call of the most senior officer," he said.

Apparently, he was referring to De la Cerna, who was forced to retire after he failed to lead Balala’s rescue, as the ground commander of the operation.

Catalan, then the District Intelligence and Investigation Division (DIID) chief, was assigned to takeover De la Cerna’s post.

In the early hours of May 31, 2002, a drug-crazed Diomedes Talbo took the boy hostage at the Philtranco bus terminal in Malibay.

For two hours, an incoherent Talbo walked around the bus station’s lobby, poking a knife at a crying Balala.

A television reporter, untrained in hostage negotiations, tried to resolve the stand-off. The crowd heckled the drug-crazed Talbo. Television cameras recorded the hostage drama.

And when Talbo began stabbing the boy, the policemen shot him, repeatedly. They also hit the boy five times, one bullet pierced his heart. Balala sustained 13 stab wounds.

The SPD, which filed the case against the policemen, were unable to identify who among them inadvertently shot Balala when they took Talbo down.

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