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PNP officers attempt to storm tour bus hijacked by ex-cop Rolando Mendoza who was fired in 2008 on robbery and extortion charges. Among the eight tourists killed in the 12-hour crisis were Canadians Ken Leung and his daughters Jessie and Doris

The Philippine National Police (PNP) is taking the heat again for “ bungling” the rescue of the remaining Hong Kong tourists taken hostage on August 23 by a dismissed policeman at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila, but really, what else could have been done? At the time of the assault, the hostage crisis had dragged on for about 10 hours, and at that point Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza had already fired several shots – possibly indicating that he had killed several hostages. The under-equipped police officers who tried to storm the bus might have looked comical, trying to smash the windows with a sledgehammer that proved unequal to the task, but it is to their credit that they faced the crisis bravely, even with what little they had. In the end, however, their most valiant efforts could not save the lives of eight of the Hong Kong tourists on board the bus.

What needs to be addressed are the circumstances that allowed the hostage-taking to be staged in the first place and why the SWAT team that made the assault was so under-equipped. First of all, a police officer, who was dismissed two years ago, was walking around fully armed in the capital – an unforgivable situation given the high security that should have been in place due to the recent bomb attack in Zamboanga City that left two dead.

And it was not as if Mendoza was hiding small firearms on his person – he was armed with an M16 rifle, a weapon easily visible to anyone within sight. How and why a dismissed police officer could still access such a firearm should be subject to investigation because clearly, this shows that our security forces are compromised and that there are no guarantees that we are safe from our own protectors. That he was not detected shows how lax security is, even in the metro.

Secondly, the inclusion of Mendoza’s brother in the negotiation was a major lapse that apparently triggered the deadly reaction on the part of the dismissed cop. Why a family member was even allowed to go near the bus is beyond comprehension. Only trained negotiators should be allowed to speak to hostage-takers since they do not have emotional baggage that can endanger the talks. Mendoza’s brother could not have added anything to the negotiations, and even if the policeman had asked for him, the authorities should not have acquiesced. As it happened, the brother’s presence – or more correctly, the way he added fuel to the fire by telling the policeman not to give up and then making a scene as he was being led away – brought the standoff to its climax, and it was what apparently caused Mendoza to fire at his hostages.

And finally, why was the SWAT team so under-equipped? They did not even have a battering ram with which to break down a bus door, while the rope they used to pull it off, broke – much to their embarrassment. They used a sledgehammer to try and break the windows, but having done that – after almost an hour – they did not have ladders with which to climb in. And once inside, they did not have gas masks to protect themselves from the tear gas they themselves had thrown in. It was indeed a comedy of errors and it would have been funny if it weren’t so tragic.

But lack of equipment notwithstanding, the police officers on the ground did act with bravery using what little they had; it is their superiors who should be blamed for letting their men down and letting them fight criminals with little more than sledgehammers and rope. That the debacle happened less than two weeks after the so-called “euro generals” were indicted by the Ombudsman cannot be ignored. The case, involving 105,000 euros or P6.9 million that were allegedly “smuggled” into Russia by a police general, shows where the PNP’s funds are going: to the pockets of officials who could not care less about what happens to their men.

To paraphrase President Aquino, corruption has robbed the police of the ability to be the best that they can be. Corruption also cost the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists, and for that, heads at the highest level of the PNP must roll.

Jon Joaquin is the managing editor of the largest circulation newspaper in Mindanao, the Mindanao Daily Mirror in Davao City.

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