The Pentagon puzzle

By Carlos H. Conde
Newsbreak
Published: Jan. 18, 2002

DAVAO CITY — The Mindanao intelligence officer says some kidnapping cases were erroneously filed against Marohombsar because other groups had used the Pentagon Gang’s name. “He’s been accused of kidnappings that he did not do.”

Who, then, is behind the kidnappings attributed to the Pentagon Gang? Next to Marohombsar, Tahir Alonto is the name that easily comes to mind.

The authorities have said Alonto, a former MILF member, is responsible for at least 20 kidnappings since June 2001.

Alonto is said to have formed his group in January last year, taking in former MILF guerrillas as members. The authorities say it took after the now-disbanded kidnap-for-ransom group led by Abogado Mubarak.

Marohombsar, who was with Mubarak’s group, says he and about a hundred of his men gave themselves up to the government after Mubarak’s death in 1992. For years afterward, they waited for the government assistance promised them in exchange for their surrender.

For some time up to 1998, Marohombsar lived in Cagayan de Oro City, working as a jeepney driver and as a military intelligence asset. When the government failed to deliver on its promise, he went back to banditry, surfacing last year as leader of the Pentagon Gang.

Both Marohombsar and Alonto have put the MILF in a very tight fix.

Marohombsar claims he was with the MILF’s special operations groups assigned to undertake kidnapping for ransom. The MILF took P20 million of the P30-million ransom paid for one of the Chinese engineers, he says.

Alonto surfaced after being sprung from a General Santos jailhouse supposedly with MILF help. He is said to maintain a training camp in the Liguasan Marsh, believed to be a MILF stronghold.

North Cotabato Gov. Manny Piñol, whose disdain for the MILF is no secret, says the fact that practically all of Alonto’s kidnap victims have been taken to the marsh, as well as to other known MILF territories, points to MILF complicity in the kidnappings.

The 200,000-hectare marsh straddles the provinces of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, and North Cotabato. Pierantoni was reportedly taken there. The vehicle of the latest kidnap victim, Ma. Cecilia Bonifacio, the daughter of the owners of Bonifacio Motors in Davao City, was found in Parang, Maguindanao. Bonifacio was rescued earlier this month in Hagonoy town, Davao del Sur. In separate raids, 15 suspects have been arrested for her kidnapping.

After Bonifacio’s kidnapping, for which the police in Southern Mindanao blamed Marohombsar’s group, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said he had a list of 25 kidnappers and promised to go after them the same way he went after the city’s drug pushers — with guns blazing. One of those on the list is a certain Boy Hashim, said to be a relative of MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim.

“I asked the MILF not to give sanctuary to the kidnappers,” Duterte told reporters in Davao City. His message to kidnappers: “If you are arrested alive, I will be happy. If you end up dead, I’ll be doubly happy.”

The police here say Bonifacio’s kidnappers were the same ones who grabbed Canadian Pierre Belanguer last year.

On January 15, Piñol announced that he, too, had a list of kidnappers, whom he described as MILF members based in MILF territories. Boy Hashim, who Piñol says is Salamat’s brother, is also said to be on that list.

Piñol says his basis for alleging the MILF’s involvement is “our experience in the campaign against kidnapping. They get protection from the MILF.”

“When we tried to rescue the Chinese engineers, the Army encountered a big group of MILF fighters,” he recalls, adding that Liguasan Marsh is controlled by the MILF and “nothing happens there without the front’s knowledge.”

Bong Akmad, a former administrative officer of the MILF’s 204th Brigade, supports Piñol’s charge. He says two of Alonto’s rescuers were from the MILF and were involved in the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers.

Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, denies the allegations, which he branded as “not new.”

“We definitely have no connection with the Pentagon Gang. This Boy Hashim is not a brother of the chairman. The name is probably just an alias,” he says, adding that Piñol has a personal grudge against the MILF.

Explaining that the MILF is a “very big organization,” Jaafar says that just because one member has committed a crime does not mean that the act had MILF blessings.

He also denies that Marohombsar and Alonto were members of the MILF special operations group.

Jaafar warns kidnappers to stop their activities or risk action from the front. “If they do not want to stop, they must not enter our territories. We will do something drastic to anybody who drags the MILF’s name to all this.”

No conclusive proof exists to directly link the MILF to the kidnappings. All that have been put forth are allegations by people said to have an ax to grind against the front.

This makes just about anybody else — disgruntled MILF members, common criminals, the police, and the military — suspect in the creation of the Pentagon Gang and its kidnapping activities.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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