Dr. Leonardo Co wasn’t just an activist from the University of the Philippines. He was one of the country’s top botanist and had brought honor for the country through his work on biodiversity conservation and in the field of traditional herbal medicine.
Co was doing fieldwork with four other companions in a remote mountain village of Kanaga in Leyte last Nov. 15 when he was killed by military operatives who later claimed they were caught in a crossfire between soldiers and members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA).
Also killed with Co were Sofronio Cortez, a forest guard of the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corporation’s (EDC) Environment Management Division and their guide Julius Borromeo of the Tongonan Farmers’ Association.
Another guide, Policarpio Gibe, was wounded while the fourth member of the team, Ronino Gibed, a contractor forester for EDC, was unhurt, but remains in a state of shock.
Co was reportedly engaged by the company to lead a biodiversity survey at the Leyte Geothermal Production Field (LGPF) reservation area. The province housed one of the world’s largest geothermal plants, which rocesses at least 600 megawatt of power for central Philippines.
Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th Infantry Battalion which conducted the operations, said his men did not see the civilians. He did not, however, discount the possibility they may have been hit by friendly fire in the areas, which is reportedly infested by communist guerillas.
Lt. Gen. Ralph Villanueva, commander of the Armed Forces Central Command, also insisted that an encounter happened between the rebels and the soldiers , which was spawned by “imminent attack” on the EDC’s vital installations.
But the National Democratic Front-Eastern Visayas claimed it was a case of “senseless violence” by the local infantry battalion, which the rebels are also blaming for involvement in at least three previous massacres and other rights violations.
“It is highly improbable for Dr. Co and his companions to accidentally stray near an NPA camp or an NPA unit on maneuvers and suddenly find themselves in a crossfire. The NPA camps are well-hidden in highly secure areas inaccessible to most, and an NPA unit also stays away from civilians to maintain a secrecy and avoid endangering them,” the NDF-EV spokesman Fr. Santiago Salas said in a statement.
“Rather, it is the NDF-EV’s belief that Dr. Co’s group was mistaken for an NPA Unit by the 19th IB elements led by Lt. Ronald Ocheamar and attacked based on a flimsy intelligence report, and who furthermore violated the rules of engagement by indiscriminately firing without verifying their targets,” according to the statement.
Still, we ponder. Suppose they were really victims of a “friendly fire,” what will the military do? Armed Forces Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu said that if there were lapses on the part of the operating elements, the AFP will not hesitate to impose sanctions.
We’ve heard that line before, but we have yet to see what the military has done to ensure that genuine justice eventually prevails whenever their forces, their mistah, their men and other supposed protectors of the people did it as part of their counter-insurgency operations.
They are no longer heroes, but the State would not admit that the soldiers were “criminals.” It could be a case of another “collateral damage” resulting from government’s Operation Bantay Laya.
In the meantime, we can just mourn the loss of wasted lives simply because we have a powerful institution that is still trying to find how its officers and men can minimize their culpability to a crime. I hope I’m wrong. Joel Paredes