The independent Investigative team consisting of Mr. Chris Cobb-Smith and myself was contacted by Atty. Harry Roque of Centerlaw for the purpose of an independent account based on forensic evidence on behalf of the victims. The mission was conducted in partnership with the Commission on Human Rights which has the constitutional mandate to conduct investigations of human rights involving civil and political rights.
The team arrived in Cotabato City on November 29, 2009 and returned to Manila on December 7. We stayed in the area gathering information from direct inspection, talking to relatives, potential witnesses, law enforcement officers and Civil Society activists. This is by no means an exhaustive account of the reconstruction of the facts since for the time being we have not received all documentation collected by different agencies. Our visit however allowed us to have a better understanding of the circumstances in which the crime occurred as well as allow us to piece together some factual information presented in this briefing.
During our time in the area we were able to talk to members of the PNP, victim families, confidential sources and Civil Society organizations.
The site where 57 bodies were recovered the previous week is located on the top a small hill some three kilometers from the main highway at Barangay San Juan y Ampatuan city.
The site occupies an area of some 500 square meters were three graves of various dimensions were excavated. Upon arrival the site still shown large heaps of dirt extracted during the excavation of the graves and a large number of personal artifacts, car pieces, newspapers and assorted rubbish strewn across the surface. It was cleared that the site had been severely disturbed since discovery and a number of artifacts, primarily recovery by-products such as gloves, empty water bottles and the like, were added.
Upon our arrival to the site it was clear that there still were a number of valuable pieces of evidence that should be collected. We undertook two full examinations using metal detectors in order to locate shell casings and slugs that may assist in determining the minimal number of shooters at the scene. The location of the slugs would facilitate determining whether some of the victims were shot outside the vehicles and then placed back inside likely to be buried in them.
We excavated the three graves to ascertain whether any mortal remains would have been left behind due to the hastiness with which the original exhumation was performed. We also used a cadaver-sniffing dog to verify the empty graves and associated backfill and the surrounding area to exclude the existence of further remains. This way we determined that the scene did not contain any further bodies.
At the site, in our two visits, we recovered over 30 shell casings (5.66 x 45mm). In addition some 4 slugs were also recovered and their position recorded. This is in addition to the over 120 recovered by the police when they processed the scene.
While searching the scene we also came across personal effects, clothes and an intact partial upper denture. The denture was identified by the dentist, family and fiancé of journalist Robert Momay as belonging to Momay.
We examined the available documentation to determine that there were three cadavers still unidentified. The three unidentified bodies had all their teeth or complete upper and lower dentures. This affirms that the mortal remains of Momay were not at the site. However, since his ID and denture were found at the site it was likely that he was originally disposed there.
The vehicles recovered in grave 3 were mangled into a mass of metal. We had access to observe them at the PNP base in General Santos. It was still possible to observe that the back rest of both the passenger’s and rear right seats showed some perforations that could have been caused by a shotgun. One of the vehicles Tamaraw FX was being driven by Mr. Jephon Cadagdagon, a businessman from General Santos we raise the question as to whether he was travelling indeed alone or may have been taking passengers in his way through the area.
Based on the above we have the following preliminary observations and hypotheses, which need further consideration and investigation:
1. The event has been defined by the bodies recovered and not by the number of alleged victims reported.
2. In talking with various persons present at the scene after the killings occur it is clear that the presence of the AFP as a security force while welcome was also a disrupting element in the processing of the scene. Likewise desperate relatives also participated in the recovery process making the situation still more complex.
3. The process of examination of the mortal remains was not centralized; it was spread through a number of funeral homes and undertaken by PNP and NBI teams. A preliminary review of autopsy reports from each of those teams show in some cases considerable differences in detail and description of injuries related to the cause and manner of death.
4. It seems apparent that the identification of the bodies relied heavily on the recognition by their relatives despite the fact that many of them sustained high velocity gunshot wounds in the face and/or were heavily decomposed making them definition unrecognizable. The delay in recovering the bodies made them less recognizable due to the advance decomposition.
5. It is likely that the body of Mr. Robert Momay was handed over to a different family.
6. This would imply that there is at least one more victim, not recovered nor reported and associated to this event.
7. The preliminary observations regarding the seats of the Tamaraw FX carcass found in grave 3 raises the possibility that the driver of the vehicle was not alone.
8. If the latter is true the number of victims could still be higher buried or hidden at another location (since they were not in the 3 graves).
EARLY RECOMMENDATIONS (Based on the observations on the 12 day mission)
In the regrettable scenario that future cases of this kind occur it is recommended that primary responders do not cause irreversible damage to the scene obliterating the recovery of important evidence
1. It is necessary ascertaining whether the versions indicating that upon arrival to the scene and despite the presence of AFP personnel there were other armed men presumably linked to the alleged perpetrators which only allow the recovery of the mortal remains of the immediate family of Buluan vice-mayor, Esmael Mangudadatu.
2. No attempts to define a possible universe of victims and to collect Ante Mortem data for each using common formats such as the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI-Interpol) system were used. By doing that at an early stage some of the problems outlined here could have been avoided. It is clear that the event has been defined by the bodies recovered and not by the number of alleged victims reported.
3. In the future it is more efficient to pool resources together rather than atomize them duplicating efforts or simply by carrying parallel but not necessary complementary investigations. The data collected, the results and the hypothesis of each investigation, such as it has been discussed here are difficult to collate.
4. Any attempt to perform an efficient investigation in a case of this magnitude needs the rapid deployment of experts; while the deployment of international experts in this case was substantially short considering the circumstances it occurred almost a week after the facts.