P U B L I C E Y E — THE MANY LIVES OF THE PENTAGON GANG
THE PENTAGON'S base, though, is the Liguasan Marsh, an area where a wildlife sanctuary exists and where several rivers converge. It is also the base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the MNLF's successor, and under whose shadow the gang operates. This is partly why the Pentagon is sometimes mistaken for the MILF.
In the weeks after Marohombsar's death, the Pentagon was reported to be stepping up its recruitment operations, targeting young Muslim men living around Liguasan Marsh, where both the gang and the MILF often train their recruits.
For Muslim youths, embracing illegal activities like kidnapping may seem normal in a place traditionally tom by conflict as well as crime. it is also a way by which they vent their anger or rail against centuries-old government neglect. People like Marohombsar, an MNLF commander-turned-rebel returnee, have used such justifications in the past. "Openly, Faisal Marohombsar has been saying that he has a lot of gripes against the military, promises that were never kept, and he was doing this (kidnapping) to call attention to those gripes," recalls MILF spokeman Eid Kabalu.
But Kabalu insists the MILF has no involvement in Pentagon activities, even if authorities keep saying so or at times describe gang members as rogue MILF rebels. Kabalu reiterates the MILFs official line: that groups like Pentagon are actually part of the dirty tactics and fund-raising activities of the military and the police and that these provided a convenient way of destroying the credibility of the MILF which has been negotiating with the government.
With the MILF rebels moving in the same jungles prowled by these ex-MNLFs bandits, however, it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. it does not help that many of them are related to each other, either by kinship or erstwhile comradeship, and that — in a place where blood ties run strong — these ties extend to those on the side of the law.
One of those said to have pioneered kidnapping in Central Mindanao is Abogado 'Gado' Bago, an ex-MNLF rebel also known as Commander Mubarak. The abduction of as many as 76 people has been attributed to him and his group. A PCIJ investigation in 1991 revealed that Mubarak was often seen in Cotabato City as chief security officer of a politician then belonging to the former Muslim Mindanao regional assembly Military authorities blamed Mubarak for the bombings that ripped Cotabato City in July and August of 1990. He is said to have earned more than P100 million in kidnap-for-ransom activities before he was killed in December 1992.
Marohombsar adopted the name Mubarak 11 after the "original" Mubarak was killed. But his bloodline is decidedly more sedate; Marohombsar is said to be a member of the prominent Maranaw clan bearing the same name and is related to Emily Marohombsar, former president of the Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi City After he surrendered to the government in the late 1980s, Faisal Marohombsar found employment as the university's chief security officer.
Around the time that Marohombsar worked in MSU, a spate of kidnappings hit Marawi City and the surrounding Lanao provinces, among them the kidnapping of MSU professor Marino Ridao. Ridao's kidnapping was blamed on Mubarak, then still alive and reportedly working closely with Marohombsar in kidnapping activities.
Mubarak is said to be related to another fallen kidnap gang leader, Hadji Musa Ali, also an ex-MNLF commander-turned-rebel-returnee who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Sangguniang Bayan in his hometown of Kabuntalan in North Cotabato in 1995. After his defeat, Musa Ali turned to kidnapping and preyed on Filipino-Chinese businesspeople in Cotabato City.
In March 1997, Musa Ali availed himself of the government's cash-for-guns program and was even photographed in a press conference beside then Interior Secretary, now Senator, Robert Barbers, to whom he surrendered, and then police chief Recaredo Sarmiento. Musa Ali managed to get government funds for livelihood and was used as an informant by the anti-kidnap unit Task Force Tabang. Eventually, though, he returned to kidnapping.
For a third time on September 1997, Musa Ali surrendered, was presented to the media at a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, and apparently went unpunished for his illegal activities. Two years later, an unidentified gunman shot Musa Ali in Cotabato City, in broad daylight.
A cousin and close associate of Musa Ali was Mayangkang Saguile, on whom several kidnappings have been blamed, including that of Cotabato-based businessperson Ching Guan Cue. Ching was taken from his poultry farm on May 2, 1997. Days later, he was strangled, his body thrown into the Tamontaka River, despite his family's payment of P1.5 million. The Ching kidnapping case had Cotabato City traders so incensed that they shut down their businesses for two days and threatened to pull out of the city for good.
AS EARLY as 12 years ago, authorities had already broached the possibility that powerful people could either be protecting the kidnappers or instigating the kidnappings. The 1991 PCIJ investigation quoted local military officials as saying kidnappings then were "part of a fundraising campaign of Moro rebel groups, while a number of residents said it is a fundraising campaign of some quarters for the elections of 1992."
During the Aquino administration, then defense chief Fidel Ramos formed the anti-kidnapping unit Task Force Kutawato in Cotabato City. Seven kidnappings were reported after the Task Force was formed. "A businessperson who requested anonymity said Ramos ordered the creation of a task force only after the national chamber of commerce, whose financial assistance to any aspiring presidential candidate, he said, could come in handy on election time, paid him a visit in his office in Manila," the 1991 PCIJ report said. Anti-crime groups have since noted how kidnappings peak as election years approach.
Ramos kept Task Force Kutawato in tact but later replaced it with Task Force Tabang and later, Task Force Tugis. Arroyo formed Task Force Sanglahi-Pentagon. In 2002, news accounts told of the involvement of police officers in Task Force Sanglahi-Pentagon to Faisal Marohombsar's group. During his time, Estrada created the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF), which had blanket jurisdiction over kidnap-for-ransom gangs, as did the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC), which Estrada headed while he was still vice president.
These various groups, although successful in some cases, have largely been unable to eradicate kidnapping in Mindanao. In fact, they caused conflict among the police officers. The National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force (NAKTAF), for instance, overlapped with the Task Force Sanglahi-Pentagon, resulting in rivalries among top police officials. There is even talk that Faisal Marohombsar was caught in the bitter police turf wars.
Although anti-kidnap units managed to make some arrests, keeping kidnappers in jail is another matter. In 2000 Tahir Alonto, detained for kidnapping the wife of a hardware store owner, was rescued from the General Santos City jail by a band of followers. Alonto is still at large and has been spotted roaming Davao City A P1-million reward awaits those who dare capture him.
Last November, news reports said four Pentagon members detained at the Kidapawan City jail in North Cotabato escaped by supposedly sawing off the iron bars in the jail using nothing more than a steel wire.
Faisal Marohombsar was arrested in February 2002, in a motel on Arlegui St. in Quiapo, just a stone's throw away from Malacañang. News reports said he identified himself as a police asset and had in his possession a safe-conduct pass signed by then PNP chief Leandro Mendoza and Interior Secretary Jose Lina. Mendoza and Lina both denied granting Marohombsar such a pass.
Marohombsar was locked up at the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame in Quezon City Four months after his arrest, he managed to escape. He later said in a radio interview in Mindanao that visitors provided him a new set of padlocks, which he swapped with that on his cell. He then simply took his key and unlocked the door, walked out of jail past the heavily guarded Crame gates, and later took a commercial flight back to Mindanao.
By August, the police were still pursuing Marohombsar in Central Mindanao. Then an army general announced that Marohombsar had sent surrender feelers. Before anyone knew it, Marohombsar was dead. But whether authorities admit it or not, the Pentagon gang remains very much alive. (With research by Yvonne T Chua)