Philippine police announced the filing of murder complaints Monday against the country’s prisons chief and his deputy on suspicion that they orchestrated a broadcaster’s killing, saying an investigation suggested they were running a criminal organization inside the prison system.
Bureau of Corrections Director-General Gerald Bantag and an aide, Deputy Security Officer Ricardo Zulueta, ran a cabal of jailed gang members that carried out killings, according to findings in an initial probe by Philippine National Police.
The police force and National Bureau of Investigation said the two were charged with murder for the separate deaths of radio journalist Percival Mabasa and convict Jun Villamor, an apparent middleman. The NBI is the justice department’s investigations arm.
“For the murder of Percival Carag Mabasa, better known as Percy Lapid, we have charged Director-General Gerald Quitaleg Bantag, DSO Ricardo Zulueta as principals by inducement,” NBI special action unit investigator Eugene Javier said during a press conference that aired on national television.
“It was found through the investigation that both Director-General Gerald Bantag and DSO Ricardo Zulueta were behind the killing of both Percy Lapid and Jun Villamor,” he said.
Javier said the investigation “brought to light the institutionalization of criminal organization within the government,” adding that this would lead to crucial reforms.
On Oct. 21, the government announced that it had suspended Bantag pending an investigation into Villamor’s death.
Zulueta has gone into hiding and Bantag has yet to be accounted for, officials said.
Officials said Mabasa was killed because he had been divulging details about alleged corruption linked to Bantag during his radio show on DWBL.
Gunmen ambushed the broadcaster near the gate of a village in Las Piñas city, in Metro Manila, on Oct. 3. Villamor died inside the national penitentiary a couple of weeks later.
Also known as Crisanto Villamor, the inmate was killed to prevent him from talking after Mabasa’s suspected killer, identified as Joel Escorial, confessed last month and told police about the conspiracy, according to authorities who previously had identified him as Estorial.
A raid at the national penitentiary in the wake of Bantag’s suspension yielded drugs, computers and mobile phones, said Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, adding this revealed “a very strong indication of the presence of a criminal organization” controlled by Bantag.
“With a centralized purchasing system, a centralized way of doing contraband selling within a prison system, I think that that itself would tell you that there is a criminal organization lurking within,” Remulla told reporters during the news conference.
Sworn statements from several prisoners “show a clear and direct line of communication” from Bantag and Zulueta to inmates who passed the contract to fellow gang members outside, ultimately ending with gunman Escorial, according to the authorities.
A similar operation led to the killing of Villamor, they said.
Javier, the NBI investigator, said Bantag had a clear motive to order the murders.
“For Percy Lapid, it was the continued exposé … on his show ‘Lapid Fire,’” Javier said. “For Jun Villamor, it was the attempt to cover up the murder of Percy Lapid.”
In addition, authorities said they had “initial, yet credible intelligence reports” showing a money trail in the case, he said.
“The self-confessed gunman stated that the reward for the murder of Percy Lapid was 550,000 pesos (U.S. $9,415). According to credible intelligence reports, within the period between Sept. 15, 2022, and Oct. 7, 2022, there were indeed cash deposits totaling the amount of 550,000 pesos,” Javier said.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordered the suspension of Bantag ahead of the investigation and named retired military chief Gregorio Catapang Jr. to serve as interim prisons chief.
Since he was suspended on Oct. 21, Bantag criticized his successor’s “questionable” history and the Marcos administration’s “poor” handling of the Mabasa investigation.
Bantag was appointed to the national penitentiary in 2019 by former president Rodrigo Duterte. Prisoner deaths per year under Bantag’s watch were the highest since 1990, according to research data by The Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Remulla said investigators were surprised when they went to a funeral home to check on Villamor’s body and found “more than 30 corpses.”
“This is now being studied by the police and we want to know how these people died, the cause of death and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. We will study it and maybe we can know how long this has been going on, but definitely there has been criminal activity going on inside the NBP,” he said, referring to the New Bilibid Prison, the country’s main prison.
In 2020, COVID-19 was blamed for the deaths of at least nine high-profile inmates. Among them was Jaybee Sebastian, a key government witness in the drug trafficking charges against Leila de Lima, a jailed former senator.
Human rights groups have urged the central government to provisionally release de Lima, who faces trials on two drug-related charges after a court dismissed a similar complaint against her. They note that three of the government’s witnesses against de Lima have backtracked, claiming they had been coerced into testifying against the former senator.
In a statement, the Mabasa family thanked the authorities and the journalist’s supporters for joining them in their quest for justice.
Still, they want to identify those ultimately responsible.
“We are optimistic and asking for prayers and continued support for identifying more masterminds behind Bantag,” the family said on Monday.
“We hope this is the start of strengthening the protection of journalists who are fighting for truth,” they said. “Like what Percy always said: Truth-telling is not a form of bravery, it is a responsibility.”