DOJ special panel of prosecutors resolved the Caramoan massacre cases

20 August 2015

On 03 June 2015, the Special Panel of Prosecutors, created pursuant to Department Order No. 639, issued four separate Resolutions to the complaints filed relating to the Caramoan Massacre incident which transpired on 22 March 2014 at Sitio Campo, Brgy. Gata, Caramoan, Camarines Sur.

It may be recalled that victims Julio Labiano (JULIO), Rene Labiano (RENE), Salem Virtus (SALEM), and Jesse Brondia (JESSE) were purportedly killed by the members of the SagipKalikasan Task Force (SKTF).

Consequently, several complaints were filed in the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Camarines Sur. However, by virtue of aforesaid Department Order, the cases were assigned to a Special Panel of State Prosecutors which conducted preliminary investigation on the Caramoan Massacre and all other related cases.

Cyra Labiano, Rebecca Deliña, Sonny Virtus, Vicente Brundia, and Mercy Sueno filed a complaint for four counts of Murder under Article 248 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) against Respondents Joel Breso, a.k.a. "Bay" (BRESO), Angelo Refran (REFRAN), Luis Palaganas (PALAGANAS), Saetiel Pielago (PIELAGO), Jonah Bolima (BOLIMA), Servillano Espares, Jr. (ESPARES, JR.), Florencio Vargas (VARGAS), and Francisco Tria III (TRIA III).

Witness Elmer Labiano (ELMER) recounted that at around 9:00 in the evening of March 22, he was disturbed by a commotion outside his room. When he stood up, he saw and heard Breso and Espares, Jr. shouting at the victims. Successive gunshots ensued, and after a while, witness Elmer heard Breso saying he was shot. One person used the radio to report that Breso was wounded, and witness Elmer heard the person on the radio introducing himself as Tria. After the perpetrators were instructed to leave by Tria III, witness Elmer saw four of his companions dead.

Witness Panchito Labiano affirmed the narrations of witness Elmer, and averred that a group of about fifteen to twenty men, armed with .45 caliber guns, came to their hut and started shouting at them. He immediately ran outside the nipa hut and heard gunshots. After more or less than ten minutes, he crawled back into the nipa hut and saw three of the victims lifeless, while Rene was fighting for his life.

These narrations were also corroborated by Salvador De Leon and Agapito Labiano (AGAPITO). Witness Agapito added that he recognized the voice on the radio as Respondent Tria III's as the latter arrested him on 20 March 2014 for alleged illegal mining of gold.

Flordilito Senar also executed an Affidavit stating that Salvador Hufancia, a member of the SKTF, tried but failed to convince him to bring the SKTF members to Gota, Camarines Sur at around 4:30 in the morning of 23 March.

Mercy Sueno (SUENO), incumbent Barangay Captain of Brgy. Gata, Caramoan, Camarines Sur, stated in her Affidavit that as early as December 2013, there was already a brewing animosity between the local miners and the members of SKTF. Similarly, Maximino Breis, Jr. (BREIS, JR.), a Barangay Kagawad of Brgy. Gata, narrated in his Affidavit the abuses made by the members of the SKTF.

Witness Honorio Carino (CARINO) also executed an Affidavit averring that in the morning of 22 March 2014, he saw and heard Respondent Tria III, together with Noe Raygon, Benny Azures, and Miguel Raygon discussed killing Sueno, Breis, Jr., Rene, and Julio.

The Panel found that all elements of murder were established:

First, victims Julio, Rene, Salem, and Jesse were killed.

Second, Respondents Breso, Espares, Jr., Tria III, and eighteen other unidentified men, allegedly members of the SKTF, were responsible for the killings, as seen by witness Elmer and heard by witness Carino.

Third, the killings were attended by the qualifying circumstance of treachery as testified by witness Elmer. The victims, who were simply having dinner and drinking after work, were caught off guard when Respondents Breso, Espares, Jr., and eighteen other unidentified men shot the former point blank, leaving them no chance at all to evade the onslaught. The Panel observed that the method of inflicting harm by Respondents Breso, Espares, Jr, and the eighteen other unidentified men ensured that they would fatally kill the victims without risk to themselves.

The defense of alibi by Respondent Tria III was held to be unconvincing because he was positively identified by the eyewitnesses.

Finally, the killings were neither parricide nor infanticide.

The Panel, however, was constrained to dismiss the complaints against Respondents Refran, Palaganas, Pielago, Bolima, and Vargas for lack of sufficient evidence.

The Panel observed that the records are bereft of any showing that the aforementioned respondents directly participated in the killing of the victims. Neither could they be said to have acted in conspiracy with the other respondents since complainants failed to demonstrate how they concurred in or, in any way, participated towards the unified purpose of Respondents Tria III, Breso, and Espares of killing the victims.

Considering that the four Informations of Murder had already been filed in court against Respondents Breso and Espares, the Panel recommended the amendment of the Informations to include Tria III as an accused.

Complainants, who were implicated in the Caramoan massacre, filed separate complaints against Respondent P/SInsp. Chester Pomar (POMAR) for perjury. Complainants averred that the statements of Respondent Pomar in his Affidavit of Arrest were wilful and deliberate assertions of falsehood. They contend that they were not arrested in a hot pursuit operation; and that during their travel to the Caramoan Municipal Police Station (CMPS), they never met nor encountered Respondent Pomar, any police officer, or Elmer in Brgy. Ilawod.

The basis of the crime of perjury is the wilful assertion of a falsehood under oath upon a material matter. The term "material matter" under Article 183 of the RPC must be understood as referring to a fact which has an effect on the outcome of the proceeding for which the statement is being executed.

In the case of the affidavit of arrest executed by Respondent Pomar, the material matter thereof is the fact of arrest made by respondent upon complainants. Thus, the Panel ruled that whether complainants did not encounter respondent, police officers, or Elmer in Brgy. Ilawod when they went to the CMPS is irrelevant. Likewise, the allegation of the complainants regarding the hot pursuit operation deserves scant consideration.

The Panel considered the factual milieu that a team of policemen was sent to the scene of the crime to investigate; that at around 7:30 a.m. of 23 March 2014, Respondent Pomar formed a team with elements from the Philippine Army to pursue suspected criminals reported to be hiding in Brgy. Ilawod; that later, respondent was informed that the suspects are members of the SKTF; and that at around past noon, eyewitnesses identified complainants, among others, as the offenders.

The Panel resolved that from the foregoing, it can be inferred that Respondent Pomar had reasonable ground of suspicion to arrest complainants. Also, the arrest was done in good faith and presumed to have been done in the regular performance of his duty.

As to the timeliness of the arrest, the Panel ruled that despite the natural impediments - inclement weather at the time, environment, terrain of the locality, and the mobility of the parties - the arrest was effected within twenty hours after the commission of the offense. Thus, to the minds of the investigating prosecutors, the arrest was timely.

Nonetheless, assuming arguendo that the arrest was not in hot pursuit, Respondent Pomar still cannot be held liable for perjury. The Panel held that given , the facts obtaining in this case, his action of arresting complainants was pursuant to a hot pursuit operation. Hence, if Respondent Pomar's declaration of hot pursuit arrest was wrong, the same is an honest mistake. Such statement was not a wilful or corrupt assertion of a falsehood.

In support thereof, the Panel cited that a mere assertion of a false objective fact, a falsehood, is not enough. Perjury, being a felony by dolo, there must be malice on the part of the accused.

Complainant Fermin Mulleda Mabulo (MABULO) filed two complaints against Respondents Sueno and Breis, Jr. for violation of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 7942 and R.A. No. 7076. Evidence for the complainant shows that in November 2013, Mabulo was informed by SKTF District Supervisor Tria III about the supposed illegal mining activity being conducted at Sitio Tila, Brgy. Gata, Caramoan, Camarines Sur. The same was reportedly operated by Respondents Sueno and Breis, Jr. without the necessary mining permit or license. In defense, Respondents Sueno and Breis, Jr. denied the charges and countered that the complaint is being used as leverage to the administrative charge which the respondents earlier filed against Complainant Mabulo before the Office of Ombudsman. Alternatively, the respondents took exception from the penal provisions of the law, the same being their customary right since the activity dates back in the 1930s.

The Panel unanimously believed that small-scale mining operation is being conducted at Brgy. Gata, as persuasively proven by numerous photographs depicting the activity of the people, the numerous pits and/or holes, the general appearance and condition of the place, and the various equipment, machineries, and paraphernalia being used in relation thereto. Parenthetically, testimonial and documentary evidence abound to substantiate the allusion that Respondents Sueno and Breis, Jr., more than mere protectors of the unlawful activity in their barangay, were themselves into illegal mining operation.

As regards Respondent Sueno, there were credible accounts that during a heated confrontation on 16 February 2014 with SKTF member Eli A. Bocacao, Jr., Respondent Sueno, together with her eight uniformed and armed barangay tanods, tried to regain possession of the confiscated generator set with attached submersible pump emphatically claiming the same as "her property" and that she "owns that machine". Her utterances and claim of ownership over the equipment were reflected in the Police Blotter of even date.

The Panel took note of the several declarations and Police blotters alleging that Respondent Sueno's husband, Ronnie, exclaimed that Espares, Jr. has no right to stop the operations of Ronnie's ball mill. Also, Ronnie threatened and confronted witness Bernardo Sedeno, Jr., accusing the latter as the one who reported the ball mill of Respondent Sueno. In the same vein, Jonah Bolima and Luis Palaganas, Jr. narrated that Respondents Sueno and Breis, Jr. tried to bribe them in exchange of letting them proceed with their small-scale mining operation.

These, and Respondent Sueno's own admissions as contained in her sworn affidavit attached to the administrative complaint filed before the Office of Ombudsman, and the fact that the ball mill was being operated right beside her residence convincingly prove that Respondent Sueno is indulged in the illegal activity.

Anent Respondent Breis. Jr., the Memorandum of Agreement executed between him and the owner-spouses of a parcel of mineral land located at Brgy. Gata, vesting him with authority to pan and 'sleuce' for gold, is concrete proof of his engagement in illegal mining. This lends further credence to his statement in the Police blotter that four armed persons took over and stopped the operation of his small scale gold mine.

Section 8 of R.A. No. 7076 renders mandatory the registration of small-scale miners before they can be allowed to venture into small-scale mining. In the case at bar, Respondents Sueno and Breis, Jr. failed to present any requisite authority or license to conduct mining operation.

Considering that the law violated is a special law, good faith is not a valid defense. The Panel noted that Respondents had been warned and were expressly advised to put on hold their activity pending the issuance of the necessary license to make their operation legitimate. Nonetheless, both respondents adamantly defied the law, rendering them in bad faith.

On the charge of violation of Section 103 (Theft of Minerals) of R.A. No. 7942, the Panel ruled that the respondents cannot be accused of simultaneous violations of R.A. Nos. 7076 and 7942 because their right against double jeopardy will be jeopardized.

This pertains to the complaint of Tria III against Respondent Ma. Ana Angie Belmonte-Noble, Municipal Councilor of Garchitorena, Camarines Sur, for crime against honor. Complainant Tria III alleged that while Espares, Jr. was detained at the BJMP District Jail, Tigaon, Camarines Sur in April 2014, Respondent Noble thrice visited and goaded Espares, Jr. to incriminate Complainant Tria III, Mabolo, and the Camarines Sur provincial government's SKTF as behind one alias "Bay", the alleged gunman and prime suspect in the massacre.

Respondent Noble denied attempt to sway Espares, Jr. into implicating Complainant Tria III to the massacre incident. She explained that her jail visit was upon request of Espares, Jr.’s mother, Rosemarie. It was Espares, Jr. himself who informed her about his difficulty and dread for his life while under detention, as well as his purported non-involvement in the killing while pointing at a certain "Bay" as the real culprit, upon the behest of Mabolo.

After judicious evaluation of the parties' pleadings and in light of all the evidence on records, the investigating prosecutors recommended the dismissal of the complaint for crime against honor. The Panel observed that although Complainant Tria III failed to mention the specific Article and/or crime alleged to have been violated or committed, his averments supposedly make out a case for violation of Article 363 of the RPC, or for incriminating innocent persons.

The Panel stressed that Article 363 does not contemplate the idea of malicious prosecution - someone prosecuting or instigating a criminal charge in court. Rather, it refers to the acts of planting evidence and the like, which do not in themselves constitute false prosecution but tend directly to cause false prosecutions. Lamentably, the alleged acts of Respondent Noble do not constitute incriminatory machination, particularly, because Article 363 punishing said crime expressly excludes perjury as a means of committing the same.

Further, the Panel ruled that a perusal of the complaint shows that it is bereft of any statement about malicious intent and/or malice aforethought, motive, or any unjustifiable cause for the attempt to implicate Complainant Tria III for purposes of smearing his honor or reputation, cause him embarrassment, humiliation, or expose him to public ridicule or contempt.

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