By Alex P. Vidal
“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”— Henry Grunwald
WHEN members of the media accompany the police and politicians in dangerous out-of-town trips, they are also like soldiers going to the battle: their other foot is in the grave.
But, of course, in any complicated mission and situation it always pays to be alert and maintain a calm mind amid difficulties.
This was proven 27 years ago when former Iloilo fifth district congressman Rolex Suplico and a team of Capitol reporters visited the site of a massacre in Brgy. Mandu-awak, San Dionisio, Iloilo morning on July 16, 1996.
Sensing “imminent” danger, they elected to detour from “hell” — and, thus, lived another day, so to speak.
Suplico, then a member of the Iloilo provincial board, invited us for an ocular inspection of the area where a carnage that killed six members of Ayusip and Arabe families happened several days earlier (weren’t those 60 journalists also “invited” to cover an event when they were massacred in Ampatuan in Maguindanao in 2009?).
The visit came three days after Suplico filed a provincial board resolution condemning the massacre and seeking the appointment of a new police chief in this town in the fifth district of Iloilo located 106 kilometers north of Iloilo City.
Suplico said an ocular visit was necessary as he wanted to “look deeper” into the grisly crime.
After spending about an hour talking to some residents in the area and inspecting the houses where the crime was committed, we decided to call it a day.
On our way going to neighboring Sara town for lunch, we met then San Dionisio mayor Peter Paul Lopez and his armed bodyguards.
Impassive Lopez had begrudged the Suplico’s board resolution and accused the board member of trying to implicate him in the massacre.
He also believed the Capitol reporters were there to “add insult to his injury” as a suspected mastermind.
Suplico had quipped earlier that “I have no concrete evidence to link Mayor Lopez” but that the whole Mandu-awak area “is being controlled by the Lopezes.”
In other words, a bad blood had been brewing between Suplico and Lopez even before the visit.
We were on board two vehicles when Lopez’s team arrived also on two vehicles.
Both Lopez and Suplico, who had not been talking to each other for a long time–and if they ever did the discussion was not cordial– greeted each other and shook hands. They talked.
A few moments later, Lopez was heard admonishing Suplico like a master giving a mouthful to an erring servant about Suplico’s board resolution.
Suplico, a lawyer who spoke professionally, maintained his cool as he was aware who was king in the area.
Lopez lashed at him some more blaming the board resolution to be the source of a “bombastic” article that appeared earlier in the Manila Standard which allegedly referred to Lopez as “murderer.”
Unlike the bodyguards from both sides observing their respective bosses like daycare pupils from the start, some reporters, who were not paying attention either because they were hungry or they thought everything was very well, were now glancing at Suplico and Lopez while the two were swapping heavy words.
“Daw indi na ini maayo haw (It seems everything is not normal anymore),” the late senior photographer Cicero Omero whispered to me.
“Pamati kamo daw ga binaisay na sila (Please try to listen, they seem to be having argument),” Sun Star Balita Iloilo reporter Nelson Robles interrupted us.
“Relax lang ta. Alert lang” (Just relax and be alert),” contributed the late Panay News photographer Felix Agustin.
If any untoward incident occurred and one of the bodyguards pulled the trigger of his firearm, there was no way for all of us to dodge the bullets as we were in open space and could hardly duck.
After a tense moment, Suplico stopped talking, turned his back from Lopez, and boarded his vehicle.
His decision proved to be the turning point of what would have been a terrible “after shock” of the massacre if both camps engaged in a gunfight.
While Team Suplico was speeding away, Lopez’s mouth continued to blabber with words inaudible to the “fleeing” entourage.
Over DYFM Bombo Radyo that night, Suplico said he did not have any intention to meet Lopez that day.
Suplico decided to leave to avoid trouble, he said, because “I sensed that he (Lopez) was not normal and his eyes were red.”
Lopez, a political ally of then Iloilo Gov. Arthur Defensor Sr., father of the incumbent Gov. Arthur Jr., denied Suplico’s statement.
They have not crossed paths again until Suplico became a colleague and eventually ally of the father Defensor in the House of Representatives.
Then Iloilo provincial police commander, Supt. Wilfredo Dulay, was furious when he heard about the incident.
“Mabuti nalang walang nangyari. Naku, dagdag nanaman sana sa sakit ng ulo ko” (Good that no untoward incident happened. It would have added to my headache),” Dulay said.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two daily newspapers in Iloilo.—Ed)