A TOWN IN GRIEF

By: Nestle L. Semilla and Fe Marie Dumaboc September 05,2018 - 10:43 PM

The Ronda municipal hall at night with the Philippine flag at half-staff after Mayor Mariano Blanco III was murdered pre-dawn of September 5 , 2018. At the left side of the municipal building, barely four meters away, is the town police station. | CDN PHOTO/TONEE DESPOJO

The flag in the southwestern Cebu town of Ronda was flown at half-staff starting from the morning of Wednesday.

The mood was somber and the townsfolk moved around still in disbelief.

The town and its residents were still reeling from the violent demise of their mayor whom they had repeatedly elected into office, Mariano Blanco III. He was 59.

Blanco was assassinated in cold blood by a group of assailants who barged into the town hall past 1:30 a.m. yesterday.

His death came just seven months since his nephew and the town’s vice mayor, Jonnah John Ungab, was also shot dead after leaving the courthouse in Cebu City on Feb. 19, 2018. Ungab, a lawyer, served as legal counsel to confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa.

Blanco, who seldom went home to sleep and was inside his office, suffered multiple gunshot wounds on his body. He was rushed to the Barili District Hospital but was declared dead on arrival.

The mayor, who was in President Rodrigo Duterte’s list of narco-politicians that the President publicly announced in 2016, thought he was safe inside his office at the municipal hall even as he has no security escort. The mayor previously had a police security detail but it was taken away after he was stripped of his authority over the police over his alleged links to illegal drugs.

But at least four armed men were able to freely barge into the town hall and shot him dead. Her live-in partner, who was in an adjacent room inside the mayor’s office, was spared and left unharmed.

Adjacent police station

There was no quick response from the police even as the police station was located just four meters from the municipal hall.

SPO1 Dionisio Tagopa, chief investigator of the Ronda Police Station, said that the two policemen who were left on duty at the station did not hear the bursts of gunfire since it was raining at that time.

He said they were also undermanned because most of their operatives on duty were out to serve an arrest warrant against a suspect.

“It just happened that many of our policemen were not here,” Tagopa said in an interview.

Tagopa said that five of their men went to serve a warrant but it was not implemented. The other policemen, he said, were out on a roving patrol because of ongoing activities related to the upcoming fiesta of the town, located 82 kilometers southwest of Cebu City.

Monitored movement

Blanco had been changing his routine, including sleeping in his office, after he was publicly named by President Duterte as among the alleged narco-politicians.

Celia Gabutan, revenue collector of the municipality, said the suspects might have been monitoring Blanco’s activities since they passed through the stairs that only the mayor used.

“The mayor has been sleeping at his office for some time already. The suspects must have known this,” she said.

The Ronda Municipal Hall has no armed security guard or closed-circuit television.

Based on the account by two job order watchmen, four unidentified persons suddenly arrived on board a white van, pointed their guns at them and instructed them to drop to the ground.

“After a few seconds, a burst of fire was heard from the mayor’s office and then the unidentified persons left,” said Tagopa.

He said the employees rushed to the mayor’s office and found his bloodied body sitting on a wooden bench in front of the television.

The witnesses, he said, could not remember whether or not the suspects wore masks or the kind of firearm they brought.

“They were rattled by the presence of the armed men,” Tagopa said in Cebuano.

Motives

Senior Supt. Manuel Abrugena, Cebu Provincial Police Office (CPPO) director, said that an Special Investigation Task Group (SITG) is now being formed to pinpoint the culprits and establish the motive behind the killing of the mayor.

He, however, said their investigation would be more inclined to political and personal grudge as motive in killing Blanco.

“Pinu-pursue natin (What we are pursuing) is politics and personal grudges,” said Abrugena.

He also added that they were also looking in the possibility that the killing might be related to illegal drugs since Blanco had been named a narco-politician by the President.

Blanco had publicly expressed his concern for his safely after his name was dragged into the illegal drugs trade.

“I’m afraid I might be assassinated. I just hope that they will understand that I had never been involved in illegal drugs,” the mayor had said soon after he was named by the President.

“I’m really shocked. I have been serving the town for 22 years now, and my name was never besmirched until this issue came,” he added.

In November 2017, the National Police Commission (Napolcom) stripped Blanco off his supervisorial power over the police in Ronda for his alleged involvement in the illegal drugs trade.

Due to the order, Blanco could not choose the town’s chief of police, inspect police units, and exercise other functions over the local police.

Napolcom spokesman Risty Sibay earlier explained that only President Duterte could reinstate the mayor’s authority over the police in Ronda.

He said Duterte received “intelligence reports” that Blanco was involved in the drug trade.

Over 2 decades in politics

Blanco first served as councilor of Ronda in 1995 before he was elected mayor in 1998. He held the position for nine years.

In 2007, when he could no longer run for mayor because of the three consecutive terms limit set by the law, he decided to run as vice mayor. He won. After his three-year vice mayoral term had ended, he ran anew for mayor in 2010 and won. He won in his reelection bids in 2013 and 2016, both under the Liberal Party.

Rocky Gabatan, the incumbent vice mayor of Ronda, is expected to assume as town mayor.

Gabatan was the first councilor of Ronda in the 2016 elections. He assumed as vice mayor following the death of Ungab last February.

“I didn’t expect this to happen. I’ll take over as mayor but I’m saddened by the turn of events,” said Gabatan as he wiped tears off his eyes.

NBI probe

The Sangguniang Bayan of Ronda asked the police to a speedy solution in the killing of their town mayor.

But Gabatan said they were also going to ask the National Bureau of Investigation in Central Visayas (NBI-7) to conduct a parallel investigation.

Blanco’s family asked for time to settle everything before they could issue any statement.

The mayor’s remains had been brought to his residence in the town’s Barangay Poblacion, where the wake was now being held. The interment was still to be announced. /WITH REPORTS FROM BENJIE B. TALISIC, and Paul lauro

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TAGS: grief, town

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