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We Still Haven’t Learned: Remembering Dexter Balala and the Manila Bus Hostage Crisis

History hasn’t taught us anything.
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If there’s anything the most recent hostage-taking incident in Greenhills reminded us of, it’s of past hostage-taking incidents and how woefully unprepared our law enforcement officials are when it comes to these security threats. Every time something like this hogs the headlines, you’d think police would have learned from mistakes of the past and would be fully equipped to respond. Unfortunately, that’s almost never the case. 

There have been many hostage-taking incidents in Philippine history over the years, and while thankfully, no blood was spilled in the one that happened in Greenhills, others were not quite as bloodless. Here we look back at two of the most memorable and high-profile.

Dexter Balala and Diomedes Talbo

On May 31, 2002, a seemingly ordinary day at the Pasay City Bus Terminal turned hellish when a man named Diomedes Talbo suddenly grabbed a four-year-old boy and pointed an ice pick to his neck. The boy was traveling with his mother, Salvacion Balala, and was waiting to board a bus to Pampanga when Talbo snatched him away and took him hostage.

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Talbo’s demands were unclear. Some reports said he wanted to speak to a man named Lito Arriola, while others claimed he sought then-Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Heherson Alvarez. Whatever it was, it was serious enough to threaten to kill an innocent boy in front of hundreds of shocked passengers.

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Law enforcement officials were called in soon after, and this is where it gets tricky. Police tried to cordon off the area where the hostage-taker was, but there were too many people at the scene.

Initial negotiations bogged down, first because Talbo spoke only in Ilocano, but eventually because he became increasingly belligerent.

Two hours later, Talbo started stabbing the boy in the back and neck, at which point policemen indiscriminately opened fire. By the time the dust settled, Talbo lay dead, and so did little Balala.

An autopsy report performed later showed that apart from 13 stab wounds, Balala sustained five bullet wounds, including one through his chest.

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All this was captured by television cameras that broadcast most of the harrowing incident live.

The footage also showed some of the policemen still firing bullets into the already motionless body of Talvo.

The fallout was swift and severe.

Aglipay fired Pasay City police chief Eduardo De La Cerna and recommended filing administrative charges against 10 of the responding police officers. A few days later, then Philippine National Police Chief Leandro Mendoza ordered the entire 341-member Pasay City police force relieved of their duties.

As expected, public outrage about the incident was at an all-time high. Many questioned the operational lapses that happened and the clear lack of guidelines about what to do in such a scenario.

“Initial investigations revealed that there was no ground commander in charge of the rescue operation, no police cordon around the crime scene and no official negotiator with the hostage-taker,” The Philippine Star said in its report about the incident.

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At one point, even an untrained television journalist was said to have joined the fray and started negotiating with the hostage-taker.

"I can see there are some lapses," the newspaper quoted then Metro Manila Police Chief Deputy Director General Edgardo Aglipay as saying.

Manila Bus Hostage Crisis

The hostage crisis that happened on August 23, 2010 bears some similarities with the one that happened in Greenhills. There, a disgruntled police officer named Rolando Mendoza took the passengers of a tourist bus hostage for over 10 hours.

It started when Mendoza boarded the tour bus in Intramuros at around 10 a.m. and directed it to go to Manila’s Rizal Park, near the Quirino Grandstand. He had brandished his weapons—a handgun and an M16 rifle—and said he had been unfairly sacked from his job and demanded he be reinstated.

There were 25 people in the bus: 20 tourists, mostly from Hong Kong, a tour guide (also from Hong Kong), and four Filipinos, including the driver. Police eventually arrived on the scene and started negotiations with the suspect. A few of the hostages were released, including an elderly couple, a woman with two young children, and a 12-year-old boy.

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Negotiations continued between Mendoza and police, which eventually led to more hostages being released. However, the suspect became agitated when he saw in the television inside the bus a news report about the arrest of his brother Gregorio Mendoza, who was also a policeman. This was around 7 p.m.

Minutes later, shots were heard inside the bus. SWAT personnel closed in on the bus and used a sledgehammer to break the door down. More gunshots were heard and police tossed tear gas inside as they attempted to break the windows down.

When it was all over, Mendoza’s body lay lifeless hanging out the door of the bus. Unfortunately, eight of the hostages were also killed and several others were injured.

Once again, police officials were put on the hot seat, particularly for the seeming lack of organization and clear and enforceable steps that should have been taken when an event of this magnitude happens.

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In a report prepared by the Joint Incident and Investigation and Review Committee (JIIRC) put together after the hostage-taking, eight critical errors were reportedly identified regarding the handling of the hostage crisis:

1| Manila Mayor Alfred Lim failed to properly activate the crisis management committee, depriving the chief negotiator and others of critical information and operational intelligence.

2| The authorities were unable to appreciate Mendoza's demands, and there was a lack of communication with and involvement of the Department of Justice.

3| Gregorio Mendoza was allowed to join the negotiating team.

4| The side-issue of Gregorio Mendoza had been allowed to preoccupy Lim, Rodolfo Magtibay and Chief negotiator Orlando Yebra at a critical moment, setting off a chain of events that led to Mendoza becoming "fatally hostile".

5| Lim decided to arrest Gregorio Mendoza.

6| Lim and Magtibay were absent from the command post at a crucial time, having a meal, which created a decision-making vacuum.

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7| "The inefficient, disorganised and stalled assault" took place without "vital information" about the bus. Magtibay rejected an order from the Philippine National Police director for Manila to use the national elite Special Action Force.

8| There was no plan for what to do after the assault and the crime scene was not preserved.

Administrative and criminal charges were also recommended against top city officials as well as ranking police officers and even media networks, who all allegedly contributed to the complete failure of the operation to rescue the hostages.

The incident caused the relationship between the Philippines and Hong Kong to be strained for months, with the Chinese territory announcing a “black” travel alert for its citizens to the country that lasted until August 2014.

It was yet another display of a disjointed, messy response to a hostage-taking incident, and one that was broadcast to the whole world and magnified the seeming ineptitude of our police force to the thousandth degree. One would hope that would be the last of its kind.

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But Alchie Paray’s actions reminded us yet again that, unfortunately, our law enforcement officials still needs more than a bit of work.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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