Was Manila Hostage-Taker Mendoza Mad?

In August 2010 a cashiered Philippine police officer, Rolando Mendoza, hijacked a tour bus of Hong Kong holiday makers at Rizal Park in Manila, to demand reinstatement. The resulting tragedy precipitated a political crisis between Hong Kong and Manila that lasted for nearly four years.

The 10-hour stand-off collapsed into a botched rescue attempt that left Mendoza and eight Hong Kong tourists dead with seven others suffering gunshots. The sheer incompetence of the Manila police aside, it might have been resolved well before Mendoza’s desperate act. Nothing justifies taking a busload of innocent tourists hostage and endangering their lives. However questions hover over whether Mendoza was driven to desperation while fighting a frame-up.

Closure finally

For all the posturing by Hong Kong politicians and chief executive CY Leung, closure for the families of the dead and injured came only last week, when current Manila mayor Joseph Estrada (movie actor and disgraced former president) put HK$20 million on the table with a declaration of remorse. Indications are that the compensation was donated by Chinese businessmen in Manila, not the national government or the city municipality.

Strident calls for apologies from the Philippine president by local mass media and opportunistic politicians resulted in a ‘Black’ travel alert slapped by the Hong Kong government plus withdrawal of visa-free access and threats of unspecified economic sanctions.

People Power, a fringe political party long on theatrics, called for withdrawal of visas for Filipino domestics – a move which would have truly spanked Hong Kong residents as much as for the Filipinos. Cooler heads prevailed. James To, solicitor and democratic party legislator, volunteered to negotiate compensation for the families.

Was Mendoza mad?

Almost all commentators refer to Mendoza as a ‘madman’ – somehow absolving the police chiefs and Alfredo Lim, then mayor of Manila, from responsibility for the fatalities.

Wikipedia and a variety of news outlets tell an altogether different story: Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza held a degree in criminology, was decorated no less than 17 times for bravery and was praised by colleagues as “hardworking and kind.”

In 1986 when Ferdinand Marcos scrambled to Hawaii, Mendoza intercepted a van stuffed with 13 crates of cash following the fleeing president. He turned the loot over to the government. Jaycees International honored him as one of Ten Outstanding Policemen.

That is hardly the CV of a deranged killer. He was by all accounts a rare, honest cop in a corrupt system. What provoked him to jump the rails?

Ombudsman skips due process

Mendoza was accused by hotel chef Christian Kalaw in April 2008 of planting drugs in his car for a parking violation and of extorting P20,000 (US$450) from him.

Most curious is how Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez finds Mendoza guilty of the chef’s charges and orders his dismissal, voiding all service benefits without due process. Mendoza is sacked as chief of the Mobile Patrol Unit late April 2008.

In August 2008, the Manila Public Prosecutor’s Office vacates the case after Kalaw fails to attend dismissal proceedings for Mendoza. In October 2008 the Philippine National Police Internal Affairs Service recommends the case be dropped.

Despite several written appeals from Mendoza to his superiors and the Ombudsman to reopen the investigation, he is ignored for two years. The entire system locked down instead of promptly redressing wrongful dismissal. He has no means to support himself or his family.

Desperate, Mendoza hijacks the tour bus to bring his grief to public attention. He pastes large signs on the bus windscreen: BIG MISTAKE. CORRECT A BIG WRONG DECISION.

Brother’s arrest flips Mendoza

The Ombudsman sends a formal letter to the hostage-taker rejecting reinstatement but agreeing to review his case. Mendoza calls it ‘garbage’. Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez would later be fired by President Aquino for his role in creating the grievance and tardiness in failing to resolve it.

Mayor Alfredo Lim (a former Manila police chief) authorizes regional police boss Leocadio Santiago to send a note reinstating Mendoza “just to end the hostage situation” but the city’s notorious traffic snarl prevents it reaching the bus before the shooting erupts. The mayor is away having dinner as the crisis flares.

Senior Inspector Gregorio Mendoza, Rolando’s brother, is asked by police to persuade him to give up. After talking to him, Gregorio agrees that his brother was wronged. Police whisk him away and the Mayor orders his arrest! Gregorio is handcuffed and bundled into a police car, which infuriates the hostage-taker.

SWAT team snipers disable the bus tires. Police surround the bus and rain hammer blows to break windows. Rolando sprays automatic gunfire after shooting two hostages in the head. He is shot dead. The leadership vacuum and police incompetence are beamed live to TV screens worldwide throughout the crisis.

None of the chiefs who bungled the crisis have been brought to account. There are reports some have since been promoted! The Manila mayor, police and TV media all contributed to the tragedy. The president failed to provide firm leadership when required.

Calling Rolando Mendoza a madman is a cop-out for a woefully mismanaged crisis. Only the anonymous Chinese businessmen of Manila made a positive contribution. There would have been no closure otherwise, despite the grandstanding of Hong Kong politicians.