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PNP chief orders probe on Masbate extortion case

LEGAZPI CITY---Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Gen. Archie Gamboa has ordered a thorough investigation of the alleged robbery extortion activity involving Maj. John Murray Cuturan, chief of the 502nd Maritime Police based in Masbate City who was arrested on July 13, 2020 by operatives of the PNP - Integrity Monitoring and Enforcement Group (IMEG).

Gamboa’s order for reinvestigation came after he received two versions of conflicting reports during the press conference held at Camp Gen. Simeon Ola during his recent visit here.

The conflicting reports of the 502nd Maritime Police and PNP-IMEG opened a pandora’s box regarding illegal fishing activities taking place in Bicol, specifically in Masbate province, which has a long history of unabated poaching under the noses of government officials and influential personalities.

Two weeks ago, the PNP-IMEG said in its report that two Maritime police officers, Maj. John Murray Cuturan, chief of the 502nd Maritime Police and Staff Sgt. Rommel Naval, were caught in an entrapment operation receiving boodle money.

PNP Chief Archie Gamboa orders a probe of controversial Masbate robbery extortion following conflicting reports. With him is Police Brig. Gen. Anthony Alcaneses. (Rhaydz B. Barcia)

The alleged entrapment operation was conducted by IMEG agents due to the complaint filed by Donato Villaceran, a resident of San Remignio in Cebu. But the details of Villaceran compliant were not specified in the police report.

In the report, the PNP-IMEG said the maritime police in Masbate intercepted a fishing vessel and arrested its skipper and 28 crews members.

The 502nd Maritime Police group led by Cuturan, allegedly contacted the owner of the fishing vessel based in Cebu and demanded P400,000 in exchange for the release of the vessel and its crew.

Cuturan and Naval were caught allegedly receiving P200,000, which they extorted from the operator of impounded fishing vessel involved in illegal fishing activities.

The two arrested police officers were arrested by the members of PNP-IMEG on July 13 at around 8:15 AM at Zurbito Street, Pier Site, Barangay Bapor, Masbate City while receiving the boodle money.

Seized from the suspects were an MZ-4 Emtan rifle and a loaded 9-mm Glock 17, two cell phones and a bag containing the boodle money. Two other suspects, Lt. Melecio Huelva III and Staff Sgt. Ronald Puerto eluded arrest.

Cuturan, however, denied the accusation against him and questioned the integrity of IMEG for fabricating evidence.

According to Cuturan, they apprehended a fishing boat, FB RAV 1, which has no license from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) while engaged in fishing activity in the waters of Masbate. The boat is allegedly owned by influential personalities from Masbate and Cebu.

The Maritime police officers said that the accusation of IMEG regarding the entrapment operation was manipulated and set up to destroy and pin him down due to his relentless campaign against illegal fishing activities in Masbate waters.

The Masbate Provincial Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the case against Cuturan for lack of evidence.

“Since I received information from both parties, therefore I set a 15-day investigation for both parties to come up with results,” Gamboa said during the press briefing here.

As to the alleged influential people behind the entrapment operation, Gamboa said that in the PNP internal cleansing process, there are no “godfathers.”

“If the IMEG report shows that there was indeed bribery during the entrapment it would be immaterial naming people behind the incident so these are the things I will have to weigh. It’s good that this has come out into the open so I can arrive at a right decision,” the PNP chief said.

Gamboa has given his assurance that the investigation would be fair and would determine whether there was liability on the part of the Maritime group or there were mistakes and flaws on the part of IMEG.

Gamboa said that since his he assumed office, some 6,000 cops were already dismissed from the service as part of the PNP cleansing process.

Mar Guidote, a former chairperson of PNP Maritime Group Advisory Council posted a message on social media through Karagatan Patrol calling for fairness and justice.

“As former chair of PNP Maritime Group Advisory Council, I would like to categorically state that I am for fairness and justice. I am not siding with the Maritime Group or the IMEG, but I join the PNP-MG’s call for thorough investigation,” he said.

“The claim that the officers of the PNPMG that they have been framed is serious. The PNP IMEG is supposed to be incorruptible. I am also aware that harassment is common in fishery interdiction specifically when the involve commercial fishing vessels. The owners of these vessels will do everything to get back on enforcers. May the strong arm of justice fall on the guilty party whoever they are,” Guidote said.

Few years ago, former Police Chief Supt. Victor Deona said that the illegal fishing in Masbate will only be solved if the local mayors including provincial government officials in Masbate will not receive payola or “grease money” from illegal fishing activities.

Following Deona’s relentless fight against illegal fishing activities along with his regional intelligence officer, Supt. Oscar Regala and young officers including Cuturan, Deona and Regala were accused of receiving monthly payola from illegal commercial fishing operators after hitting bigtime illegal fishers poaching in Bicol waters.

Both Deona and Regala were tagged as “berdugo” (executioners) by commercial fisher operators in the waters of Bicol specifically in Masbate province. The two implemented the law against illegal fishing operations operating in the municipal waters that destroys marine habitats thus badly affecting marginalized fishermen across the region.

Deona then said that there’s a heavy pressure on the PNP as they are serious in the campaign to save marine resources. “While there is time, we need to act together to curtail illegal fishing to save our seas and biodiversity," Deona then said.

The former Bicol top cop said that big-time illegal fishers operating in the waters of Bicol, especially within the waters of Burias Pass and Asid Gulf, came not only from Masbate but from Zamboanga, Cebu, Negros Occidental, Iloilo, and Quezon provinces.

During Deona’s reign as Bicol police regional director, his men and other law enforcers in the region have arrested 2,698 fishermen engaged in the illegal activities and seized 64 fishing vessels and other fishing paraphernalia.

Some 2,027 persons engaged in illegal fishing in various coastal waters in Bicol were arrested and jailed. To protect their interests, Deona said that these big-time commercial fishing operators launched a “demolition job”.

Deona vehemently denied the accusation and immediately asked the National Police Commission and the National Bureau of Investigation for a thorough investigation of the alleged illegal fishing payola in Bicol.

The result of the investigation sought by Deona should be made public and should not spare anyone involved in illegal fishing activities.

Some PNP junior officials, who refused to be named, said Cuturan is one of the remarkable PNP officials of PNPMG fighting relentlessly against illegal fishing activities in the region.

Cuturan is reportedly one of the best performing junior officers in the fight against illegal fishing activities during the time of Deona.

The operation of commercial fishers in the island province of Masbate was dubbed by then Masbate provincial board member Juan Sanchez Sr., as a “rape” state or hauling off by force.

“Our municipal waters are being raped by big and influential commercial fishing operators from other provinces under the nose of our barangay captains, mayors and other authorities concerned,” Sanchez said in his privilege speech before the Sangguniang Panlalawigan session hall a few years ago.

Sanchez lamented that the rich natural resources of Masbate are exploited by non-Masbateños.

The illegal fishing activities along Burias Pass and Ticao Pass in Masbate are serious as big time commercial fishers are using state-of-the-art equipment to detect the school of fish leaving marginalized fishermen empty handed.

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