Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu has demanded a “swift resolution” of the reported arrest and manhandling of DENR personnel who led an operation Wednesday against illegal settlers in a mangrove area at the city outskirts.

In a statement, Cimatu condemned the action of the City PNP led by P/Col. Marion Balonglong as “totally unacceptable.”

“It is totally unacceptable that these environmental enforcers who continue to perform their duties despite the COVID-19 pandemic have to suffer violence at the hands of the police, who should be assisting them in their operations,” Cimatu said in a statement.

This developed as the city government announced Friday that Balonglong has already been relieved and replaced by a new city police chief.

According to city information officer and anti-crime task force head Richard Ligad, Balonglong had personally requested his relief and transfer.

“Nabanggit niya sa akin na siya na ang nagpa-relieve sa sarili niya.Ni-request niya na magpalipat na siya. Yun ang sabi niya sa akin,” Ligad said.

Lawyer Arnel Pedrosa, city administrator, expressed dismay on the reported incident but reiterated that the city government would not be involved with the investigation.

“We are not happy, of course, and the city government will not tolerate any wrongdoing. Administratively, no jurisdiction kami kay Col. Balonglong,” Pedrosa said.

“Nasa level na ng Philippine National Police (PNP) ang investigation so we will wait for the result,” he added.

Neither the City PNP nor the City government have released a copy of Balonglong’s relief order.

Ligad, when asked to comment on the allegations being thrown against Balonglong, maintained that he had a good working relationship with him.

“Nalulungkot tayo kasi sa ibang operasyon nakasama naman natin siya at maayos naman, sa operations, sa drugs, okay naman. Kaso sa environment, hindi ko masabi kasi may issue, pero sa ibang aspeto naman wala naman akong naging problema sa kanya,” Ligad said.


Environment lawyers condemn incident

Members of the DENR team were “harassed, arrested and detained” by Balonglong and his men in the absence of a warrant and without citing any violation. Alvarez sustained wounds and bruises due to Balonglong’s alleged beating.

The DENR Lawyers Guild Inc. (DENRLGI), in a separate statement, condemned the “unfortunate” incident citing that the PNP is supposed to be the DENR’s partner in enforcing environmental laws in the province.

“What is more distressing is that this incident happened on June 10, the DENR’s 33rd anniversary,” said Atty. Camilo D. Garcia, president of (DENRLGI).


Disputed lands

Levi Evangelista, technical corrections officer II and information officer of the Iwahig Corrections Facility (ICF), confirmed that there were “illegal settlers” in the parcels of land, which the penal farm has legal claims to.

“Nakailang operations kami diyan at nakita naman natin how devastated ‘yong area that’s why ang magiging aksyon natin na bakuran ‘yong buong territory ng Iwahig Penal Prison Farm (IPPF),” Evangelista said.

Evangelista stressed that the ICF is set to protect portions of the land after several disputes were raised.

“Babakuran na lang namin ‘yong aming territory para ma-protektahan naman ito sa pagpasok ng mga illegal settlers. Nakakalbo ang kagubatan ng IPPF,” Evangelista added.


Past controversy

Balonglong, former Las Piñas City Police chief, along with 36 members of his station’s Drug Enforcement Unit (SDEU) were relieved from their posts by the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief director Guillermo Eleazar in 2018 because of an abduction-extortion case from an arrested drug suspect.

Balonglong is set to be replaced by P/Col. Sergio Vivar Jr., the chief of personnel management office in the PNP regional office. He is expected to arrive on Monday (June 15).


The incident

Balonglong was being accused of repeatedly kicking and punching at gunpoint one of the forest rangers, Roldan Alvarez, whom he accused of stealing galvanized iron sheets.

Three Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) foresters, four forest rangers, and one forest protection officer along with two barangay watchmen were conducting an investigation on the illegal occupation and massive mangrove cutting at Sitio Bucana when they were intercepted by Balonglong and his men.

The DENR team initially thought Balonglong’s group was the police security they requested to assist them in their operation until they were suddenly subjected to full body searches and told to lie down on the ground.

After the body search, all 10 of them were ordered to board a police service vehicle which brought them to a vacant lot supposedly owned by Balonglong. The police chief made Alvarez kneel while he and his companions were being interrogated regarding the purpose of their visit to the mangrove site.

They were later brought to the police station in Barangay San Pedro where CENR officer Felizardo Cayatoc, who approved of the DENR operation, pleaded for their release.

Balonglong ordered their release following a long dialogue and after Cayatoc agreed to sign a document stating that the DENR employees were all in good mental and physical condition when they were turned over to him.

(With reports from Romar Miranda, Ruth Rodriguez, Jayra Joyce Taboada, and Celeste Anna Formoso)