(UPDATED) A suspect in the killing of forest ranger Bienvinido “Toto” Veguilla Jr. has been arrested in El Nido while five more are being pursued by police authorities in an ongoing manhunt operation.
A spot report sent Thursday morning to Palawan News by Police Regional Office (PRO) spokesperson P/Col. Socrates Faltado identified the arrested suspect as Felman Flores, alias “Broy”, a resident of Sitio Kinawagan, Barangay Pasadeña, where 44-years-old Veguilla was hacked to death in the afternoon of September 4.
The report also named two other suspects included in the police organized search — Ricardo Fulgencio, alias “Carding”, and Glen Fulgencio. The three others remain unidentified.
Police investigation claimed it was Flores who hacked Veguilla.
READ RELATED STORY: DENR forest ranger killed in El Nido by illegal loggers
It also said Flores was brought to the Northern Palawan Provincial Hospital (NPPH) after his arrest for a gunshot wound sustained when Veguilla, who allegedly had a firearm, fought back his attackers.
Veguilla, who was the team leader of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Law Enforcement Team 4 of DENR-Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) Taytay-El Nido Office, was said to be in the Pasadeña area with five other rangers to patrol.
The police investigation further claimed that Veguilla’s team was there to also verify information about an alleged illegal logging activity.
When they arrived on the site, they reportedly saw suspected illegal logger Ricardo in the act of cutting logs into lumber using a chainsaw.
Upon seeing the DENR team, Ricardo and the other suspects fled, leaving behind the chainsaw. The equipment was confiscated by Veguilla supposedly to be documented in their office, the report said.
On their way home around 5 p.m., however, Veguilla’s team was waylaid by Flores’ group who were armed by a bolo and homemade shotgun.
The DENR team members ran to escape, but Veguilla was cornered by the Fulgencios, Flores, and the three others.
Before he was hacked, Veguilla was able to shoot Flores, the report said. It did not say, however, where the suspected hacker was shot in the body.
The wake for Veguilla is in his home in Barangay Bagong Bayan, said Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) officer-in-charge Raffy Cabate in an interview also Thursday with Palawan News.
“Nasa Bagong Bayan na ‘yong family kasi andoon na ‘yong bangkay niya, doon ‘yong burol,” Cabate said.
Cabate also said DENR MIMAROPA regional executive director Henry Adornado is already in El Nido to coordinate with the municipal police on the arrest of the other suspects who are now on the run.
He said Adornado has also seen the two truckloads of lumber that they confiscated near the site where Veguilla was killed.
“Pumunta muna siya ng Bagong Bayan para makipagkita sa pamilya. Tapos pupunta siya sa PNP para makita ‘yong mga kahoy na dala namin ngayon. Binalikan namin ‘yong area ng pinangyarihan tapos ‘yong mga kahoy na pinutol nila, ni-recover ng mga tao namin, kulang-kulang dalawang truck,” he said.
Social media tribute pours for Veguilla
Emotional tributes for the fallen forest ranger and messages of support for the family he left behind were paid beginning Wednesday night by grieving colleagues and friends in the social media.
Former DENR CENRO Taytay-El Nido Office legal counsel Ludybeth Batoy Nangkil, who called Veguilla “Mother Nature’s protector and hero”, posted a video narrative about nature to pay respect to his contributions to the protection of the environment in their municipality.
In cut 3:00 of the video, Veguilla can be seen patrolling the forest and showing an empty shotgun shell while narrating it was the same self-contained cartridge that killed Villa Libertad barangay captain Ruben Arzaga on September 14, 2017, at Sitio Batbat.
“I have seen your love and dedication to your work. Big salute to you! And I also want to thank you for allowing me, though it was so dangerous, to personally see your real world in the forest, for the time and for the bravery that you have given and shown to save and protect our nature for present and future generations. Indeed, you were a Mother Earth protector and hero! You will be forever in our hearts! Till we see you again! Condolences and prayers to Veguilla Family,” Nangkil said.
Nilo Ramoso, who works at the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, posted that Veguilla will be remembered as someone who had already accomplished many things in environmental protection in El Nido.
Ramoso hopes the suspects in Veguilla’s killing will be brought to court to pay for what they did.
Maraming challenges at hirap na pinagdaanan ng buhay mo, Toto. Sa edad mong ‘yan marami ka ng nagawa at batid ‘yon ng ating lumikha. Pare, now pahinga ka na sa piling ni Jesus. Dito naman sa lupa sana mapag-igi ang paghanap ng mga gumawa nito sa inyo,” Ramoso said.
Herson Yniesta Caliao, an employee of the DENR Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office, is calling on authorities for justice to be served to Veguilla.
“Rest in peace, kuya Toto Bien Veguilla. We have been together on most law enforcement activities this 2019. Nakakalungkot kasi ito na pala ‘yong huling apprehension at inspection mo kasama kami — a few minutes later iniwan mo na kami. I hope justice will be served,” Caliao said.
Calls to arm forest caretakers
DENR forester Joselito Eyala, who cannot believe Veguilla will be killed, lamented in his post about the lack of protection for forest caretakers who cannot readily defend themselves against armed and dangerous illegal loggers.
“Di ako makatulog dahil sa pangyayaring ito. Bakit? Bakit kaya may mga taong handang manakit at pumatay para sa maling gawain? Bakit kaya naturingan na tagapangalaga ng kalikasan ang mga personnel ng DENR samantalang sarili natin hindi natin kayang proteksyonan laban sa mga iligalista at naninira nito. Sino pa kaya ang patuloy na mangangalaga ng ating inang kalikasan kung buhay naman ang magiging kapalit. Respect our post para kay kuya Toto Bien Veguilla at sa lahat na mga Lawin patroler at forest protection officers. Saludo ako sa inyo,” Eyala said.
In September 2017, after Arzaga was killed by two assailants who had a grudge with him, DENR Sec. Roy Cimatu eyed lobbying for a law that would arm government forest protectors with guns to protect themselves from unscrupulous environment violators.
Cimatu said they can be trained by the police and the military to be learned about gun use and security protocols to be authorized during monitoring and patrol operations.
Since then, however, nothing has been heard about his proposal.
Adornado said that now that two forest protectors had already been killed, perhaps the plan to arm them should already be considered by the government.
“Baka dapat armahan na itong ating mga kasamahan natin para may panlaban naman sila at nang matakot ang mga illegal loggers. Kailangang ipakita natin ang ngipin ng batas dito at nang mabigyan ng hustisya itong pangalawang biktima,” he said. (with a report from Jayra Joyce Taboada)