Former Philippine prisons chief Gerald Bantag and his right-hand man, Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta, have been identified as the alleged “masterminds” behind the killing of veteran radio journalist Percival Mabasa.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed two murder charges on Monday against Bantag, Zulueta and several gang leaders and prisoners over the death of Mabasa and inmate Jun Villamor, one of the middlemen who relayed the kill order to gunman Joel Escorial.
Villamor died in prison after he suffocated when a plastic bag was placed over his head on Oct 18, the same day the authorities presented the gunman to the media following his surrender.
Philippine law enforcement agencies said in a press briefing that they had found a “direct line of communication” from Bantag and Zulueta to three prison gang commanders in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).
They tapped other inmates and their contacts outside of jail to form a gun-for-hire team against Mabasa, the agencies said.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr earlier suspended Bantag as BuCor chief after the police identified him as among 160 individuals considered to be persons of interest in Mabasa’s death.
DOJ Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla called on Bantag and Zulueta, who is now in hiding, to face their murder charges.
“If they are innocent, the law will uphold them. If they are guilty, then they will have to face the consequences,” he said.
A lookout bulletin order will soon be issued against the two to prevent them from leaving the country.
Mabasa, known for his fiery commentaries, criticized Bantag thrice over his lavish lifestyle and for recently cutting the power and water supply to inmates at the NBP’s medium-security compound.
Remulla said videos of Mabasa criticizing the former BuCor chief were allegedly shown to the suspects when the kill order was issued.
Bantag insisted he was innocent in a radio interview on Oct 31, but also said he would rather die than be jailed over the Mabasa case.
“Will I allow myself to be imprisoned? Just kill me if they say that I am their target. The government and I will just end up trying to kill each other,” added Bantag.
Back when they were still heading the Paranaque City Jail, Bantag and Zulueta had faced criminal charges over the death of 10 inmates due to a grenade blast in 2016. They were later acquitted.