On the spot with Cebu City’s SWAT

PUPILS marched out of Lahug Elementary School to the grounds of the University of the Philippines campus in Cebu City last July 18, not knowing their teachers had received a bomb threat.

Chief Insp. Sandley Sabang, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team leader, saw how devoid of panic the evacuation was.

After learning the teachers had told the children they were having a “drill,” Sabang said it was a good alibi. A white lie can help prevent hysteria.

“Systematic kaayo sila, guided sa mga maestra ug ang mga tanod naa sa kalsada nag-man sa trapik (They were very systematic. The teachers guided the children, and the tanods were on the streets to direct traffic),” said Sabang, whose team went to the school to check if there was a bomb.

Before his team arrived, some teachers had checked the rooms, while others went to the barangay hall and requested for tanods to accompany the children.

The SWAT team scoured the school and found no bomb.

What if there had been a real explosive? Sabang said his team would have been able to identify what it is, but no one from his 46 personnel, including him, could have disposed of it.

Makaya lang ang pag-search sa item (What we do is search for the item),” he said.

The Cebu City SWAT used to have three officers who were trained in dismantling bombs, but two of whom were transferred to other assignments, and the third has retired.

Chief Insp. Ramoncelio Sawan, the Cebu City Police Office (CCPO) information officer, said SWAT operatives are not tasked to dispose of bombs, adding that the job belongs to the Explosives Ordnance Disposal Team (EODT).

The CCPO has no EODT, he said.

Sabang, for his part, said SWAT personnel often respond to calls about a bomb scare and conduct the initial search. If they find a suspicious package, they coordinate with the Police Regional Office 7, which then calls for assistance from the EODTs of the military’s Central Command in Cebu City, and the police offices of Mandaue City and Lapu-Lapu City.

CCPO’s SWAT, aside from having no EODT, lacks equipment and some of its members have had to buy their own gear.

Sabang said his bulletproof vest is government-issued, but his Kevlar helmet was bought from a second-hand store for P1,800.

SWAT has 42 refurbished M16 rifles, two special operations assault rifles, two M4-type carbines, 49 pistols, six shotguns, and a tactical launcher. These were issued by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and are in good condition.

Sixteen radios were also issued to them, while the local government unit (LGU) of Cebu City donated 14, of which nine are not in use.

Camp Crame and the LGU gave them six and 10 bulletproof vests, respectively. As to the ballistic helmets, the PNP gave none to the SWAT personnel, while the LGU donated 10, but one of which has been damaged. SWAT also received a ballistic shield from City Hall.

SWAT personnel got three motorcycles from Camp Crame and 35 from the LGU. They are using two patrol cars and two vans, also from the Cebu City Government.

Ang motor daghan nag sakit, kinahanglan nag maintenance. Naay parts nga nangaguba (The motorcycles need more maintenance and have several problems. Some of the parts have been destroyed),” Sabang said.

In the 1990s, Sabang said, SWAT operatives often responded to hostage-taking alarms and few bomb threats.

The bomb scare that hit Lahug and nine other schools was the biggest that Sabang’s team has encountered. In the past months, they were often called to examine suspicious packages.

Inig abli namo, kasagaran mga sinina ra ang sulod (When we opened them, we usually found just clothes),” said Sabang, while pointing at the bags and sacks piled in one corner of SWAT building in Camp Sotero Cabahug, the CCPO headquarters.

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