MANILA, Philippines– It all began with one act of bravery on social media, as a netizen tweeted a photo she had taken of an incident she happened upon while driving down EDSA’s southbound lane mid-afternoon of September 1. The photo of a group of armed men pointing their weapons at a car they had surrounded with their vehicles quickly went viral.
“I thought it was just traffic and I went a little bit out…I wasn’t sure what was happening but I went on ahead. I’m honestly not sure what happened. But I know there are guns and they cornered one car,” the netizen said in a phone interview with reporters shortly after the photo went viral.
She recalled being “too scared to look” and hurriedly left after snapping the photo, noting that other vehicles simply drove by; presumably out of fear, as well.
Her act of bravery led police to the discovery of what was, in fact, a highway-robbery orchestrated by nine fellow-policemen.
The photo triggered an investigation of the incident, through which authorities – initially unaware of what had taken place – identified nine policemen as the perpetrators of the P2 million highway heist. Most of the policemen were assigned to the La Loma police station under the jurisdiction of the Quezon City Police District (QCPD).
Two of the nine have been arrested, while seven remain at large.
“We really started our investigation based on this photo,” said the head of the suburban police force investigating the incident, Chief Superintendent Abelardo Villacorta.
The photo posted to Twitter enable authorities to trace the plate numbers of two of the vehicles, which led to the arrest of Chief Insp. Joseph de Vera, La Loma station deputy commander, and the owner of the silver-gray Toyota Hiace Commuter van shown in the picture.
Another vehicle in the photo, a blue Honda Civic with license plate No. ZJB 149, belongs to former Insp. Marco Polo Estrera, dismissed in 2006.
Villacorta said that the wayward officers surrounded the white Fortuner, and accosted its passengers; two employees of an engineer from Lanao del Sur province.
The victims were then taken to the La Loma police station, where they were instructed to “act like cops” to avoid rousing suspicion. They were held there against their will for seven hours, during which time they were divested of P2-million in cash which they were reportedly carrying for the purchase of heavy equipment. The policemen also took their ATM cards, and withdrew P119, 000 from their account.
The two were only freed after the Twitter photo went viral, Villacorta noted.
“They (suspects) got scared because of the photo so they released the two… and warned the two victims that they would be killed if they filed a complaint,” he said.
In an interview with reporters from the AFP, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said that although they are aware of the identity of the witness who took the photograph and uploaded it to Twitter, authorities “are withholding that for privacy and security reasons.”
Filipinos lauded the netizen for her act of bravery, and commended her use of social media to tear down a longstanding culture of corruption and greed in the arenas of Philippine law enforcement and public service.
The Twitter user has since taken down her account, for safety reasons.