Ferdinand Marcos: Paradise Lost
THE REGIME LASTED for twenty years only because Filipinos allowed themselves to be convinced that the dictator was in firm control, that his secret police were everywhere, that his army was overwhelmingly powerful, and that Ferdinand Marcos himself was supernaturally endowed. These things were true up to a point. Beyond that, the impression of power and omniscience was exaggerated by showmanship and grotesque extremes of cruelty. Ordinary people were psyched out. It was the logical outcome of Edward Lansdale’s shallow insight into human nature, which failed in Vietnam but worked in the Philippines. Inexperienced at resistance, and unaccustomed to armed struggle, when they finally took to the streets of Manila in exasperation and the Marcoses fled without a struggle, nobody was more astounded than Filipinos themselves, who coined the term “People Power” with refreshing innocence.
After the sudden departure of Ferdinand and Imelda, many Filipinos thought everything was going to change. But in fact little changed. The country had been so thoroughly looted that it had serious problems just feeding itself. Famine continued on Negros and other islands, and in Manila the number of street beggars was up sharply. Washington was more interested in returning the Philippines to status quo than in promoting dramatic reforms. The status quo meant getting back to strongman rule as quickly as possible, while paying elaborate homage to democratic principles. The talk about encouraging a healthy opposition, and about correcting the feudal serfdom of the vast majority of Filipinos, was just talk. The norm established in the islands under American suzerainty was the rule of the elite, enforced by death squads, the democracy of the Ku Klux Klan. Cory Aquino, while apparently genuinely committed to land reform and correction of other longstanding abuses, was confronted by so many entrenched enemies of reform that she was forced to defer action indefinitely in order to concentrate on mere survival. So long as there was no genuine reform, whatever money was produced in the islands would continue to flee to safer places. Beautiful as it was, the Philippines was a place to rob, not a place to live.
After a honeymoon with the people, and the ratification of a new constitution, the Aquino government was obliged to purge itself of its reformers and to permit the reintroduction of some of the worst aspects of the Marcos regime. Negotiations with the NPA were broken off and a state of civil war resumed. Vigilante gangs identical to those under Marcos were reinstated and legitimized by Aquino’s military staff to fight the “Communist menace.”
In March 1987, President Reagan approved a “finding” which cast a pall over all prospects for improvement, providing $10 million for two years of increased CIA involvement in the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency campaign. This included technical assistance, helping the Philippine military with intelligence gathering, providing computers, computer training, and so on. It authorized the Agency to hire Filipinos to spy on each other. CIA agents in the islands would increase by 10 percent, and they would have freedom to deal directly with Filipino soldiers at all ranks, rather than only at the chief-of-staff level.
It was a decision on a par with the meddling of MacArthur, with Truman and Eisenhower giving Lansdale a license to kill Huks and to fake the election of Magsaysay, with Johnson bribing Marcos to become involved in the Vietnam War, and with Nixon and Kissinger endorsing the Marcos seizure of dictatorial power.
The proper atmosphere for this decision was created in the same manner as the Tonkin Gulf Incident, by a rash of dubious reports of secret Soviet arms shipments to the NPA, and the alleged presence of Soviet advisers in NPA training camps. Marcos had done the same thing in his long buildup toward martial law, as Enrile had faked the attack on his car.
The head of one of the largest of the new post-Marcos vigilante groups, “Rising Masses,” was Jun Porras Pala, a radio announcer and public crusader in Davao City, who created a right-wing reign of terror in Mindanao. Identifying villages known to be sympathetic to the NPA, Pala issued ultimatums on his radio station telling the villagers to join his group, or they would become targets. Thousands of villagers either joined or fled. When civil officials and religious activists opposed Pala, he broadcast death threats against them. The Aquino government did not put him in jail or in a mental hospital. Instead, Pala’s group was encouraged by Davao’s military police commander. The new defense minister, West Point graduate Rafael Ileto, and Local Governments Secretary Jaime Ferrer (both old Lansdale men) publicly endorsed the vigilantes. General Fidel Ramos, the hero of the Marcos overthrow, praised vigilantes as “civilian organizations dedicated to the defense of their community.”
The vigilante phenomenon in the countryside coincided with the rebirth of anti-Communist anxiety in the cities. Once again the middle class was being told that a Communist takeover was imminent, and once again it was easily convinced. The right wing, failing repeatedly in its efforts to topple Aquino with inept military plots, reverted to terrorist tactics. Leaders of the left and right were brutally slain, including Jaime Ferrer on the right and Leandro Alejandro on the left. Ernie Maceda dusted off the old Marcos bromide and suggested that Alejandro had been killed by his own people to cast suspicion on the right.
Christian fundamentalist sects like Joy of the Lord Jesus, the Word of Life International, and Heaven’s Magic preached rabid anti-Communist doctrines fomenting fear and hatred in the barrios. Most aggressive of the Christian groups was CAUSA International, the political arm of the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, which had aided U.S. efforts to support the Contras in Nicaragua. The chairman of CAUSA, Bo Hik Pak, acknowledged CIA funding. In August and October 1986, CAUSA held conferences on national security in Manila, bringing together people like General John Singlaub and Ray Cline with top Philippine strongmen such as Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile. In March 1987, CAUSA organized a Philippine national conference of vigilante groups, with the raving right-wing terrorist from Davao, Jun Porras Pala, as the keynote speaker. At the conclusion of the conference, participants agreed to organize nine regional CAUSA chapters throughout the Philippines.
The rise of right-wing death squads and the Philippine operations of John Singlaub were not mere coincidence. Singlaub had direct ties to at least one of the Filipino vigilante groups. Alberto Maguigad, alias “Jake Madigan,” boasted that his Counter-Insurgency Command, based in Cagayan de Oro, was funded by Singlaub. Maguigad bragged that two Green Berets were training his men in counterinsurgency tactics.
A senior Philippine military officer said Singlaub was traveling the country meeting right-wing groups to create the right psychological atmosphere for a new Operation Phoenix. We might well wonder whose names would be on the list for extermination. Singlaub also was said to be bringing Special Forces veterans to the islands to train selected units of the Philippine armed forces — at least thirty-seven American mercenaries being imported by Singlaub for that purpose. Chief-of-Staff Fidel Ramos ridiculed the allegation: “I would like you to know that the new armed forces of the Philippines has nothing to do with General Singlaub, he had nothing to do with us before, he has nothing to do with us now, and he will have nothing to do with us in the future. This is a lot of baloney. We don’t want him and we don’t need him.”
Ramos had been acquainted with Singlaub for many years, from Korea and Vietnam. In July 1986, Singlaub came to see Ramos in Manila. Four months later, in November 1986, Singlaub returned to the Philippines. Ray Cline and Major General Robert Schweitzer, a member of Reagan’s NSC staff’ were in the Philippines at about the same time. Cline apparently was in Manila that November to warn Defense Minister Enrile not to attempt a coup against Mrs. Aquino. Various meetings with these Americans or some of them were held, including one with Enrile, Fidel Ramos, and Brigadier General Felix Brawner. These meetings were extremely secretive. Cory Aquino’s brother, Jose Cojuangco, was present at two of the meetings, which were held at the Aquino sugar plantation in Tarlac Province, although Cojuangco later denied he was there. It was soon after this time that Reagan expanded CIA operations in the islands.
Why was Singlaub in the Philippines — and why the right-wing feeding frenzy?
Funding secret right-wing “initiatives” had not become any cheaper since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos. There was always the rest of Yamashita’s Gold, another $100 billion or so — the real reason why John Singlaub was back in the Philippines.
In September 1985, five months before Marcos fell, Singlaub came to Manila personally to get permission to dig. A senior Philippine government official said that Ambassador Bosworth, acting on White House orders, accompanied Singlaub to a meeting that September with Finance Minister Jaime Ongpin. The source said that Singlaub also asked for security protection, or approval to employ private guards. One of Singlaub’s high-level official contacts was retired Brigadier General Luis Villareal, who directed the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, and served as president of the Philippine Anti-Communist League.
Shortly after Singlaub’s visit, Vernon Twyman’s Delta International Group in Tulsa, Oklahoma, got in touch with a Georgia engineer, Al Meyers, who had developed a laser device to find buried gold. A testing laboratory had tested and accepted the device, which reacted when its beam encountered heavy metals of certain densities. The rest was high school trigonometry. Meyers had already been approached by a Houston group, Great Southern & Salvage, which specialized in offshore recovery. They all went to the Philippines to pinpoint Yamashita’s Gold at several sites. After having problems with Twyman, Meyers broke off and went to work on his own at a reef in Calatagan Bay, 70 miles south-southwest of Manila. He was helped by Paul Jiga, who told Meyers he had watched a Japanese general’s men bury the gold at the reef with the slave labor of Allied POWs, booby-trap it, and cork the hole with a huge slab of concrete, after which they machine-gunned the POWs and left their bodies to be devoured by sharks. Ben Balmores, who had retired more than ten years earlier, was in hiding from the treasure hunters and was reported to be in failing mental health.
Initially, Meyers dealt with Cesar Loran and Alfonso Adeva at Nippon Star, but after Ferdinand and Imelda fled, Meyers was taken to see President Aquino. Among the seven others attending the meeting were Mrs. Aquino’s uncle, Congressman Francisco Sumulong, the person she designated to deal with people attempting to recover the gold. The standard arrangement offered Meyers by Sumulong was 75 percent of any treasure to the government of the Philippines, the remainder to the finder.
Meyers said he promised Aquino that his efforts would not cost her government a peso, but he needed coast guard protection in the form of an armed government launch to protect his crew from marauders — Filipinos and Americans connected to other groups that were also searching for the gold at various sites. Meyers told Aquino he expected to recover about 800 tons of gold at the one site. Mrs. Aquino was said to have exclaimed, “My God, it is the second miracle!”
Meanwhile, the PTL-affiliated Tulsans associated with General Singlaub’s Phoenix Overseas Project obtained permission to work a different site with Nippon Star. Singlaub’s people actually began digging at one site three months before the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, and apparently uncovered some 110-pound gold bars, which renewed their determination. They seem to have had difficulty dealing with Marcos and Ver, so by all accounts Singlaub himself was happy to see Marcos go, and was soon making fresh arrangements with the new government. Cory Aquino’s speech writer, Teodoro Locsin, apparently assisted Singlaub in obtaining the necessary new permits. Cory’s brother, Jose Cojuangco, reportedly offered to support Singlaub’s recovery effort financially, and to guarantee security by providing Constabulary troops at their prime site in Batangas Province, the Laurel stronghold south of Manila.
Juan Ponce Enrile also assured Singlaub of military support, if necessary with his own private army. But just to be sure, Singlaub brought in his own group. It was the arrival of these men, which inspired the rumors that Singlaub was training the Philippine armed forces in counterinsurgency, the rumors denied by Fidel Ramos.
Actually finding the gold was another matter. Locations of some land sites were known, as the reefs were known, but the tricky problem remained to pinpoint the exact position and find the way to reach it without setting off booby traps. This was what had stymied Ferdinand until he brought in Olof Jonsson. While Meyers was working his reef site in Calatagan Bay, for example, he found it impossible to approach the treasure directly, because — aside from the explosives planted in the reef — the access tunnel had been designed to cave in on anyone excavating along the obvious approach. To reach the treasure from any other direction required knowing its exact location and the precise situation of 2,000-pound bombs. The original Japanese detail maps had gone with Robert Curtis, and Curtis had vanished.
In the autumn of 1986, according to well-informed sources in Manila, two men representing Singlaub went to work tracking Curtis down. Before the year was out, they had found him, living in a new town, with a new job and new name. They identified themselves as representatives of Nippon Star. Curtis already knew all about Nippon Star — he had kept a wary eye on developments from a distance. The two men pleaded with him to become involved once again in the search. They desperately needed his maps and his knowledge of the sites. Curtis refused.
A few days later, Curtis was contacted by someone closer to Singlaub. Someone who also had ties to Jay Agnew and his associates at the John Birch Society, who Curtis said had offered to launder up to $20 billion in gold for Ferdinand Marcos. He was extremely anxious to meet Curtis personally, to discuss the Nippon Star project. Curtis again said he did not want anything to do with those people.
The contact man admitted, reluctantly, that General Singlaub was involved, and pleaded with Curtis not to go to the press. Nippon Star had received too much publicity, so it was being shut down and everything would be handled from then on through offshore corporations set up in Panama and Nigeria. He said they needed Curtis badly. In the weeks to follow, he called Curtis again and again, and eventually came to see him.
What John Singlaub was after, he said, was to set up an endowment to fund anti-Communist activities around the world that the U.S. Congress refused to support. They would uncover the gold, give a big cut to the Philippines, and keep the rest for the endowment, which would dispense the funds as needed. They knew generally where to dig, but they needed the detail maps and engineering drawings from Curtis to do the excavating more precisely. Without the maps, it would take much longer and the gold might be missed by inches. They were trying to recruit Olof Jonsson also.
Curtis still refused to become involved.
Later, Curtis claims he received a call from someone at the Pentagon.
The caller, according to Curtis, said he was calling about General John Singlaub’s search for Yamashita’s Gold. Curtis took the precaution of phoning his caller back on the main Pentagon switchboard, to make sure he was who he said he was.
Schweitzer’s message was simple: Curtis must help Singlaub get Yamashita’s Gold — to help in the fight against communism in Nicaragua and elsewhere.
“It is your patriotic duty,” he told Curtis.
Soon afterward, Curtis was on his way to Hong Kong. He spent three days discussing the proposition with General Singlaub, and others. According to reliable sources in Hong Kong and Manila, Singlaub and his group were well prepared for the meeting. They had detailed CIA dossiers on Curtis, knew all about him and his history, and they knew how to play him.
Curtis was offered a seat on the board of Singlaub’s new endowment, which would administer the recovery operation and determine the disposition of all the gold found. He would be one of a small group of its directors, among them General Singlaub and other retired U.S. military figures. Associated with them would be several leading Filipinos, including Cory’s brother Jose Cojuangco and his uncle, Congressman Sumulong. Singlaub reportedly was afraid to bring in some of the prominent generals whose names had been mentioned to Curtis because they would attract unwanted publicity. Although there had been many stories in the Filipino press, up to this point there had been only a few in America because the whole idea of Yamashita’s Gold sounded so preposterous. Singlaub was worried that the involvement of prominent figures would finally alert American journalists to the fact that there was more going on than just, as one foreign correspondent in Manila put it indelicately, “a harebrained treasure hunt by a bunch of wacko right-wing dildos.” Billions of dollars were at stake.
No matter what anyone else thought, Singlaub and his circle were absolutely convinced of the reality of Yamashita’s Gold, enough to risk becoming targets of ridicule while they searched for it. Many of them had been in the CIA hierarchy since World War II, involved in shaping the postwar governments of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In doing so they had employed the patrons of the Yakuza, and had become friends and fellow conspirators of the Kuromaku, Sasakawa and Kodama. Nobody was in a better position than these men to know about the loot Kodama had hidden. They had access to top-secret Japanese military archives, CIA archives, Pentagon archives, all of them beyond the reach of ordinary people, and the inside track on papers Ferdinand Marcos had left behind when he fled. For twenty years, they had used CIA assets to keep close track of Ferdinand’s secret gold deals. At some point in the early 1970s, the CIA had become involved in those gold deals through Paul Helliwell’s black-money conduits and the branches of Nugan-Hand Bank.
If the CIA did fly tons of gold out of Clark for President Marcos, some of these men were well informed and might even have approved the flights. If Marcos bullion was slipped out through Australia with the help of wealthy tycoons there, using Nugan-Hand channels, some of these men might have been among those at the CIA who authorized its movement. If the huge Marcos gold transactions of 1983 and 1984 were real, and were concluded, some of these men were in a position to know about it, and may have been the ones holding his feet to the fire as he got ready for his first kidney transplant. Singlaub had even been in touch with Dovie Beams’s old adversary, Potenciano Ilusorio, now (thanks to President Marcos) a major stockholder in Benguet Exploration, a unit of Benguet Consolidated Mines. Singlaub was said to be helping a group of American executives who wanted to acquire Benguet. In New York, business reporters speculated among themselves that the acquisition was of interest to Allen & Company, who had a history of involvement with Benguet.
If none of these reports was true, why were a platoon of America’s top generals back in the Philippines digging for Yamashita’s Gold?
Curtis decided to throw his lot in with them — but his decision was short-lived. In the Philippines, newspapers soon were full of stories about Singlaub’s searches. His men were excavating ten sites simultaneously, with extremely tight security provided by the Philippine military and the U.S. Special Forces. With the assistance of Curtis in pinpointing exact locations, they expected to hit the first major deposit of treasure “at any time.” Many of the remaining sites were in areas controlled by the NPA, and contingency plans were in place, in case of a military confrontation. Nobody wanted the gold to fall into the wrong hands.
Despite all their preoccupation with tight security, Curtis became alarmed at the way General Singlaub himself attracted attention, alarmed at the very high profile of what was supposed to be an extremely secret operation. He was also a bit disturbed by some of the disclosures of the Iran-Contra hearings, which revealed a high incidence of bungling, dishonesty, and venality. In addition, he had discovered that his old enemies in the John Birch Society were sitting on the sidelines, waiting to turn Kodama’s blood-soaked booty into a new holy war. Alarmed and disgusted, Curtis took his priceless maps and threatened to vanish once again, unless Singlaub and the other brass hats withdrew and left the excavation to the specialists.
Ferdinand Marcos also had not forgotten Yamashita’s Gold. Far away in Honolulu, where he continued to plot his eventual return to power, he held long telephone conversations with men in the Virginia suburbs of Washington who claimed to be arms dealers. They taped the conversations and turned them over to Congress and the press. During the phone calls, Ferdinand said he would pay for the tanks and rockets he needed with thousands of tons of gold still hidden in the Philippines. How many tons, asked the phony arms dealer. Ferdinand whispered hoarsely, “Thousands.” Why, in one place alone, he added, he had 4,000 tons of bullion stashed, worth over $40 billion.
Nobody knew where his bullion had gone. Before fleeing from Malacanang, Ferdinand had taken the trouble to have a barge haul away the gold he had stashed in the palace, and trucks haul away the bullion in the vaults beneath the warehouse and the bank. Nobody knew where the presidential yacht had taken its cargo — to Hong Kong, or to some intermediate point like Lubang or Fuga. As to the bullion hidden beneath the Bataan beach palace, some people suspected that it had been taken hurriedly across to Corregidor and hidden among the maze of tunnels on the island. Just as a precaution, permission was obtained from the government of Cory Aquino to “renovate” the war memorial at Corregidor.
Although Marcos was obliged to live quietly under public scrutiny in Honolulu, there were other brief glimpses of hidden treasure; in mid-1988, frustrated by his exile, he was reported to have offered President Aquino $5 billion in cash to let him come home. As an opening ante it showed promise, but it fell far short of a serious bid.
Curtis got his wish. Singlaub and the other celebrity generals withdrew to let him dig away in secret beneath Fort Santiago. Hiding his real identity as much as possible, keeping to himself and shunning publicity, and working with a team of diggers provided by Cory Aquino, Curtis made gradual progress toward what he thought would be one of the big deposits of bullion hidden under the fort by Admirals Kodama and Iwabuchi. In March 1988, nearing their objective, the diggers hit a Japanese sand trap. Two workmen died. Curtis said the trap was one of those put in place to discourage recovery. The deaths brought the flare-up of publicity that Curtis had been trying to avoid, but after a few days it subsided as most people contented themselves with a snigger.
As Curtis and his excavators returned to work, they were joined by Olof Jonsson, back in the Philippines for the first time since 1975 to help Curtis pinpoint the trove.
Imelda and Ferdinand were gone, but in paradise lost, you could still hear the serpent slither.
Exile in Hawaii was a golden opportunity to relax and enjoy the great wealth they had salted away. But neither Imelda nor Ferdinand could let matters rest. A condition of sanctuary in America was that they should not conspire to overthrow the Aquino government, but the Marcoses made repeated attempts to slip out of Honolulu, all blocked by U.S. agents. Ferdinand assured interviewers that, like MacArthur, he would return. There were breathless reports from Manila that armed uprisings would begin the moment Marcos reappeared. Imelda, ever sensitive to haute couteur, bought quantities of jungle fatigues for all her friends and bodyguards, and had special “cammies” tailored for herself.
Quarreling continued within the Reagan administration over whether Marcos should be protected or prosecuted. The White House insisted that sanctuary implied freedom from prosecution. State fretted that if the Marcoses were prosecuted, it would be impossible to persuade other dictators to relinquish power in return for safe haven in America. Critics replied that by this reasoning, Washington could offer sanctuary to Pol Pot. Other heads of state with bloodstained hands, including Cuba’s Batista and the Somozas of Nicaragua, were given sanctuary and shielded from prosecution. But U.S. courts had ruled that Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez-Jimenez, who fled to America after a long reign of tenor, should stand trial.
The White House was pretending that the crimes of the Marcoses were all in the past, when in fact a lengthy indictment was being prepared by the U.S. Attorney for New York, Rudolph Giuliani, charging the Marcoses with racketeering after being given sanctuary. This included money laundering, financial irregularities, and hoodwinking a major American bank into lending them millions to purchase buildings in New York.
Newspapers speculated that Ferdinand had a mysterious hold over President Reagan and the Republican Party. With the 1988 presidential campaign under way, it was argued, Marcos was threatening to sabotage Vice President George Bush by making embarrassing disclosures about his secret dealings with past administrations.
Days before the election, Giuliani’s indictment was handed up to a New York grand jury. Named in addition to Ferdinand and Imelda were a number of Filipino cronies and American friends, and Adnan Khashoggi. Khashoggi was alleged to have helped the Marcoses disguise their assets by backdating bills of sale to make it seem that he had purchased buildings, paintings and other properties from them before questions were raised about their ownership. With French government approval, U.S. agents swooped on Khashoggi’s Riviera mansion to recover paintings purchased by the Marcoses. Federal marshals descended on the California home of Irene Marcos Araneta to recover more paintings. Khashoggi was arrested by the Swiss government and extradited to America, where a judge ordered him fitted with the latest in jetset jewelry, an electronic ankle cuff “beeper” to keep him from skipping town.
One winter morning in 1988, Imelda appeared at federal court in New York to plead innocent, swathed in an aqua-colored puff-sleeved terno more appropriate to evening wear. Beforehand, she stopped at St. Patricks Cathedral on Fifth Avenue to pray, and when she reached the court TV cameras zoomed in for close-ups of what one commentator referred to unkindly as “crocodile tears”. Her bail was paid by old friend Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress.
Soon after the first edition of this book appeared, the Marcoses’ New York lawyers asked me for help. “The book contains a number of extremely interesting revelations,” they said, “which are potentially of considerable significance in connection with the pending indictment.” If I made certain files available, they could get the indictment thrown out by showing how American officials had encouraged Ferdinand and Imelda to misbehave and participated in their illegal activities: smuggling gold from the Philippines; helping sell it to the Gold Pool and the Trilateral Commission; urging the Marcoses to invest stolen assets in the U.S. so they could enjoy them when they “retired”; knowing all along that the Marcoses had set up the California Overseas Bank and other corporations to funnel loot. A quid-pro-quo had existed between the Marcoses and Washington under the table. All I had to do, the attorneys said, was turn over my files and U.S. law enabled them to demand full disclosure from the White House, Pentagon, State, Justice, FBI, CIA, Joint Chiefs, CINCPAC, World Bank and IMF. I would, of course, be handsomely paid by the Marcoses as a “consultant.”
The spectacle of senior officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations being dragged into court to answer charges of corruption and racketeering was tempting, but the prospect of helping Ferdinand and Imelda wriggle off the hook made collaboration impossible. Later I wondered to myself what consultant fee they would have considered reasonable — $14 million used to be a lot of money, but these days it’s not much of a golden handshake. She could blow it in a week.
Ferdinand did not appear in court with Imelda because he was dying. Several times that winter and spring he was rushed to a Honolulu hospital and reported at death’s door, only to be returned to his villa above the city. His system was slowly shutting down, component by component, as the jackals circled him. In September 1989, he was rushed to the hospital again and this time given last rites. At month’s end he died. In Washington, you could hear a collective sigh of relief.
Cory Aquino said she would not allow his body to be buried in the Philippines.
There was a lot of disrespectful talk about who would end up with all the Marcos billions now. I could think of a few.