Ferdinand Marcos: Salvaging Democracy
THE MAIN CONCERN of a bad government, as everyone knows, is to protect itself from its own subjects. Under martial law, the Philippines entered a grim period of human rights abuses. A new term, “salvaging,” came into use to cover the torture, disappearance, and death of ordinary citizens. The army and Constabulary set out to discipline the population by creating an atmosphere of terror. Here and there a few good officers tried to win the support of the local population, and punished troops who abused civilians. But they were rare exceptions.
Many of the horror stories were independently corroborated by diplomats, journalists, priests, scholars, and international organizations such as Amnesty International. They are a litany of sadism, of dead rats being stuffed in mouths, of electric cattle prods jammed into vaginas, of mashed testicles, and prisoners being forced to eat their own ears. These atrocities were often performed by, or supervised by, men trained and employed in various ways by the U.S. military and intelligence services. These were the people produced by the Colonel Lansdale and Frank Walton programs, and trained at various police and security academies in America and Taiwan. They were the new combined military-police establishment provided to Ferdinand Marcos as part of his deal with Lyndon Johnson. With their help, Ferdinand was able first to force his own re-election, then to declare martial law and make it stick. Now they were the instrument by which he would suppress all dissent and retain power for himself and his family as long as he wished. The U.S. Embassy was not ignorant of these practices. Official protests were not made under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan — only during the presidency of Jimmy Carter — but the Carter administration did not follow through by halting over $500 million in military aid from going to the Philippines.
Under the Marcoses, the army, Constabulary, Civilian Home Defense Corps, and intelligence agencies employed such methods as “submarine,” where your head was submerged in a toilet or bucket of water; “zap-zap,” where electric shocks were applied to your genitals or nipples; “water-cure,” where gallons of water were poured up your nose till you almost drowned; “baggy,” where a plastic bag was placed over your head till you nearly suffocated; “buttstroking,” where you were beaten on the back with a rifle; “telephone,” where your eardrums were popped from behind with the flats of the hand; “Saigon roulette,” where the torturer loaded all but one round in a revolver and fired at your legs. And, of course, “San Juanico Bridge,” where you were forced to lie with your feet on one bed and your head on a second, and were beaten and kicked whenever you let your body sag — named after the new bridge connecting Samar to Leyte, built as a wedding anniversary present to Imelda from Ferdinand. The Marcoses called it the “bridge of love.”
These human rights abuses came from both ends of the military ladder: provincial bullies, and high-ranking sadists at headquarters in Manila. Of the bullies, the archetype was Constabulary Sergeant George Presquito on Negros Island, a sweaty man with a big stomach, scraggly beard, and a drunken manner, even when he was sober, which was rare.
Presquito was famous for shooting people who had already surrendered, even when their offenses were minor. He was said to have murdered forty-two people personally. The government and military never interfered. He liked to undress and sexually abuse women in front of their husbands or their families, which he found produced quick results. He led his men on sprees where they beat and robbed villagers. He devoted himself to tormenting political activists and union organizers.
It was Presquito and his men who one morning in July 1977 picked up Vilma Riopay, a twenty-one-year-old catechist at the Magballo church, and brutally tormented her until she was turned into a mental and physical invalid. The case was so shocking that it appeared in newspapers and publications around the world. She had been taken to a safe house where she underwent an interrogation that included the “zap-zap,” the “water-cure,” denial of sleep, and beating on her genitals. After the government received thousands of petitions from villagers in Negros, Presquito was finally called into Constabulary headquarters at Camp Crame in Manila. Despite all the evidence and witnesses, a military court exonerated him. Presquito, the court decided, was just doing his duty.
Inside one of the buildings of Camp Crame was the headquarters of the dreaded 5th CSU (Constabulary Security Unit). The 5th CSU created many martyrs, but few as celebrated as Edgar Jopson, the student leader who had asked President Marcos to sign a pledge that he would not violate the constitution and seek a third term. His confrontation with Ferdinand had climaxed in the student siege of Malacanang Palace, after which Jopson was forced to flee for his life. He went underground as one of a growing number of grievance guerrillas. He had never been a Communist or a radical but had been the “man of the year” of the middle-class Jaycees. Eventually, he joined the Communist-led NPA, becoming one of its commanders. Jopson was captured on June 14, 1979, and underwent torture at the 5th CSU for many months.
Using money given him on visiting day by his father, Jopson “befriended” a guard and escaped. He was recaptured in Mindanao in the summer of 1982, shot three times, and then later six times more to finish him off. His bloated and bullet-ridden body was turned over to his father by the Constabulary. The slaying caused an outcry in Manila, particularly at his alma mater, the elite Jesuit-run Ateneo, where a memorial service was scheduled. It was called off at first when threats were received from the army, but was held anyway after a storm of protest from its affluent alumni, which included Ninoy Aquino.
The man accused by human rights groups of being “the top torturer” at the 5th CSU, one of those said to have tormented Edgar Jopson, was Captain Rodolfo Aguinaldo. According to his accusers, Aguinaldo was a legend in his own time, feared throughout the archipelago: a man whose talents left detainees permanently disabled or mentally crippled. Aguinaldo was a Marcos favorite, a fellow Ilocano from Laoag. He graduated second in his class at the Philippine Military Academy in the late 1960s and immediately joined the 5th CSU. He received special training from American army and CIA instructors in the fine art of extracting information. After proving himself to be unusually gifted, he was sent to the CIA/KMT Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taiwan, where he received additional training from the past-masters of the Chiang dictatorship. Aguinaldo was a trim and muscular athlete, who favored jogging suits with a Belgian 9mm Browning tucked in the waistband. He liked to swim and skydive, one of the favorite sports of his ultimate boss, Constabulary chief General Fidel Ramos. According to a study of human rights abuses in the Philippines published by the Catholic Church, the sport Aguinaldo enjoyed most was having sex with the wives, sisters, or daughters of his prisoners. None of these charges had any effect on his career.
The head of 5th CSU was another Ilocano, Colonel Ishmael Rodrigo, whose parents came from the Marcos hometown, Batac. He served with Fidel Ramos in the Filipino contingent during the Korean War, became one of Lansdale’s top Huk killers, and worked for the CIA in Manila and Saigon. In time he transferred directly to the U.S. Army Green Berets as an intelligence officer with the rank of colonel. In Vietnam, Rodrigo became friends with William Colby, and was sent to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to study tradecraft. After the declaration of martial law, the CIA sent Rodrigo back to Manila, where General Ramos gave him the job of running 5th CSU. Thus the man heading the most notorious torture unit in the Marcos dictatorship was a long-time CIA agent and Green Beret. It was Colonel Rodrigo who applied brainwashing techniques to young Edgar Jopson, then turned him over to Captain Aguinaldo’s men for physical abuse.
Aguinaldo was assisted in his efforts by Major Cesar Garcia and Colonel Miguel Aure, both rabid anti-Communists. Colonel Aure had directed the 1977 torture, rape, and murder of Purificacion Pedro, a twenty-eight-year-old graduate of the University of the Philippines arrested on suspicion of being a member of the NPA. She was shot in the shoulder during the arrest and beaten with rifle butts. Then she was taken to a Bataan hospital, where she was gang-raped and hung by her neck with her brassiere. As the troopers left her room, the colonel reportedly growled at her relatives waiting outside: “Remember the name Aure.”
There were many opponents of the Marcos regime who drew attention to what was happening in the Philippines, but so long as Nixon and Kissinger remained in control, Washington was firmly on the side of the dictatorship. Nothing was done to assist political prisoners, and a great deal was done to intimidate anti-Marcos exiles living in America.
Senator Aquino had been arrested in the early hours of September 23, 1972, in his suite in the Manila Hilton. Two days later he petitioned the Supreme Court from his cell for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging the validity of martial law, his arrest, and detention. The petition was denied.
A year later he was charged with murder, subversion, and illegal possession of firearms. The murder charge related to the death of a barrio captain in Tarlac in 1967. The subversion and illegal possession of firearms charges involved accusations that Ninoy supplied arms to Communist terrorists to overthrow the Marcos regime. Before a military court, Aquino responded that Marcos had simply framed him, and he accused Juan Ponce Enrile directly of trumping up the charges. He refused to defend himself, saying he would rather “accept a tyrant’s revenge.” The government-controlled press did not carry any portion of Aquino’s statement, but a videotape was made and kept by Imelda, and she was said to review it from time to time when she felt the need to refresh her sentiments.
Early in 1975, Aquino went on a hunger strike. At the end of the thirty-first day, he was rushed to a hospital, down to 124 pounds from his original 191. His legs no longer supported him and he had difficulty focusing his eyes. His prolonged fast produced a profound religious experience, from which he emerged and slowly regained some of his health.
In late June 1977, he was granted a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Ferdinand. As old fraternity brothers, they still addressed each other as “brod,” although by this point the effect must have been surreal. Ferdinand said: “Do you remember that I sent a message to you two days before the declaration of martial law that I will declare martial law? Well, I really wanted you to run away.” Aquino replied, “I told the messenger that I am a senator of the republic and I will stick by my position — and I was arrested.” Aquino asked that his case be transferred to a civilian court, but Ferdinand turned him down.
On November 25, a military tribunal found Aquino guilty and pronounced his sentence — “death by firing squad.” Because of the recent election of President Carter, the sentence was not carried out. Carter made repeated representations to Manila through emissaries.
In June 1978, an agreement was reached with Cory Aquino that her husband would apply for amnesty and write a letter expressing his desire to live outside the country, promising that while abroad he would not “take any action that would affect the image and security of the country.” This was done, but action was delayed on various excuses, reportedly because of pressure from the vengeful First Lady.
While Aquino was being neutralized in this manner, others were beginning to strike back. During the summer and fall of 1979, a number of government and commercial buildings in Manila were put to the torch, including a floating casino moored at the bayfront which was owned and operated under martial law protection by Imelda’s brothers Kokoy and Alfredo. The fires were the work of a group calling itself the Light-a-Fire Movement.
Fabian Ver’s security forces seemed helpless to stop the arson. But that December they arrested an American citizen, Ben Lim, at Manila International Airport and charged him with attempting to smuggle explosives into the country. Lim had a weak heart and when his pills were withheld during his confinement, he died. His interrogation led to the arrest of fifteen other “terrorists,” reportedly all members of the Light-a-Fire Movement, headed by a Harvard-educated business executive, Eduardo Olaguer. A raid on Olaguer’s home produced explosives and instruction manuals with CIA markings. It was alleged that the explosives were sent from San Francisco by lawyer Steve Psinakis, son-in-law of Eugenio Lopez. Psinakis had been a thorn in the side of Ferdinand and Imelda since the Lopez showdown. He published frequent attacks on the regime in books, pamphlets, and newspapers, and kept up a steady barrage of the U.S. Congress protesting the illegal seizure of Lopez family assets in the Philippines. In 1977, Psinakis helped organize and carry out a daring jail break at Fort Bonifacio to spring his brother-in-law, Eugenio Lopez, Jr., and fellow prisoner Sergio Osmeña III. Since then, Psinakis had been active in the Movement for a Free Philippines headed by Raul Manglapus. He was now accused of being behind the Light-a-Fire Movement.
By the end of December 1979, more than two hundred men and women had been arrested as “potential sources of information.” All those arrested were told they could go free if they signed statements that Psinakis was guilty. Those who did not accept the offer were tortured until they signed anyway. But soon afterward, Ferdinand announced that the Light-a-Fire Movement had been extinguished and Aquino was free to go.
The senator’s long imprisonment had taken a toll on his heart. Doctors said he needed bypass surgery. This could have been done at Imelda’s luxurious Heart Center, but nobody in Manila had the bad taste to suggest it. He and his family were suddenly, with only a few hours’ notice, put aboard a plane to the United States.
Imelda, the target of Aquino’s often satirical criticism, personally brought him the word that he was free to leave. Then, in his presence, she gaily telephoned key men at the foreign ministry, U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy, and Philippine Air Lines to arrange his hasty departure.
After undergoing a triple bypass operation, Aquino settled with his family in Boston on a grant from Harvard University. He then formally broke the vow extracted from him in Manila that he would refrain from making political statements. Attacking the agreement as “a pact with the devil,” he warned President Marcos of a “gathering storm.” Idealistic groups of Filipinos were preparing to strike at the dictatorship with “bombings, assassinations and kidnappings of public officials and military officers … to bring the Marcos regime to its knees.”
Less than three weeks later, the attacks began. Bombs exploded simultaneously in nine buildings after the occupants had been warned to evacuate. No one was hurt but international press coverage was heavy. In October 1980, the group struck again as delegates gathered in Manila for a convention of the American Society of Travel Agents. The setting was Imelda’s $150 million Convention Center. A bomb exploded only fifty feet from Ferdinand Marcos. He was not injured but twenty others were, and the convention was canceled in panic. Manila’s luxury hotels emptied and stayed empty. American tourism had been bringing the regime $400 million a year. Malacanang Palace issued thirty arrest warrants, including one for Aquino. There was no extradition agreement between the United States and the Philippines, so Aquino was safe for the time being.
Asked what the U.S. government would do about the warrants, an official of the Carter administration said, “Nothing — [Washington] would not bend the law to suit Manila.” That stand was reversed a few months later when Ronald Reagan became president.
The turnabout under Reagan began with the arrest in Manila of a U.S. citizen accused of being involved in the Light-a-Fire Movement. Victor Burns Lovely was a fifty-eight-year-old Filipino-American businessman from Los Angeles. He arrived in Manila with a bomb in his luggage, checked into a hotel, and when he unpacked the bomb exploded, blowing off his right forearm and blinding one eye. Lovely was taken to a military hospital and interrogated. Ver’s agents told him he was on the seventh floor and anyone falling from that height would not survive. Lovely signed a confession. President Marcos showed up for the occasion and was photographed waving the confession over Lovely.
In the confession, Lovely said his trip had been planned and bankrolled by Aquino and Psinakis. He claimed Psinakis had sent him to a secret camp in Arizona where he was instructed in the use of bombs by the American-based Movement for a Free Philippines.
The FBI became involved because Lovely was an American citizen. The FBI had not shown similar interest earlier with Ben Lim. The reason was simple — a policy decision had since been made by the Reagan administration to help the Marcoses by interfering with the exile movement. FBI agents were sent to Manila to question Lovely about Aquino and Psinakis. Secretary of State Alexander Haig met privately with President Marcos and promised him that the Reagan administration would help “fight terrorism” by vigorously prosecuting U.S.-based Filipino activists.
Soon after Reagan became president, Ferdinand Marcos began lobbying hard for an extradition treaty so that he could get his hands on some of his enemies in exile. He could then frame criminal charges against anyone he wished. Such a treaty was proposed in the U.S. Congress but was defeated despite the best efforts of the Reagan administration to push it through. The main reason for its defeat was the concern of Congress to distinguish between political opponents of a foreign government and common criminals — a distinction that many foresaw would be blurred deliberately by the Marcos regime. Unable to make use of extradition, the Reagan administration turned next to the Neutrality Act, which prohibits Americans from engaging in conspiracy to overthrow friendly governments. By Reagan’s estimation, the Marcos regime was friendly, no matter what its record of human rights abuses.
After being terrorized by Ver’s thugs, Victor Lovely was understandably anxious to go back to America under any circumstance, even as a federal witness. He was returned to the United States in September 1981. According to FBI affidavits, Lovely repeated his charges before a grand jury that Psinakis organized the Manila bombings. Although grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret, Lovely’s testimony was turned over by the FBI to Malacanang. FBI agents questioned Aquino and Manglapus closely. Aquino had been under intensive FBI surveillance since he arrived in the United States and his house in Boston was raided.
FBI agents also raided the Psinakis home in San Francisco on December 17, 1981. Twenty agents appeared at midnight accompanied by San Francisco police and sheriff’s deputies. Psinakis and his family were locked in the kitchen while agents thumbed through his files, slit open vacuum cleaner bags, unwrapped Christmas presents, and searched every room with dogs trained to sniff out explosives. The FBI claimed that a “confidential source” (evidently posing as a baglady) had poked through Psinakis trash barrels that morning and found 600 feet of detonating cord, an empty battery package, a box for a Westclox pocket-watch, and a pair of orange rubber gloves. But no evidence of bomb-making was found that night nor when a second search was made in January.
During these raids the FBI removed a number of documents from Psinakis’s files, including a coded list of underground anti-Marcos operatives in the Philippines. These were turned over by the FBI to General Ver, who had those named arrested, interrogated, and tortured. One of those arrested was Doris Nueval, who was interrogated in the Philippines not only by Ver’s agents but by the FBI and the CIA as well. Two of those arrested and interrogated vanished without a trace.
Ferdinand had become paranoid about his critics in America. He and Imelda evidently discussed the matter repeatedly with their friends the Reagans in long-distance phone calls with the White House — personal contact that they kept up throughout the Reagan presidency. Department of State reports on Filipino dissidents were routinely sent to the embassy in Manila, to be shared with Marcos and Ver.
While Washington hounded Ferdinand’s enemies, nothing was done to prevent Ver’s secret agents from striking at enemies inside the United States. The FBI, Justice Department, and State Department said that the presence in America of intelligence agents of such “friendly” countries as the Philippines, Chile, and Iran did not present a danger. According to a secret U.S. Senate report, the Justice Department did not consider national security to be threatened if agents of friendly countries — Ver’s NISA or the Shah’s SAVAK — came to America to threaten and harass dissidents in order to curtail their political activities. Officials did admit that the activities of Ver’s agents included the “possibility of violence.” But any “complaints” would have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
According to one FBI agent, it was a very simple application of “white hat-black hat” criteria. Since the Philippines was not Communist — a black hat — it was good and wore a “white hat.” No concern was expressed over extraordinary evidence of Marcos involvement in corruption, embezzlement, extortion, theft, torture, murder, and organized crime.
The CIA routinely informed both the FBI and the State Department when it learned that NISA agents had entered the United States. The CIA reported that Ver sent nineteen NISA agents to the United States in May 1973 as “bodyguards” for Imee Marcos, when she attended Princeton. In just one of many cases, in February 1974, the FBI learned that six NISA agents had been sent to Los Angeles to watch Sergio Osmeña, Jr., who had run against Ferdinand in the 1969 presidential race. It was also known that a military attaché at the Philippine Embassy in Washington was involved full time in surveillance of exile leaders, and that a NISA agent was based in Chicago where one of his duties was to maintain liaison with Tony Accardo, chairman of the board of the mob. According to exiled leader Raul Manglapus, General Ver once traveled to Chicago to arrange his murder. Manglapus said Ver approached a Filipino exile and told him that President Marcos would drop all charges against him if he agreed to assassinate Manglapus. Instead, the Filipino got word to Manglapus that Ver had made this offer and that he had turned it down.
In June 1981 in Seattle two Filipino-American labor leaders, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, who were trying to organize opposition to Marcos in the labor movement, were shot to death. Their families charged that the murders were carried out by NISA agents on orders from President Marcos and Fabian Ver. Three members of a U.S.-based pro-Marcos gang were convicted and sentenced to life; a fourth member of the gang was murdered just before he was to give testimony against Anthony Baruso, owner of the murder weapon, implicating him in the conspiracy. Baruso was an Ilocano and an intimate of Ferdinand and Imelda, who was on a first-name basis with Ver’s guards at Malacanang Palace. The families of Viernes and Domingo charged that U.S. intelligence agencies were aware that the murder was being planned, and that Baruso was never indicted because he was being protected by the CIA and FBI at the request of General Ver.
Ferdinand was initially named as a defendant along with his government in the 1982 lawsuit, but this was dropped at the request of the U.S. State Department. Under the “Head-of-State Doctrine,” the leader of a foreign nation cannot be prosecuted for acts undertaken while he was head of state. The lawyer for Domingo and Viernes argued that Marcos, although immune under the doctrine, should still be required to testify. The real purpose of the “Head-of-State Doctrine” is to prevent embarrassment to the U.S. government.
To what extent were American officials aware of what Ferdinand and Imelda were doing? The CIA was demonstrably aware that the Marcoses were looting the Philippines and embezzling hundreds of millions. The CIA was intimately acquainted with the nature and extent of torture and political murder under way in the Philippines because many of those involved were men trained by the CIA, and in some cases were still on the payroll providing the Agency with inside intelligence.
Through access I was given to twelve thousand pages of top-secret CIA documents covering an entire year of intelligence summaries to the White House, it is possible to say that very little of the dark side of the Marcos regime was conveyed directly to the president of the United States during that period. This was probably due to the manipulations of the director of central intelligence, the secretary of state, and members of the National Security Council, all of whom would have had reason to modify what the president was told. But it is wrong to assume the president would act differently. President Johnson knew that the Marcos war record was a total sham, but endorsed it publicly to gain support for his Vietnam policy. President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger were comfortable with President Marcos, as they were with President Pinochet, and they gave him the nod to usurp power. The human rights initiatives of President Carter were reversed the moment Reagan gained office. These men and their policies were not inspired by better intelligence reporting.
When Imelda was confronted by a group of U.S. congressmen in 1978 with questions about her hidden wealth and documented cases of beatings, water torture, and electric shock treatments being administered to enemies of the regime, she shrugged it all off. “The stories have … been made up,” she said.