Ferdinand Marcos: The Anti-Hero
THE DEFECTION of Primitivo Mijares was the first major blow to the dictatorship. As a newspaper columnist, “Tibo” Mijares had a reputation as a man who was not too scrupulous about who paid him for what. But if you wanted to survive and prosper in Manila under martial law, you had to flatter Malacanang, and Mijares was not the only journalist doing that. His column in the government-controlled Daily Express was followed closely by observers of the political scene. He was one of a tiny handful of men who could walk into Ferdinand’s office at almost any time without an appointment. He served as chairman of the “Media Advisory Council” — essentially as official spokesman or chief propagandist of the regime, which put him in a rare position to know what was really going on. A lawyer by training and married to a judge, Mijares was also president of the National Press Club. He was responsible for getting Arnold Zeitlin, chief of the Manila bureau of The Associated Press, thrown out of the country after a report on an army attack that leveled the Muslim community of Jolo.
At heart, Mijares was a character out of the novels of Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, a highly intelligent man of ambiguous morals whose whole life was spent on the lam. He could be as good or as bad as the occasion demanded. He left a trail of misappropriated funds, bad debts, rubber checks, and petty extortions. When Imelda turned against him, she found it easy to blacken his reputation; her courtiers spread the word that he was unable to account for funds belonging to the Press Club. Of course, neither of the Marcoses by then could account for hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and war reparations. So, in retrospect, Mijares emerges as something of a hero. The charges he leveled before the international press in 1974, before the U.S. Congress in 1975, and in his book The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1976, all of which seemed too fantastic to be believed, have since proven to be true almost without exception. To silence him, Ferdinand tried bribery, which failed. Eventually, the anger Mijares aroused in Malacanang proved fatal. As a direct consequence of the Mijares affair, at least three people were murdered.
Trouble began late in 1974 when Mijares rashly accused Kokoy Romualdez of cheating the Lopez family in a business deal involving the Manila Electric Company. Imelda’s older brother was a curious character. After insisting on replacing Norberto Junior as governor of Leyte and usurping all his property, Kokoy rarely visited the island. He was its absentee governor. In Manila he was scornfully referred to (in private) as “Adobo Kokoy” — adobo is a mishmash stew of leftovers, so the nickname meant something like “pudding head.” In a book of essays critical of the Marcoses, journalist Renato Constantino entitled one chapter “The Thoughts of Kokoy” and left all the pages blank. But everyone was terrified of crossing him. He was considered to be wildly irrational, vengeful, and unstable, and he had his sister’s ear, which made him one of the most dangerous men in the regime. When Mijares criticized him over the Meralco deal, Romualdez told him to mind his own business, adding: “You will see what will happen to you. I will tell this to my sister.”
At the time, Ferdinand was under pressure from the U.S. Congress to release some of his celebrity political prisoners to clean up his image. He freed former Senator Jose Diokno and a few others, and sent Mijares and other propagandists to the United States to invite Filipino exiles home with “full amnesty.” Imelda was to follow to make a personal appeal.
Mijares planned Imelda’s press campaign. To boost her image, a full-page newspaper advertisement appeared in the major Honolulu dailies headlined “Imelda, We Love You,” with her picture. Underneath were eighty-three names of individuals and organizations that had apparently sponsored the ad. However, it was soon apparent that the ad had been written, designed, and paid for by the Philippine government.
By this time, Mijares had begun to fear for his life. He had reason to believe that Kokoy Romualdez was carrying out his threat. Reaching San Francisco, Mijares secretly contacted Philippine News editor Alex Esclamado and implied that he was preparing to defect. Esclamado told Steve Psinakis and arranged a meeting. “We planned his defection strategy,” Psinakis said. They arranged a press conference for February 20, 1975, and Mijares made the following statement:
As Malacanang reporter of the Daily Express (which is owned by the President’s family), I became among … Marcos’ … handful of trusted confidants at the onset of martial law. As a media man, it then fell on my lot to support and justify the imposition of martial law …
… I needed no convincing about the justice of Ferdinand Marcos’ cause. Having covered the Philippine Congresses and Philippine presidents [since] … 1946, I could see what we started out to do was in the right direction …
But now … I must sever my bonds with the so-called New Society. The false facade is off … Marcos has wittingly or unwittingly, consciously or unconsciously, digressed and treasonably betrayed — with full and gleeful collaboration of top associates and relatives, mostly in-laws — the avowed objectives …
The martial regime of Marcos was nothing but an ill-disguised plot to perpetuate himself, his wife and/or son in power by consolidating the political and economic resources of the country under his control …
Three days later, there was a confidential telex from U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan to Secretary of State Kissinger saying, “Mijares’ departure cannot help but be [an] acute embarrassment to Marcos … [He] undoubtedly has much inside knowledge that, if made public, could cause distress to government of the Philippines.”
Ferdinand first tried to discredit Mijares by circulating rumors that he had absconded with government funds, that he was paid $150,000 by the Lopezes to join the anti-Marcos exiles, and that he was staying in the United States because of a liaison with a Filipina exile. (Mijares had left his wife and family in Manila.)
Meanwhile, Mijares was playing both sides against the middle. After “defecting,” he was secretly accepting money from Ferdinand’s agents in exchange for information about the exiles. The FBI discovered later that Mijares had signed several vouchers for $20,000 and at least one of these signatures was authentic. The February 24, 1975, voucher bore the handwritten notation: “Sir; I received this. Tibo Mijares.” True, this demonstrated the ambiguity of his ethics, but it is typical of defectors to be of two minds about what they are doing. Since Mijares was mostly afraid of Imelda and Kokoy, he might still have had some vestigial sense of loyalty or respect for “the boss” (Marcos) which he again demonstrated later. It was this irrational urge that led to his undoing.
In May 1975, a colonel in the Presidential Guard who was one of Imelda’s personal favorites and often accompanied her on global junkets, Romeo Ochoco, tracked down Mijares in San Francisco and tried to persuade him to come home. “He said Marcos would talk to me about my complaints,” recalled Mijares. The colonel’s visit was followed by telephone calls from Trinidad Alconcel, Philippine consul general in San Francisco, who had heard that Mijares would be a star witness in Washington for the House International Relations Subcommittee in hearings on U.S.-Philippines problems. Alconcel tried to persuade Mijares not to testify and, when he refused, asked him to “pull the punches.” In Manila, Ferdinand brought formal charges against Mijares and used this criminal complaint as a ruse to seek his extradition from the United States. Imelda retaliated against the Philippine News by having her favorite courtier, Tourism Minister Jose Aspiras, write U.S. travel agencies asking them to withdraw advertising from the paper.
Mijares flew to Washington to testify and checked into a downtown motel. He must have been under close surveillance by Ver’s agents, for there, on the evening of June 16, he received a call from Manila.
“It was Marcos,” Mijares said. “He started out by calling me by my nickname, Tibo. He asked me not to testify, because of what it would do to his ‘New Society.’ I told him it would be difficult to back out since I was already under the committee’s jurisdiction. He told me his assistant would tell me something, that they had something for me.”
Presidential aide Guillermo de Vega then got on the line, speaking Tagalog and Spanish to confuse wiretappers. He said $50,000 would be awaiting Mijares in San Francisco if he didn’t testify. But if he went ahead with his testimony, it would be a declaration of war. The money was deposited in a San Francisco branch of Lloyds Bank in the names of Mijares and Alconcel, so Mijares could not withdraw the money until the consul counter-signed the check.
Although Nixon and Kissinger were backing the Marcos regime, congressional feeling in Washington, spurred by lobbying efforts of various exile groups, was running strongly against Ferdinand and Imelda, mainly because of the continued detention of well-known political prisoners, abuses of human rights, and torture. The U.S. Senate came close to voting to cut off military aid in December 1974, and was only dissuaded by assurances that political detainees would be released. About twelve hundred were. However, at hearings in June 1975, it was disclosed that the regime still held at least six thousand more political detainees. So the appearance of Mijares before the subcommittee caused a sensation.
“Let me trace the origin and pattern of this new tyranny in Asia,” he told the panel in his opening remarks. “On Sept. 21, 1935, as established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ by a Philippine court, a young man — an expert rifle marksman by his own account — felled dead with a single rifle shot a reelected congressmen.” The man was Marcos, and he
continues to entrench himself in the presidential palace in a bid to reign for life and establish an imperial dynasty …
… the reasons used by Marcos in imposing martial law were deliberately manufactured … With a series of deliberately contrived crises … Marcos made the people lapse into a state of paralysis … Then he wove a labored tale of national horror which he eventually enshrined as gospel truth in the martial law proclamation … Marcos plotted to place his country under martial law as early as 1966, having decided then that he would win a reelection in 1969 “at all cost.”
… Having proclaimed martial law, he proceeded to bribe, coerce and/or intimidate the Constitutional Convention members into drafting a new charter dictated by him …
A dictatorial regime as it is, the martial government of Marcos has become all the more oppressive and corrupt in view of the meddling of his wife who has turned the martial regime into a conjugal dictatorship.
Aside from plundering an entire nation, the conjugal dictatorship is likewise misappropriating the various items of U.S. assistance (military, economic, cultural, etc.) to the Philippines to entrench itself in power and for personal glorification.
… Filipinos desirous of overthrowing the dictatorial yoke of Marcos are stymied by the … support the State Department has shown for the martial regime …
After testifying, Mijares filed a formal request with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for political asylum. Immigration referred the matter to Secretary of State Kissinger. Kissinger sent a carefully worded confidential telex to the U.S. Embassy in Manila:
Department plans to reply to INS that it is possible that Mijares denouncement of the government of the Philippines might cause him problems if he returns to that country, although we are unable to determine whether these problems could be classified as persecution [my italics] … We assume INS will then issue Mijares voluntary departure status and refer case back to department at a later date … Department does not intend to discuss Mijares case with Philippine government and embassy should also avoid issue.
Ferdinand then doubled his bribe, offering Mijares through Alconcel $100,000 to recant his testimony and retire to Australia. To prove to journalists that the bribe offers were genuine, Mijares called Guillermo de Vega at Malacanang Palace while a California lawyer listened in.
This was enough to justify an official U.S. Justice Department investigation that President Marcos had tried to bribe a congressional witness. But before anything further could come of it, de Vega was mysteriously murdered inside Malacanang Palace. A gunman identified as Paulino Arceo was said to have entered the palace with a Smith & Wesson revolver in a mailing envelope, along with a bottle of champagne. An hour later, de Vega’s body was found in his private toilet with five bullet wounds. The revolver was in the anteroom. Arceo was arrested as he tried to leave, and was charged with murder. A part-time journalist and entertainment promoter, Arceo was well enough known to palace guards to be allowed on the grounds without having his parcel inspected. Ferdinand was extremely reticent about the killing. Curiously, Arceo refused to talk to anyone except General Ver, implying that he had justification for his act that was too secret to share with anyone less than Ver. The implication was that he had been hired for the job by someone high in the regime — suspicion fixing on Imelda or Kokoy. Arceo was sentenced to death by a firing squad, but the execution was never carried out.
The publication of Mijares’s book Conjugal Dictatorship on April 27, 1976, aroused a firestorm of outrage at Malacanang — Mijares raked up just enough of the Dovie Beams affair, torture by Ver’s thugs, and the faking of the Marcos war record to cause acute embarrassment. But Conjugal Dictatorship was systematically plundered from every bookstore and public institution in the United States, including the Library of Congress. Eight months after his book vanished, Mijares himself disappeared.
The last anyone heard from him was a cryptic letter, postmarked Honolulu. He wrote to columnists Jack Anderson and Les Whitten that he was about to take off on “a daring sortie to the Philippines … For security reasons,” he cautioned, “I would request you not to breathe a word of this daring trip to anyone until I can call you by phone. Or … I’ll send you proof from Manila, a letter with this.” He drew a star with a circle around it. “Wish me luck,” he added.
Mijares phoned his wife, Manila Judge Priscilla Mijares, saying he was taking a Pan American flight to Guam. According to subsequent investigations, Mijares left in the company of Querube Makalintal, a Marcos intelligence officer posing as a revenue attaché at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco. Fabian Ver also was in San Francisco, had been in touch with Mijares, and was seen boarding the same Pan Am flight to Guam.
When her husband vanished, Judge Mijares began her own investigation. She determined that Ver and her husband flew to Guam, then boarded a Philippine Air Lines flight to Manila. Mijares and Makalintal joined Ver in the first-class section of the plane, she said. It was only after the flight landed at Manila International Airport that her husband disappeared. She said NISA agents took Mijares to Ver’s headquarters at Fort Bonifacio, where he was put in a dungeon where political detainees were kept for long periods. A jailer she knew told her that he saw her husband there.
On May 30, 1977, their sixteen-year-old son Luis “Boyet” Mijares told his mother that he had received a phone call saying his father was alive and inviting the boy to come see him. He insisted on going. The boy’s body was later found dumped outside Manila, his eyeballs protruding, his chest perforated with multiple stab wounds, his head bashed in, and his hands, feet, and genitals mangled. The mutilation of the body was typical of incidents where, to extract information from an uncooperative prisoner, one member of a family was grotesquely tortured in front of another. However, two university students were conveniently charged with this murder.
The U.S. Justice Department quietly closed its investigation of the Mijares case a year later, in August 1978. Justice said its investigation had confirmed that Mijares had a past history of bouncing checks and misappropriating funds, which “seriously undermined Mijares’ usefulness as a key witness.” They did not explain how this damaged his credibility when, in its campaign against U.S. organized crime during the same period, the Justice Department was taking great pains to record the testimony of longtime Mafia hitman Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratiano.
In 1980, Steve Psinakis arranged to have a conversation with Imelda Marcos in New York and brought up the Mijares case.
“And speaking of killings,” said Psinakis, “tell me, Mrs. Marcos, has Mijares been killed?”
“How should I know?” said Imelda. “Mijares had more enemies than you can possibly imagine. He was the lowest kind of snake that ever lived.” She used the past tense throughout. “Tibo was a thief, a compulsive gambler and a loser, and worst of all, a cheap extortionist. He was not a newspaperman; he was a blackmailer.”
“If you knew all this about Mijares,” Psinakis said, “why did your husband make him his top media man as well as the official censor of the martial law regime?” Imelda changed the subject.