MANILA, FEBRUARY 18, 2013 (MANILA STANDARD) By Francisco S. Tatad - What used to be said only in whispers and what the pro-administration media seemed too embarrassed to touch is finally out—-that big time illegal gambling (jueteng), like big time smuggling, is alive and well in the supposedly incorrupt Aquino administration. Corruption and organized crime are dead; long live corruption and organized crime!

The revelation comes from the National Bureau of Investigation, which just concluded its investigation into the Jan. 6, 2013 killing of 13 individuals in the hands of a police-military contingent in Atimonan, Quezon. The NBI report is now in Malacanang awaiting action from President Benigno S. Aquino III.

The NBI disclosure comes on the heels of recent reports of massive nationwide smuggling appearing in the small independent wing of the largely pro-administration Manila press. The reports on smuggling, which include one extended analysis in this paper, have not been officially disputed or commented upon by the usually garrulous Malacanang spokespersons until now.

Not a word has been heard from Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima or Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon about the long-missing 2,000 containers (some sources now say the number has gone up by several thousands more), or the suggestion that both of them resign for their failure to curb smuggling.

According to leaked portions of the NBI report, the Atimonan killing arose from a quarrel over turf among jueteng operators. But why were the killers policemen and military men, rather than hired gunmen of the victims’ rivals? This needs a thorough explanation, and only by releasing the full report can it be explained.

The initial leak, limited though it was, must have been a complete blow to Malacañang. For like the big-time smugglers, the jueteng lords were supposed to have all disappeared when Aquino came to power, with his much ballyhooed “daang matuwid” (straight path).

With Aquino in charge, the big jueteng lords in Pampanga, Quezon and Batangas were supposed to have become mere shadows of the past, despite the unceasing undaunted exposes by Pangasinan’s Archbishop Emeritus Oscar V. Cruz in his blog, dutifully picked up by one small independent newspaper.

The leaked report proved the jueteng operators have not vanished at all but have instead grown in number. That this fact came to light after Aquino’s claims about his supposedly incorrupt administration have been badly tarnished by his own corrupt operations in Congress and by the undisputed reports on big time smuggling, make the thoughtful observer wonder how much longer Aquino could continue pretending he is running an incorrupt regime.

Despite some apparent effort to distance himself from some dark shadows of the past, Aquino appears to be hounded by something that happened during his late mother’s, President Cory Aquino’s, term. It was during her watch that legalized gambling became a major national government industry, and it was also during her term that illegal gambling began to flourish throughout the country. The small town lottery and the casinos were supposed to drive the illegal numbers game out of business, but they failed. They simply became the cover for more extensive jueteng operations. Widely believed to have been behind the illegal-behind-the-legal operations were people close to “Kamaganak, Inc.”

Although gambling casinos in the Philippines have since tried to rival those of Macau and other gambling centers elsewhere, illegal gambling remains a multi-billion peso industry. It remains one of the principal sources of corruption for the local police and politicians, especially during elections. More than that, jueteng operations appear to be so organized that in previous elections some national politicians were known to have used the jueteng collectors and runners as their most effective individual campaigners.

In 2001, while Aquino was still a congressman, a Senate expose on jueteng led to the botched impeachment trial and eventual street ouster of then President Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada. Estrada spent a total of six and a half years in medical detention at the Veterans Memorial Hospital in Quezon City and under house arrest in his farm in Tanay, Rizal, before he was convicted by the Sandiganbayan on Sept. 12, 2007. He was subsequently pardoned by his former vice president and successor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Oct. 25, 2007. In 2010, he ran again for president, but lost to Aquino, with several other presidential candidates. He is running again—this time for Mayor of Manila, against his former protégé, the incumbent Mayor Alfredo Lim.

Erap was the first and so far the only high official to have been prosecuted for receiving money from jueteng. In his defense, he tried to show that the deliveries made to him by former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson all went to a Muslim Youth Scholarship Foundation, rather than to his own personal account. He tried to account for it to the last cent. But while his enemies were determined to prove his guilt and get him out of Malacañang, there was no real effort to end jueteng, or to find out who else were being regularly paid off from jueteng.

Chavit Singson was the first and last “whistle blower” as far as the jueteng protection game is concerned. But in the most notorious jueteng towns in Luzon, those who are reportedly receiving regular deliveries from the operators are openly talked about by those close to the jueteng lords. There are usually enough loose tongues around, but the information always needs to be confirmed by evidence.

A deafening official silence has greeted the NBI leak. Aquino, who usually likes to shoot from the hip, has nothing to say this time. Even Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who is in charge of the police and whose presidential run in 2016 has already been announced by Sen. Franklin Drilon, this year’s Liberal Party campaign manager, has refused to comment.

Ramon Carandang, one of the three men assigned to speak for Malacañang, pleaded for more time for Aquino to “digest” the NBI report. He wasn’t sure, he said, if Aquino had already “completed” his “review” of the report—assuming he had started reading it—“so let’s just wait until he has something to say about that.”

Aquino could have moved faster had he asked the NBI for a full briefing in person, if he was that interested. Then he could have ordered the immediate prosecution of the police and military officers and everyone else involved in the carnage. But the fact that he did not has caused some people to worry that what happened during the August 2010 bus hostage crisis in Manila could happen all over again, with the support of a complicit press.

In that incident, 15 Hong Kong Chinese tourists were held hostage by a former policeman inside a tourist bus. Eight hostages were killed after an 11-hour standoff, marked by total police incompetence. Aquino named a committee to investigate the incident, but when the committee submitted its report, a Malacañang group “reviewed” and retouched it, to spare those who were being recommended for prosecution in connection with the incident.

It is in that light that Carandang’s statement about the President “reviewing” rather than merely reading and studying the NBI report sounds a bit ominous. Aquino has earned a reputation of being so unforgiving with people who had crossed his or his family’s path while being mechanically inclined to shrug off any allegation of wrongdoing against people he likes, people close to him and who share his addictions and his sports. He has gone out of his way to provide bail for at least two officials facing criminal charges with no apparent thought of being criticized for unduly trying to influence the judicial process.

If many are watching and waiting for Aquino’s final move in the Atimonan case, it may not be necessarily because 13 innocent victims were killed there, but rather because of its dire implications to his overall record as a “incorrupt” president. Several times more than 13 will be killed during this election period, but none of those killings are likely to be linked directly to the corruption, which Aquino claims he has abolished, in his talk to his own companions and some foreigners in Davos, and at the recent meeting of “global parliamentarians against corruption” in Manila.

Neither the smuggling nor the jueteng issue will be short-lived. Neither will the latter be the last. The May elections and the insistence of the Commission on Elections to use the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines of Smartmatic, despite all the technical glitches and the questions that have remained unanswered, are likely to produce other equally serious questions. And there will be more.

Aquino’s real problem is how to sustain the fiction of his “daang matuwid” which for a while mesmerized the gullible and the naïve and those who had been waiting to hear something they could identify with, and gave his foreign promoters something unexamined and unverified to promote abroad. Despite all the theater being put up by his foreign advisers and handlers and the conscript media to prop up his non-performing presidency—last weekend they scripted a big media production of his visit to Cotabato and the MILF camp in Sultan Kudarat—his so-called “straight path” is being irreversibly exposed as a shallow slogan without any real substance or content.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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