Friday, August 15, 2008

Complicity in poll fraud coverup taints SAF record

IT WAS NO accident that it was the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police that penetrated the Batasan Pambansa and stuffed the ballot boxes with fake election returns to make it look like Gloria Arroyo won the 2004 elections.

Established in 1983 initially to help combat insurgency and later to “destroy enemy forces that undermine the nation’s stability,” the police commandos are trained as a rapid deployment force and to “noiselessly operate in the shadows.”

In its 25-year history, the elite unit has not been impervious to the country’s political upheavals. The SAF joined the February 1986 people power revolution that followed the defection of its founder, then Armed Forces vice chief of staff and Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police chief Fidel V. Ramos, and toppled President Ferdinand Marcos.

But in early 2005, some of the SAF’s own members said they undermined democracy when the unit switched the election returns on orders of former PNP chief Hermogenes Ebdane Jr.

Ebdane knew fully well and harnessed the unit’s commando skills. After all, he had served as SAF commander from August 1989 to February 1991.

Ex-SAF chiefs Ebdane and Franco

It also helped that the SAF was one of the units securing the House.

Had no one talked, the operation that took place on Jan. 23 and 29 and the first weekend of February 2005 would have been SAF’s secret.

Franco 'principled,' but 'pragmatic' too

His colleagues describe Chief Supt. Marcelino Franco, who approved the operation as SAF commander at the time, as a “very serious, principled and highly professional” officer. But they also said that as a leader, he can be “very pragmatic.”

Franco would later be implicated in the alleged plan of the Marines and Army Scout Rangers in February 2006 to withdraw support from Arroyo.

In his affidavit, former Armed Forces chief Hermogenes Esperon, then the commanding general of the Philippine Army, said that his two classmates in the Philippine Military Academy (Class ’74)—Franco and Maj. Gen. Renato Miranda, then commandant of the Philippine Marines—had asked him to join them in their plan to withdraw support from Arroyo.

Esperon said this happened in a late-night meeting on Feb. 23 at the residence of then AFP chief Generoso Senga. He said Franco confirmed that “most of the elements of SAF-PNP will sympathize with those who will march and withdraw support from PGMA.”

Military officers accused of planning the February 2006 protest activity said Franco knew first-hand that Arroyo cheated in the elections. Unlike those who are detained and being tried in court martial for mutiny, no charges were ever filed against Franco.

SAF sources said prior to the Batasan ER switching operation, Franco met with Ebdane and Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano. He then entrusted the task to Supt. Rafael Santiago, the commanding officer of SAF’s Intelligence and Investigation Division.

Santiago, in turn, brought in young police officers, including Inspectors Rafael Lero and Samson Kimayong.

Santiago is said to be the quintessential intelligence agent. “Now you see him, now you don’t,” a police officer said.

Chief Inspector Ferdinand Ortega, who headed the SAF unit in the Batasan during the ER switching operation, appears to be well-liked in police circles. A colleague finds him “nakakatawang mayabang (amusing and a braggart).” He is affectionately called “Bungo” or skull, after the famous Baguio City police officer, Bobby Ortega, who was portrayed in two movies by the late actor Rudy Fernandez.

About 6,000 genuine election returns were replaced with manufactured returns in the January to February 2005 operations, a SAF source said.

A fourth operation was planned, but Chief Inspector Jimmy Laguyo, who by then had replaced Ortega at the SAF’s unit at the Batasan, refused to cooperate, the source said. Franco had Laguyo transferred to Abra.

The fourth operation never materialized. The unit was kept preoccupied by a failed jailbreak at the SAF headquarters on March 14, 2005 in which suspected Abu Sayyaf members were killed. The Commission on Human Rights had ordered an investigation of the SAF shortly after the incident.

Reward for Batasan operators

The efforts of the SAF commandos who participated in the Batasan operation did not go unrewarded. The enlisted personnel were each given P10,000 one month after the operation.

May natanggap kaming sobre na ibinigay sa amin na patago na sabi nila, ‘Ito panggastos niyo. Ito ’yung reward natin sa operation natin sa Batasan (We were each secretly handed an envelope and told, ‘This is for your expenses; this is our reward for the Batasan operation),’” one of them said.

He added, “Nung binuksan ko po ’yung envelope, naglalaman po ng P10,000. Hindi ko alam kung matuwa ako doon o matakot na gastusi ’yun kasi ’yun nga sa operation na ’yun (When I opened the envelope, it contained P10,000. I didn't know if I should be happy or be afraid to spend it because it was for that operation).”

Another enlisted policeman said they were summoned to the SAF office for the “good news.” He said the higher-up who handed them the envelopes advised them, “Huwag na lang kayo maingay. Sa atin-atin lang ito (Don’t talk about this. Let’s keep this among ourselves).”

'Souvenirs' of election returns switching

The switching of the election returns at the Batasan was caught on video through a mobile phone camera. ABS-CBN had shown the video, but it went largely unnoticed.

But a SAF member who took part in the operation also has in his possession evidence—he calls it “souvenir”— of the operation: copies of the genuine election returns.

He said he removed five envelopes containing the returns from the van he was riding after the team left the Batasan compound in February 2005 and brought them home with him. Some of his colleagues did likewise.

The SAF member said he got curious and decided to inspect the contents of the boxes that had not been sealed with masking tape. “Yun ’yung election returns. Dahil po ako isang botante, alam ko po ang style ng election return (They were election returns. I’m a voter, so I know the style of an election return),” he said.

VERA Files was shown the envelopes containing the returns.

After the recordings of the wiretapped conversations between Arroyo and Garcillano on the cheating in the 2004 elections became public, the police commandos involved in the Batasan operation realized the value of the video and election returns in their hands.

Some of them said they all wanted to make public the evidence they had but feared this would endanger their lives and those of their families. They then thought of relocating abroad but they needed money to do that.

Sen. Loren Legarda, who was then protesting Noli de Castro’s proclamation as vice president, said in an interview she met with Joel Pinawin, a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve Corps who acted as liaison for the SAF personnel. She was shown a video of ballot boxes being moved at the Batasan but said the video was rather dark.

“But they were selling it to me,” she said.

Legarda does not remember the amount that was asked, but a source close to the SAF personnel said the group had hoped to raise P200 million, or P10 million each for the 20 people involved in the operation.

Said Legarda: “Where will I get the money? Kakatalo ko lang. Dinaya ako, malungkot, walang trabaho. Wala akong pera (I just lost. I was cheated, sad, jobless and penniless). I told them to do it for the country.”

Election returns now with Comelec

The tampering and swapping of the election returns became evident when the Supreme Court, acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal hearing Legarda’s election protest, opened the ballot boxes for Nalindong and Taraka towns in Lanao del Sur.

The copies of the returns that were given to the Commission on Elections, National Citizens Movement for Free Elections and the dominant and minority parties showed opposition standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. and Legarda leading Arroyo and De Castro. But the returns in the ballot boxes retrieved from the Batasan showed the opposite.

Despite the discrepancies, the Supreme Court dismissed last January Legarda’s petition, citing insufficient evidence of fraud.

Poe’s suit against Arroyo before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) was dismissed on March 29, 2005. The tribunal said his widow, actress Susan Roces, could not replace him as petitioner because “she would not immediately and directly benefit from the outcome should it be determined that the declared president did not truly get the highest number of votes.”

The returns from the 2004 elections, including the fabricated ones, are no longer at the House of Representatives. Last February, shortly after he became speaker of the House, Rep. Prospero Nograles ordered the ballot boxes containing the returns moved from the South Wing to the Commission on Elections. The makeshift room where they were once stored has been dismantled.

Last March, former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. called for an investigation of the 2005 switching of election returns at the Batasan.

Ellen Tordesillas, Verafiles

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