Lacson on Estrada: I owe him what I am now
(Editor’s Note: The following is from the book, “Ito ang Pilipino,” a compilation of tributes to former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada on his 75th birthday on April 19. It must be noted that the author and Estrada had a major rift in 2009. Since then the two men, once tight allies, have not spoken to each other.)
While Erap (Joseph Estrada) was Vice President, he was assigned by then President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) to head the newly formed Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC). The objective of the PACC was to suppress the surge of criminality particularly kidnap-for-ransom cases which at that time (1992) had become some kind of a cottage industry, courtesy of a group of former local insurgents known as the Red Scorpion Group. The group was led by its notorious ringleader, Alfredo “Joey” de Leon. It was indeed a very difficult challenge, if not an almost impossible mission.
Many people thought the PACC was offered to him by FVR with a hidden malevolent agenda to make him fail in his assigned task. To FVR and his close advisers, that would surely diminish Erap’s immense popularity.
I was Laguna police provincial director when informed of a possible assignment with the ragtag anticrime group which Erap formed to fulfill the mandate assigned to the commission. The moment I was told that Erap was interested in getting me to join the PACC, I immediately felt both excited and apprehensive. I knew I would be catapulted to national prominence if I worked under him. But in my mind, that was the only definite consequence if I joined his outfit. For at least two consecutive sleepless nights, I actually agonized over a choice between a simple, quiet life and one of fame or infamy; to tread on either a glorious or inglorious path. Up to this very moment, I still cannot find an explanation why I felt that way.
Prophecy of sorts
As it has turned out, the outcome was a prophecy of sorts. I became both famous and infamous. The path I trod was both glorious and inglorious. Well, I guess you can say we both share and “enjoy” the paradox in that description, depending on who is rendering the opinion.
But when he was Vice President, I was fully convinced that he would make the best President our country could ever wish for. That is why I worked hard to help make him realize that goal: because I love my country and I knew he meant well. In spite of perceived inadequacies, his patriotism and sincerity would push him through.
I made sure that the PACC would serve as his launching pad for his presidential aspirations. It would be hypocritical not to admit that while we were accomplishing our mission, our bigger drive and motivation was to propel him to the presidency in 1998. So under pain of being accused of being immodest or arrogant, I will claim that I, with my men in the defunct Task Force Habagat of his PACC, sealed his fate to become the 13th President of the Republic. He won handily the Vice Presidency in the May 1992 national elections in spite of being an opposition candidate and obvious lack of resources. The rest is history.
Yet in the same respect, what I am now, I owe and attribute to him. If I didn’t become part of his team, I would not have become chief of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF), chief of the Philippine National Police and senator of the Republic.
Contrary to public perception, President Erap had a very clear vision for the country. The misconception is probably due to the fact that he projects dumbness when he is not. In fact, he knew his priorities well as President of the Philippines. He was consistently passionate about putting peace and order very high among his list of priorities as the country’s Chief Executive. He firmly believed, and rightly so, that the country’s economy would not move forward if local and foreign investors were uncertain about their safety and that of their children. He was determined to end the secessionist movement in the south with a two-pronged approach of taking full government control over territories being occupied by the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) armed fighters while preparing the next generation of Muslims by changing their warrior orientation with offers of scholarship in the best universities here and abroad via his Muslim Youth Foundation. While I did not conform with his idea of using jueteng money as the funding source of that foundation, he nevertheless showed grim determination to pursue his goals along that line.
In fact the only major issue which we disagreed on was jueteng. He wanted to legalize this illegal numbers game while I wanted to terminate it. He first brought it up with me after he was proclaimed President when he had not yet taken his oath. I remember having warned him of the dire consequences of his plan to “authorize” the operation of the illegal numbers game and that it was next to impossible to keep it from the people who gave him a resounding vote to lead them for six years. “Sasabog tayo diyan, sir (This will explode)” is how I mentioned it to him. I recall telling him, “Presidente ka na sir. Larong lupa iyan (You are President now. That is a commoner’s game).” I told him it could spell doom to his presidency.
This was one perennial cause of irritants and disagreements between President Erap and myself. I have always adhered to a leadership principle that I learned in the Philippine Military Academy: leadership by example. I believe it is second to none. There is no other way. Reform must start at the top, not from the bottom. I was all too aware that no street cop would take my reforms seriously if I told them to stop kotong (extortion) while they knew that their commanders were receiving hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pesos a month from gambling operators. That, I would not have allowed if I was really serious about reforming the police organization.
Contrary to news reports that I was forced to abandon President Erap, the incident never happened. I was in Malacañang the day when the late Angelo Reyes, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff at the time, declared withdrawal of support from the President. In the late afternoon, my deputy, the late Deputy Director General Jewel Canson, called me up to request that I be with them in Camp Crame to personally make on-the-spot decisions since events were developing quite rapidly. After being granted permission to leave the Palace, I went straight to my office in Camp Crame where my senior officers were waiting for me. I took my seat and declared that as their chief, I would not make a unilateral decision on whether or not to follow the AFP in withdrawing support from our Commander in Chief. Instead, I asked each one of those present to express their opinions as to which course of action the PNP organization should take given the circumstances, past and present. It was a unanimous decision after opinions were expressed.
After we made the decision to withdraw support, I asked my men to give me a few minutes to convey the same to the President. I phoned him and he assured me calmly that he understood.
Peace and order legacy
Nevertheless, I am proud of the legacy of the Estrada administration in terms of peace and order. On criminality, we were very successful in eliminating kidnap-for-ransom, robbery, hold-up incidents and car-jacking cases. In fairness and to his credit, he was giving us all the logistical and funding support, especially for our intelligence efforts, not to mention the full authority for me to run the organization including assignment of officers and disciplining the ranks the best way I thought I should.
Another notable leadership quality is that he never interfered in the reforms that I was pursuing. I have not heard of any Commander in Chief who did not interfere in the assignment and designation of high field commanders and staff officers except for President Erap. He provided all-out support but did not interfere in all the administrative aspects of my command.
The results were encouraging as I pursued my reform programs within the police force. We were making good progress, evidenced by a quick turnaround in the public perception—from negative to very high positive approval and trust ratings. I would attribute that phenomenon to consistency on the part of the PNP leadership and I take pride in saying that I was at the forefront.
I also remember President Erap as being a very charismatic person. It is second nature for him to show that he cares for people especially those close to him. His generosity and thoughtfulness easily command loyalty and respect from both his peers and subalterns. He can also make people feel bad and guilty by simply ignoring them, but can make them feel very important by very simple gestures only he is capable of delivering. If he is doing it on purpose and with a reason other than being such, only he knows.
He is also such a natural person. Patient and enduring, he is never in a hurry when he talks and listens to people, whether he is discussing his own problem or that of the other party. Yet his energy is enviable. Most people who consistently kept pace with his routine are either dead by now or paralyzed from neck or waist down; or at least, must have been driven out of their homes by their wives.
President Erap and I have really been through a lot together. Matagal din ang aming pinagsamahan. Come to think of it, if I decided not to join him in the defunct PACC back in 1992, I must be enjoying a simple, quiet and restful life with my family. It must be very boring and dry. What I am trying to say here is, I have no regrets. I am still thankful and feel privileged to have served under him.
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