‘We switched ERs for Gloria Arroyo’
First of a series
A police officer and his “boys” have come forward saying they stole original election returns (ERs) then kept at the Batasang Pambansa building and replaced these with fake ones to make sure Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would still emerge the winner of the 2004 presidential election in the event of a recount.
Senior Supt. Rafael Santiago, now assigned at the Philippine National Police Directorate for Operations in Camp Crame, presented to the Inquirer envelopes bearing the seal of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and containing what he said were original ERs from various areas in Mindanao.
Prior to his appointment in Camp Crame, Santiago was relieved as police director of Zambales province.
At a meeting on Tuesday evening attended by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Inquirer editors and reporters, Santiago described their coming out as “providential.”
“After I was relieved as Zambales police director, I realized now is the time to come out and tell the truth. I expect there would be mudslinging [against] me, I would be accused of sour graping, and there would be threats because we are going against a powerful man. But I am ready to face it and tell what we know,” he said.
Acting on orders
Santiago said the documents presented to De Lima were among the original ERs stuffed in more than 100 Marlboro cigarette boxes taken by his team from the Batasan main building.
He said he and his boys acted on the orders of then PNP Director General and now Zambales Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., which were coursed through the then Special Action Force (SAF) director, Chief Supt. Marcelino Franco.
Santiago also implicated Roque Bello, a former Comelec supervisor, his son El Bello, and 10 other men who purportedly took part in producing the fake ERs.
He tagged as an accomplice Chief Insp. Ferdinand Ortega, then chief of the SAF unit in charge of security at the Batasan complex.
According to Santiago, the operation was prompted by the election protest filed by Susan Roces, widow of the late actor Fernando Poe Jr., who was Arroyo’s closest opponent in the 2004 election.
At the time of the operation, Santiago headed the Intelligence Division of the National Capital Region (NCR) command of the SAF unit based in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.
Santiago said he and his boys had mustered the courage to go public after hearing De Lima and Sen. Francis Escudero call on those who had knowledge of past election fraud to come out.
Speaking on behalf of the other policemen involved in the operation, PO2 Rudy Gahar said: “We are tired of being used and ridiculed by our colleagues for what we have done, and we also believe that now is the right time to come out because according to Justice Secretary De Lima, we could be admitted as state witnesses.
“We also want the truth to come out.”
Santiago said he planned and implemented the “special operation” which was based on orders issued by Franco and originating from Ebdane, and carried out between January and February 2005.
“It was the first week of January 2005 when I was called to Franco’s office and ordered to choose my most trusted men for a highly confidential operation in the Batasan Pambansa building based on instructions from PNP chief Ebdane at that time,” he told the Inquirer.
He identified the men he later selected aside from Gahar, Senior Inspectors Raffy Lero (now assigned at the NCR’s Northern Police District), Samson Kimmayong (now posted in Central Mindanao) and Warly Bitog; Insp. Ramon Garcia (retired); Special Police Officers 2 Rommel Pahang (retired) and Paterno Gamba; Police Officers 2 Alan Layugan, Rodel Tabangin and Trifon Laxamana; and PO1 Norman Duco.
“The objective of the operation was to get the original ERs and replace them with manufactured ones prepared by El Bello and his people to ensure that the ERs reflect the same number of votes indicated in the certificates of canvass that greatly favored Arroyo,” Santiago said.
But this piece of information was not disclosed to his men before the operation.
“They found out [that the operation was all] about switching ERs when it was already ongoing,” he said.
Meeting in coffee shop
Santiago said he met with Ebdane, Franco and El Bello at a coffee shop on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City in the same week he was ordered by Franco to form his team for the operation.
He said the meeting was held “to discuss the project and familiarize ourselves with the personalities involved.”
Santiago said the operation was scheduled to be carried out on Jan. 23 and 29 and Feb. 5 and 27, 2005, starting at around 11 p.m. up to around 2:30 a.m. the next day.
To ensure that no one else would be at the Batasan main building when his team moved in, a bogus bomb threat was announced, he said.
Ortega, being in charge of Batasan security, was tasked to make sure that Santiago’s team as well as El Bello’s civilian group would have unhampered access to the lobby where the boxes were kept in an area enclosed by screen dividers.
Santiago said that on each of the four nights they worked, “not less than 20 Marlboro cigarette boxes were transported, first filled with manufactured forms collected from a house in Brookside Subdivision in Cainta, Rizal province, and then with the original ERs taken from inside the complex.”
Santiago said 15 men were tapped for the operation and divided into four groups.
One group was assigned to guard the perimeter of the building to prevent anyone from getting near the area while Bello’s men were inside “opening ballot boxes, taking out the original [ERs] and replacing them with fakes.”
A second group ensured that all lights and closed circuit TV cameras were turned off during the operation. This group under Garcia also included some of El Bello’s men who took positions in the dark corridors of the building.
Santiago said Garcia had a camera in his bag and recorded the switching of the ERs: “It was Garcia who took the video of Bello’s men while they were in the restricted area, for insurance.”
The third group, composed of a van driver and a number of security escorts, was in charge of transport.
The fourth group was made up of Santiago’s team.
Santiago said two vans with SAF markings were used in the operation “to avoid being flagged down or inspected at checkpoints.”
He reiterated that his men had no knowledge of the nature of the operation: “My only instruction [to them] was to secure and transport the boxes. They did not know at first what were inside the boxes.”
Gahar recounted that at around 9 p.m. of Jan. 23, 2005, the first night of the operation, he received an order to go to Ortega’s office.
On getting there, he said, he saw Franco, El Bello, Ortega, Lero, Kimmayong, Garcia and some members of the PNP’s explosive and ordnance disposal (EOD) unit.
He said his team was told to go to Bello’s house in Brookside “to load some important boxes [in the van] and bring these to the Batasan complex.”
Gahar said a civilian accompanied them to Bello’s house: “There was no talking, no [mention of] names. [The civilian] just spoke to Duco, our driver.”
This was how Gahar recounted the turn of events:
The team members went to Brookside in a three-vehicle convoy composed of a closed SAF van, a Nissan Frontier pickup, and a private car owned by Pahang.
They stopped in front of a house from which emerged five men carrying 20 Marlboro cigarette boxes that were loaded into the van.
They proceeded to the Batasan complex.
Gahar noticed that while they were in transit, the civilian kept turning his head to look at them, apparently to check if they were looking into the boxes.
At the Batasan complex, Gahar, Duco and Layugan were ordered to stay in the van to guard the boxes.
Another five civilians together with Garcia, Santiago, Ortega and some EOD members then entered the building.
In less than an hour, the boxes were brought back to the van and the team returned to Brookside where the first set of five civilians took the 20 boxes and brought them inside the house.
From Brookside, the team went back to base at Camp Bagong Diwa.
This sequence was repeated on Jan. 29, 2005, Gahar said.
But by the third night, Feb. 5, the team members had become curious about the contents of the boxes.
“It was so hot inside the van. There was no ventilation because all the windows and doors must be closed at all times. We were instructed to avoid being seen while in transit so as not to arouse suspicion,” Gahar said.
“But we got more and more curious about our cargo,” he said.
At one point, Gahar said, they noticed that one of the boxes had been left open.
He recalled: “I reached inside and took out some envelopes that we could use to fan ourselves. We were shocked to see that they were [envelopes] for original ERs.
“We later took some of the envelopes we brought from Cainta and compared these [with those taken from the Batasan].
“The manufactured forms looked clean, while the originals were a bit crumpled. The marks on the fake appeared to include [prints] from the smallest finger, while the original bore only the thumb print.
“More than 100 boxes of original ERs were taken out of the Batasan complex. Most of them were from Mindanao.”
Gahar said he and his team were able to pilfer more than 50 original ERs from the boxes that were turned over to Santiago for safekeeping.
There was to have been a fifth operation, Gahar said, but it was aborted because members of the team had to respond to an attempted jailbreak by Abu Sayyaf terror suspects at Camp Bagong Diwa on March 14.
In the end, the team members received P10,000 each from Garcia.
“This is our bonus. Just keep your mouths shut,” Gahar quoted Garcia as telling them.
(Next: The post-Batasan operation; pullout of the SAF team members; harassment, bribery and betrayal.)
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