House raiders: So sorry
“You can’t hide anything that stinks.”
With those words, Senior Superintendent Rafael Santiago on Friday apologized to the Filipino nation, “and especially to Madame Susan Roces,” for what he and his men did six years ago—steal election returns (ERs) to ensure the victory of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the fraud-marred 2004 presidential election.
Roces, widow of the late actor Fernando Poe Jr., who ran against Arroyo in 2004, withheld comment but her daughter, Grace Poe-Llamanzares, said her mother “became very emotional” when told about what Santiago said.
“She just came home from hearing Mass at the Quiapo Church when I told her about the news,” Llamanzares said. “She said it’s all coming back to her. Just when we thought we already had our last cry, it turned out we hadn’t.”
Poe died in December 2004 following a stroke.
Llamanzares thanked Santiago and his men and hoped “more and more witnesses would come forth with evidence.”
“When someone lights a match or breaks open a window to bring in the light, you feel relief and hope, and you start to believe once again in the goodness of people,” said Llamanzares, now chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB).
“My family and I thank Superintendent Santiago and his team for lighting that match,” she said. She said she hoped the masterminds of the cheating operation would “atone for their sins.”
With five of his men ranged beside him in a press conference at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Santiago spoke of their fear for their lives and the safety of their families because they said they were up against “powerful people.” But there was no longer any turning back.
“We would like to extend our apology to the Philippine nation, especially to Madame Susan Roces, for the error which at this point we are trying to rectify,” Santiago said.
“We know that our lives are at risk here, our families. We know that we are facing powerful people, but there will be no turning back. The truth shall set us free,” he said.
No personal knowledge
With Santiago were Police Officers 2 Rudy Gahar, Allan Layugan, Trifon Laxamana, and Rodel Tabangin and Police Officer 1 Norman Duco.
They were part of the reportedly 15-man police team that helped smuggle manufactured ERs into the Batasang Pambansa building in 2005 and the bogus returns were then substituted for the genuine ones.
The aim of the operation—supposedly financed by a certain “FG”—was to make sure Arroyo would still be declared winner in a recount. The recount never took place.
An “election return” refers to the tally of votes counted at each precinct and sent to the city or municipal board of canvassers.
Santiago, in a short-sleeved barong, said he did not know personally if Arroyo’s husband, former First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, funded the break-in at the Batasan between January to February 2005.
“I don’t have any knowledge but we heard that from a certain person who later, maybe through the effort of the DOJ, will establish that but as far as personal knowledge, I don’t know anything about it,” Santiago said when asked about Mike Arroyo’s alleged participation.
Pressed on who this person was, Santiago replied: “As I said we cannot give details of the facts surrounding it because we are refrained by the DOJ until we submit (our) statements.”
Arroyo’s husband has denied any involvement.
‘Very powerful people’
Santiago and his team, accompanied by lawyers, met with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima at the DOJ and turned over to her more ERs, on top of the four they gave her when they first publicly admitted during a dinner with the Inquirer last Tuesday that they were part of the cheating operation.
Santiago and his men also met behind closed doors with De Lima and discussed the security protection they had requested from her.
Lawyer Vic Rodriguez told reporters that Santiago and his men were very afraid as they had “implicated very powerful people.”
Seen inside the room where the meeting took place were two burly men, armed with long guns, from the DOJ’s witness protection program.
Santiago failed to submit their sworn affidavits, saying they needed more time to put these together.
“The atmosphere was not very conducive in coming out with substantial and intelligent affidavit that will corroborate each other in its material point,” Rodriguez said.
Santiago and his team turned over to De Lima a total of 38 ERs, not 50 as he had earlier said.
Santiago said the figure of 50 ERs was his estimate of what his men were able to secure after discovering that their operation at the Batasan actually involved stealing election returns.
The ERs were from Mindanao, majority of which came from Misamis Occidental. The Comelec tally for the province showed Arroyo with 125,300 votes while Poe had 69,481.
Stench will come out
Asked about a statement of Arroyo—now a Pampanga district representative—that his revelation was an “old story,” Santiago said: “Of course, it’s an old story because it was done six years ago. But you know, wala namang baho na hindi lumalabas [You can’t hide anything that stinks],” Santiago said.
De Lima weighed in, saying that while it was an old story, “it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”
“That’s the problem when there is no closure in issues like this,” De Lima said. “If there is no closure, it will recur and recur and recur. So this is the right time to come out.”
At the dinner with the Inquirer, Santiago and his five officers from the Special Action Force (SAF) said they transported manufactured ERs from a house in Brookside Village in Cainta to the Batasan and brought with them back boxes of other ERs being kept in Congress custody for a possible recount.
They said they carried out the operation close to midnight four times from January to February 2005.
Santiago, then the SAF’s head for intelligence and investigation division for Metro Manila, said he initially did not know what the operation was about and that he only took orders from then SAF head, Chief Superintendent Marcelino Franco.
Santiago said Franco could have only taken orders from then Philippine National Police Director General and now Zambales Governor Hermogenes Ebdane Jr.
1.2M votes stolen
De Lima surmised the break-in could be in “anticipation” of the Supreme Court granting Roces’ petition to substitute for her husband in his electoral protest after Poe died in December 2004. The court, however, junked Roces’ petition.
De Lima the other day said Santiago had told her that 6,000 ERs were targeted to be stolen, which could involve as many as 1.2 million votes—roughly matching Arroyo’s 1.1-million-vote margin over Poe in the official canvass.
Calling other cohorts
Yesterday’s press conference started with De Lima saying that Santiago’s group decided to face the media “to show their face that they do exist.”
De Lima was asked if the ERs that came from the Brookside house—purportedly owned by election lawyer Roque Bello—were authentic.
“We don’t know yet where (the ERs) are. We will trace, search for those ballot boxes purportedly containing the switched election returns… Those manufactured returns were supposedly switched in lieu of the original ERs, some of which are here now,” De Lima said.
Santiago called on the others who he said took part in the break-in “to be gentlemen enough, like an SAF trooper, to accept their participation.”
“There might be hesitation, we cannot blame them for that. There must be fear. But our group, we spoke to each other and we all decided to come out,” he said.
Asked why they thought of hiding some of the stolen ERs, Santiago said: “For security reasons. With a special operation like that, we are already expendable once we learn the nature of the operation.”
Spark to start fire
In her statement, Llamanzares said she was hopeful that “those who masterminded the atrocious crimes… (would) finally face the law and atone for their sins.”
“What everyone wants, what everyone hopes for is the truth. No one wants to be lied to, and definitely, no one wants to be cheated,” said Llamanzares.
“When the truth is held from you, especially for a good length of time, you fall into sadness, despair and frustration. You question the law, the goodness in people. You question purpose, and you become apathetic—it’s akin to being in constant darkness.”
Llamanzares said “those who came out before (Santiago) to defend the truth” were not forgotten.
“Although we’re unsure if this would lead to more incriminating revelations, we hope that this spark will start a fire,” she said. “The search for and defense of the truth is not a personal vendetta but a way by which we can save and strengthen our democratic institutions.”
In Zambales, Ebdane said he would answer the allegations against him at the proper time and place.
“I will answer the allegations in the proper forum. I cannot quarrel with him (Santiago) in the media. These are allegations I don’t intend to dignify,” Ebdane said in a text message. Robert Gonzaga, Inquirer Central Luzon
First posted 12:05 am | Saturday, July 30th, 2011