Twenty-six years after Edsa I, the fabled treasure hoard of the late Ferdinand Marcos continues to dazzle and intrigue. During his 20 years in power, the strongman and his wife Imelda, as well as a number of their cronies, were believed to have moved billions of dollars of public funds to bank accounts and investments in Switzerland, the United States and other countries. So much wealth was taken from the country that no precise amount of the loot has been given to this day. And very little has been recovered so far.
Last week, there was a tiny bit of good news concerning the recovery effort: Vilma Bautista, a personal secretary of Imelda Marcos, was indicted in a New York City court for “conspiring to possess and sell valuable works of art”—items that the former first lady had acquired while her husband was in power. US authorities referred in particular to a painting of water lilies by Monet sold to a London dealer in September 2010 for $32 million. It was one of the priceless masterpieces that disappeared in the mid-1980s, the whereabouts of many of which remains unknown. “This indictment sheds light on what happened to major works of art missing for more than 25 years,” said New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
Favorable reports on the program to recover the Marcos hoard come few and far between. In June this year, the Supreme Court finally affirmed the government’s sovereign claim over the assets belonging to Arelma S.A. worth an estimated $40 million. Andres Bautista, the chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, described the high court’s unanimous decision, which affirmed the Sandiganbayan’s 2009 decision forfeiting the Arelma assets in favor of the government, as a long-awaited resolution necessary in finally recovering part of the Marcos loot. Arelma is a Panamanian entity created by then President Marcos to open a deposit account with Merrill Lynch in New York. In 2000, Switzerland turned over two Arelma stock certificates (representing its entire assets) to the Philippine government. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court had ruled that, like the other secret accounts and securities hidden in Swiss banks and turned over to the Philippine government in 1998, “there was little doubt about its criminal provenance.” But these assets remain the subject of a case pending before the New York Court of Appeals and involving Arelma, a group of victims of Marcos human rights violations, and Philippine National Bank, where the Arelma certificates are held in escrow.
Locally, government efforts to recover the Marcos loot also remain wanting. Early this year, the Sandiganbayan dismissed the P50-billion ill-gotten-wealth case against the Marcos and Ver families, former trade minister Roberto Ongpin, and the participants in the so-called Binondo central bank, which served as an underground dollar market in the 1980s. In its Jan. 20 decision dismissing the case, the Sandiganbayan ruled that government lawyers had failed to establish that the respondents conspired to steal and appropriate government resources for themselves.
Several cases against Imelda Marcos have likewise been junked by various courts. On March 10, 2008, Judge Silvino Pampilo of the Manila Regional Trial Court acquitted her of 32 counts of “dollar salting.” Many of the more than 900 civil and criminal cases against the Marcoses filed here and in the United States have similarly been dismissed.
Earlier, the PCGG’s Bautista noted that “the Philippines had the good fortune of recovering Marcos diaries and documents left behind in Malacañang when the Marcos family fled Manila.” He added: “These documents revealed the existence of secret bank deposits in Switzerland and other financial centers. In addition, the Philippine government recovered Marcos documents confiscated by the US Customs in Hawaii when Mr. Marcos arrived in Honolulu. These documents included reports of business transactions received by Mr. Marcos from his close associates.”
That was more than two decades ago. More than ever, the people need an accounting of what were actually stolen and what have actually been recovered since 1986. The PCGG’s Bautista, reacting to the Supreme Court’s favorable decision on the Arelma case, said the decision “underscores the message—as relevant today as it was 26 years ago at Edsa—that ‘crime does not pay’ and that eventually the long arm of the law will catch up with those who betray the people.” It’s time the people saw more proof of this.