Kidnap negotiators today begin with “proof of life.” The victim is made to speak by phone or on video holding a copy of the day’s newspaper (to indicate the date), to encourage the payment of ransom. In the case of the Rizal manuscripts, the empty frame that once held the original “Mi Ultimo Adios” was received in the National Library on Feb. 1, 1962. The postmark proved that it was mailed from Fort William McKinley Post Office in Makati six days earlier. When National Library Director Luis Montilla received the empty frame, he referred the thief on the phone to newly minted Education Secretary Alejandro “Anding” Roces (not to be confused with his artist-brother Alfredo “Ding” Roces).
Roces bought time by explaining to “Rizal” on the phone that he needed to submit and defend the P1.5-million ransom demand during the budget hearings in Congress. Besides, Roces added, then outgoing President Carlos P. Garcia left only P18 in the treasury when he turned Malacañang over to Diosdado Macapagal. Roces asked to see the original “Ultimo Adios” and set a meeting at the Luneta on Feb. 2.
The thief expected an aged and portly bureaucrat and was surprised to meet one of the youngest education secretaries ever appointed. Roces was then 32, a dashing young man with a moustache who, when shown the “Ultimo Adios,” put it in his pocket and walked away, saying he needed to have it authenticated. Stunned, the thief asked for it back and Roces replied: “This is a tiny piece of paper. You still have the ‘Noli’ and ‘Fili,’ don’t you?”
After having the document verified in the National Library, Roces drove to Malacañang and interrupted a press conference to hand it to President Macapagal. The “Ultimo Adios” was recovered without paying a centavo in ransom. Roces told the press that the document was his advance Valentine’s Day gift to the President. His next challenge was to retrieve the “Noli” and “Fili,” hoping in the patriotism of the thief.
Upset by the press coverage, the thief first complained in Tagalog: “I resent the comments of some columnists who said you are dealing with thieves. You have been dealing with the government for a long time. Now tell me, did these columnists raise a voice? Who are the thieves?” Then he turned on Roces who was being painted as a hero. To which the secretary replied: “Dahil ba meron akong bigote lagi na lang ba akong contrabida (Just because I have a moustache doesn’t mean I have to play the villain all the time).”
Roces’ humor brought the ransom down from P1.5 million to P100,000. He and the thief agreed to meet again on Feb. 5, 1962.
Roces wore the same suit and red tie at the second meeting. He drove the official car with plate number 6 himself, and took no police escort. He and the thief left the Luneta and stopped for a drink at Alba’s Quezon City, where he had a sangria and the thief a soft drink. While Roces was driving aimlessly around the city, he and the thief got into an argument. He stopped the car and reminded his passenger not to raise his voice. The thief then remarked, “Cowboy din pala kayo, Secretario.” Thus bonded, they ended up in Barrio Fiesta restaurant in Caloocan where Roces, after much haggling, got back the “El Filibusterismo” manuscript for free!
Roces then drove back to Manila and deposited the manuscript in the vault of the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission (JRNCC). When National Library Director Montilla protested, Roces cut him off, saying: “You lost it once, now you want me to deposit this with you again?”
Roces met the thief for the third and last time on the afternoon of Feb. 9 carrying a signed document absolving the thief and his accomplices of their crime. He had whittled down the ransom from P1.5 million to P10,000, and now all that was wanted was a piece of paper. Roces roared: “This is the biggest bargain in history since the Indians sold Manhattan!”
Many details were revealed during the meetings: The guards were asleep when the theft was committed. The thief and accomplices appeared to be tanga (idiots); they believed the manuscripts were holy or haunted because these became as heavy as a sack of rice as they walked past the sleeping guards. One of the accomplices even read the novels from cover to cover, saying: “Ang sarap basahin, kinikilabutan ako(This is enjoyable reading, it gave me goose bumps).” All these details from a man who spoke only Tagalog and obviously did not know enough Spanish to read Rizal in the original.
On Feb. 9, 1962, the thief got into Roces’ official car and said they would drive to a province south of Manila. Roces then worried that the thief and cohorts had decided to kidnap him instead! He was instructed to drive to Jale Beach in Las Piñas, where the thief got off and told Roces to wait in the car. After a while the thief returned with a knife, moving Roces to grope somewhere on the floor of the car where he had hidden a steel tube. But his suspicion was unfounded because the knife was used to cut the string on a package that turned out to contain the original “Noli Me Tangere.”
Earlier, the thief made one last pitch and asked Roces for a government job. Roces offered him the post of Rizal teacher. The thief asked for a full scholarship to study medicine at Far Eastern University; Roces promised to study the matter. Both options failed because the thief did not have a transcript of records to show Roces.
Arrested and later convicted was Nilo Cabrido y Deza, 47, of 75 Sgt. Mariano Street, Pasay. A clerk at Swan, Culbertson and Fritz Brokers, he was a former JRNCC laborer (April-May 1959), a high school graduate, married with six children. Half a century later, we ask: Did he act alone?
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