Can an ombudsman who has a backbone, instead of a wishbone, make a difference?
Read last week’s Court of Appeals decision that upheld Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales’ order to fire 10 Navy men. They were implicated in the 1995 death of Ensign Philip Pestaño who refused to load hot timber and drugs.
Associate Justice Jose Reyes Jr. wrote the decision of the court’s Ninth Division: Morales rightly reversed the earlier dismissal of charges by previous ombudsmen Aniano Desierto and Merceditas Gutierrez. Both had turned a blind eye to the evidence.
“Sixteen years and four months,” noted an Inquirer editorial in January last year. “That’s how long it has taken the death of… Pestaño to be recognized for what it has been: cold-blooded murder. Conviction remains a long way off… But it offers a glimmer of hope that closure will grace this case.”
Well, conviction came—finally.
An Ateneo honor student, Pestaño graduated from the Philippine Military Academy. As BRP Bacolod City cargo master, Pestaño refused to load 14,000 board feet of illegal logs—a Sulu governor’s gift to Admiral Pio Carranza.
In September 1995, Pestaño was shot in his cabin as the ship meandered on a bizarre hour-and-a-half trip from Cavite to Roxas Boulevard. Normally, that trip takes 25 minutes. Logbook entries disappeared. Sans investigation, the Navy ruled within 24 hours: “Suicide.”
Within four months of Pestaño’s death, comrades disappeared in mysterious circumstances,” the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva found.
“PO2 Zosimo Villanueva tipped Pestaño on drugs stashed in 20 sacks of rice aboard the ship,” then senator Fred Lim revealed. Villanueva was “lost at sea”—but his three companions survived. Only a bloodied speedboat was found.
PO3 Fidel Tagaytay was BRP Bacolod City’s radio operator. He vanished when summoned to testify. Wife Leonila’s efforts to trace his whereabouts were brushed off by the claim that Tagaytay was “absent without leave.”
Nobody in the Navy bothered to look.
Ensign Alvin Farone contacted Marissa, Pestaño’s sister. Marissa said he wanted “to tell what really happened to Philip.” He died before he could do so.
Then Petty Officer Carlito Amoroso moonlighted as close-in security for Admiral Carranza. Amoroso was not a crew member of BRP Bacolod City. Yet, he tagged along on trips from Tawi-Tawi to Navy HQ unmanifested. Was he riding shotgun for those controversial logs or drugs?
Amoroso became scarce since then. Did he resign? Or has he been tucked into a low-profile post? The Navy isn’t keen on locating him, much less asking him questions. Lim fumed: “To date, as the others, (Amoroso) got off scot-free.”
From May to September 1997, the Senate committees on human rights and national defense examined the Pestaño case. Senate Report No. 800, written by the late Senate president and former chief justice Marcelo Fernan, concluded: Pestaño was bludgeoned, then shot and his body rigged to appear as suicide.
“Identify the persons who participated in the deliberate attempt to make it appear that Pestaño killed himself,” Fernan wrote then ombudsman Desierto. In response, Desierto ordered the military ombudsman: Archive the Pestaño case since evidence is patchy. Desierto’s record as ombudsman was so tainted that former senator Lorenzo Tañada refused to even address him directly.
Over 15 years have elapsed since the death of the victim, the UN noted. Authorities have yet to initiate an independent investigation. No suspect was prosecuted, or tried, let alone convicted. This breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Like Desierto, Gutierrez also refused to see Pestaño’s parents. But in August 2007, Gutierrez wrote the UN, saying: the Pestaño slay, indeed, “merited further investigation.” She then did nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
“Well, Gutierrez finally acted on the Pestaño plea: she dismissed it,” then Inquirer columnist now publisher Raul Pangalangan wrote. “To add sting to the injury, she served her dismissal order on Pestaño’s parents the day after they signed the impeachment complaint against her.”
Arrogance wilted into whimpering when, in March 2011, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Gutierrez. She became the second official after President Joseph Estrada to be impaled.
Raps ranged from Gutierrez’s inaction on scams, “delay in investigation of ensign Philip Pestaño’s death,” to losing nine out of every 10 cases she filed. She was trashed for shoving under the rug charges against President Gloria Arroyo and First Gentleman Mike Arroyo in the ZTE broadband scandal.
The Supreme Court dismissed, in February 2011, Gutierrez’s bid to block the impeachment. The House impeached her with 212 votes and 46 against. (There were four abstentions.) Gutierrez bristled at the “flimsy” decision, adding she’s ready to face a Senate trial.
Gutierrez crumbled on April 29 and quit. She personally handed her resignation letter to President Aquino who promptly accepted it.
“We in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi already knew the truth right after news of Pestaño’s murder broke,” recalled Inquirer columnist Noralyn Mustafa. “The Senate and the UN found the truth after their own investigations. But their findings amounted to nothing under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It had to take Conchita Carpio Morales, an appointee of President Aquino, to right something unjust.”
Ramrod-straight Ombudsman Morales made a difference. “Who shall find a valiant woman?” asks the Book of Proverbs. “Far, and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.”
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