Finally, the law catches up with Ruben Ecleo Jr.
The news of the arrest of former representative Ruben Ecleo Jr., after nine years of hiding, brought to mind a quote from Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The story of Ecleo is a story of political dynasty and its impunity to break our laws, buy our judiciary, kill and defy authority, mixed with the blind loyalty of a religious sect led to believe in the divinity of their head. But it is also a story of the people on the ground working together, slowly but surely, to break the dynasty and, with dogged police work, finally succeeding after nine years.
Dinagat Island(s) was, until 2006, a municipality of Surigao del Norte, population 107,000 (as of 2000). The Ecleo family has dominated the island since 1963, when at 29, Ruben Sr. won the mayoralty, which he kept until he died in 1987. He founded the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association Inc., (PBMA) in 1965, and was called “Divine Master.” Ruben Jr. succeeded him. As of 2002, the cult claimed more than 3 million members.
2002 was also the year when Ruben Jr. burst into the public’s consciousness. In January, the body of his wife (Alona Bacolod), wrapped in garbage bag, was found in a ravine in Cebu. Ruben Jr. was the principal suspect (he never reported his wife’s disappearance or claimed her body, and did not attend the funeral). He was arrested in Dinagat, after a firefight that resulted in the deaths of one policeman and 18 members of the PBMA.
While he was in jail, the killings continued. Alona’s parents, two siblings, and a hapless neighbor were shot dead by a PBMA member in June 2002. Arbet Sta. Ana Yongco, who headed the private prosecutors handling the parricide case, was also shot dead, leaving behind three children 10 and under. Her killer was identified as a PBMA member, but was never convicted, as he died in jail. That’s a total of 25 deaths on Ecleo Jr.’s hands.
Ecleo was also apparently given special treatment in jail; he was reportedly found by Cebu media in a special cell, in bed with his girlfriend.
To top it all, he was granted bail, reportedly on “humanitarian grounds”! After that, another PBMA member owned up to the killing of Alona and was convicted summarily in May 2004. The funny thing is that this killer claimed that the mastermind was Alona’s own brother, a claim that could not be validated because that brother had conveniently been killed with his parents two years before. Yet the judge accepted it without question.
It gets more mysterious. The judge (Ildefonso Suerte) who accepted the confession—and thus freed Ruben Ecleo Jr.—handed down his decision on May 7, 2004. But an administrative order signed by then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. had relieved him of his judicial duties in March 2004.
In spite of all these controversies revolving around Ruben Jr., the Dinagat municipality was declared by Congress a province in 2006. What money can buy. I think all the Ecleos (eight siblings) have taken turns being mayor of its seven municipalities, and congressmen, and governor. The poverty incidence there is 73 percent, and yet it has a castle at the top.
To top the previous top, Ruben Ecleo Jr. was elected congressman in 2010 in spite of the fact that the Sandiganbayan had convicted him on three counts of graft sometime in 2006-2008. It was only in 2011 that he disappeared. He was convicted of parricide in 2012, and finally dropped from the rolls of the House.
So when did the arc of the moral universe start to bend toward justice? It started with Kaka Bag-ao of the Akbayan party list, who was appointed by Speaker Sonny Belmonte as caretaker of Dinagat, taking Ecleo Jr.’s vacant seat. In 2013, she defeated an Ecleo (with the help of another Ecleo) to represent the lone district of Dumagat. She served until 2019, when she ran for governor and defeated another Ecleo (unaided) for the post. Dynasties can be broken, but only ever so slowly and painfully, without an anti-dynasty law.
Finally, the police, who have been hunting for Ecleo Jr. since 2011, got a tip four or six years ago that he was in Metro Manila, and traced him to San Fernando. That’s really slow. But it happened. That’s what counts.
Moral: Only we can bend that arc. It doesn’t happen by itself.
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