A report in the Inquirer last April 15 said: “Nationwide manhunt on for Ecleo.” People with no more than a passing interest in the daily news might be forgiven if they assumed that Ruben Ecleo Jr., the Dinagat Island representative found guilty last week of the murder of his wife 10 years ago, had gone into hiding only recently, perhaps before or right after his conviction, hence the manhunt ordered by the Philippine National Police.
They would be wrong. Ecleo, in fact, has largely been out of sight since 2006, and not because of a decision to become an eccentric recluse or to devote his full attention to his role as the so-called “supreme master” of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), a fanatical and violent religious cult that his family established in Dinagat and which has served as its power base through the years. No, Ecleo dropped out from public view six years ago after he was meted a 31-year sentence by the Sandiganbayan for a separate case of graft and corruption arising from his stint as mayor of the town of San Jose—a conviction that was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court and that carried with it a perpetual bar from holding public office.
But apparently Ecleo, officially a fugitive from the law, did not have to try too hard to be on the run, because no serious effort seemed to have been made by law enforcers to haul him to jail and make him serve his sentence. On the separate charge of parricide for the killing of his wife Alona Bacolod-Ecleo, a nonbailable offense, the court hearing the case also granted him bail of P1 million based on his lawyers’ claim that he was “a walking time bomb who might drop dead anytime” because of a “severe” heart ailment.
That bail was posted in 2002. Ten years later, Ecleo has yet to submit to a heart bypass. Instead, he has lived the charmed, robust life of a man half his age—performing at a rock concert in 2010, for instance, and, more tellingly, enduring the rigors of a political campaign when he ran for—and won as—representative of the lone congressional district of Dinagat. So healthy is Ecleo, and so brazen his defiance of the law, that he even attended the opening session of the House of Representatives and listened to President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address on July 26, 2010.
At this point, it bears reminding ourselves who, or what, Ecleo is. The Regional Trial Court Branch 10 in Cebu found him guilty of strangling his wife in their residence in Sitio Banawa, Barangay Guadalupe, Cebu City, on Jan. 5, 2002. According to witness testimony, Alona’s body was stuffed into a black plastic bag that Ecleo himself and a bodyguard loaded into the trunk of a car. It was found three days later dumped in a ravine.
When charges were filed against Ecleo and four of his men, his mother, then Surigao del Norte Rep. Glenda Ecleo, denied her son’s involvement and refused to turn him over to the police. This necessitated the serving of a warrant of arrest on Ecleo, who then barricaded himself in Dinagat with some 2,000 armed members of his cult. A three-hour gun battle raged, causing the deaths of 16 cult members and a policeman, before Ecleo surrendered.
Under his murder conviction, Ecleo is ordered to pay his wife’s heirs about P25 million in compensatory damages—a hollow, tardy act of restitution, if ever, because Alona’s family members are now gone, having been consigned to similarly horrible fates. As the siege in Dinagat was underway, a lone gunman later identified as a PBMA member massacred Alona’s parents, her brother and sister at their family home in Mandaue City. A neighbor also got caught in the carnage.
Ecleo’s blood-soaked reputation was so feared that no less than six judges inhibited themselves from the case before Judge Soliver Peras brought the proceedings to their just conclusion after 10 years. And so warped is Ecleo’s continuing influence on his acolytes that a PBMA member, Virgie Novicio, was quoted in an Inquirer report as saying that the court decision had only reaffirmed their master’s mission: to sacrifice himself so their organization would be known worldwide. “Our organization would not have been known if this [killing] didn’t happen,” Novicio said.
Jovito Palparan, Joel Reyes—and now Ruben Ecleo. The list of powerful, dangerous men eluding capture and giving Philippine law enforcement the finger is getting longer. The onus is on the Aquino administration to bring them in fast—or it will be seen, rightly, as complicit in their flight.
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