IF PEOPLE expect Michael Ray Aquino to tell the truth about the killings of publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and his driver in 2000, they are bound to be disappointed. Extradited from the United States and now in the detention cell of the National Bureau of Investigation, Aquino has not given any indication that he will come clean on the allegations of his complicity in the murders. In a statement read for him by his lawyer, he has denied any knowledge of the killings but in the same breadth, cleared former President Joseph Estrada and Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who have been suspected of having ordered the killings. It looks as if the Philippine government succeeded in having him extradited so that he could lead the investigation further down a blind alley.
It has been a 10-year-old blind alley. Dacer and his driver, Emmanuel Corbito, were abducted in November 2000 in Makati City at the height of the impeachment trial of Estrada. Their charred remains were found in April the following year in a creek in Cavite and identified by forensic experts from dental records and personal items. Estrada has been linked to the murders because he allegedly blamed Dacer for the bad publicity he was getting. Lacson at that time was chief of the Philippine National Police and concurrent head of the now defunct Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF). Estrada headed the task force when he was vice president during the Ramos administration, and Lacson was his deputy.
The PAOCTF has been linked since the start to the Dacer-Corbito killings. In May 2001, the Department of Justice charged 11 policemen with the double murder and witnesses tagged Senior Supt. Teofilo Vina, head of PAOCTF-Visayas, as head of the group that abducted the victims. Vina denied the charge, and in January 2003, he was shot dead in Tanza, Cavite. Also linked to the killings were other PAOCTF operatives, among them Aquino and Senior Supt. Cezar Mancao II. Aquino and Mancao fled the country at the height of the initial investigation. Aquino was arrested for unauthorized possession of US defense documents in 2005. Mancao was extradited in 2009 and filed an affidavit in which he claims to have heard Lacson giving Aquino the order for the killings. Lacson has denied the charge.
While Mancao has given authorities key leads, Aquino, it appears, has no beans to spill. But if he had no knowledge about the murders, then why did he flee to the US? He has characterized his “self-exile,” in which he purportedly sought a career shift as a nurse, as “the most trying and most challenging times of my life.” All of this he apparently suffered and endured because he saw, heard, and knew nothing.
In contrast, Mancao has stood up and held fast to his testimony. He has expressed disappointment over Aquino’s statement. “As the saying goes, ‘Man only sees in part, but God sees the whole thing,’” Mancao said. “I know God knows what happened. I’ll just anchor my strength and faith on him . . .I know that truth will come out in time.”
Estrada and Lacson aren’t gloating about Aquino’s sweeping clearance of them, but the former had already said before the extradition that Aquino’s return “is favorable to me.” The lawmaker who jumped the gun on the law by fleeing in January 2010 days before the DOJ filed murder charges against him has reason to be reassured. Under the new dispensation he has been rehabilitated and his fortunes have been revived. Since his former Senate colleague, President Aquino, came to power, he has come out of hiding, made broadsides at the former administration, which he accuses of trumping up the charges against him in connection with the Dacer-Corbito case, and sidled up back beside his Senate colleagues to earn again the right to be called, “Your Honor.” The example of Lacson (and perhaps Aquino) should show it pays to run from the law and live the fugitive’s life. Certainly in the case of the senator, it pays to be dishonorable.
While the DOJ’s commitment to uncovering the whole truth about the 2000 murders must be supported, the extradition of Aquino and the return to power of Lacson indicate that the case is headed for an even more contentious phase in which strong-arm politics will play a part, as it has done in the past. Because it involves a former president and a sitting senator, the case has seen a tug of war of forces that not only promises a further protracted engagement, but also a polarization and perhaps, a nullification. In short, it may be headed for limbo and stasis, which is the overarching story of the Philippine justice system.
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