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Editorial

Recovering lost ground

/ 01:36 AM November 15, 2014

The National Bureau of Investigation marks its 78th anniversary this week, if not with uniformly glowing marks, then at least a number of commendable high-profile successes to its name.

It was the civilian NBI that was instrumental in capturing fugitive retired general Jovito Palparan in August. It finally cornered him in his hideout in a Sta. Mesa neighborhood, after his long flight from the law had all but convinced the public that powerful factions in the military sympathetic to his ruthless anti-Left campaign were sheltering the man dubbed “The Butcher.”

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About a month after Palparan’s capture, the NBI foiled an attempt by an obscure fringe group to plant explosive devices in three heavily populated places—Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Mall of Asia, and the main office of the construction firm DM Consunji in Makati City. The leader of the comically named USA Freedom Fighters of the East, lawyer Ely Pamatong, said his group wanted to “stop Chinese economic domination of the Philippines, and dismemberment of the Philippines.” For their loony but dangerous acts, Pamatong and his
cohorts were arrested and haled to court.

Last year, the NBI was at the center of the biggest political controversy to hit the country in recent history. After an exhaustive investigation, it led the filing of charges of plunder, bribery, malversation of funds, and graft and corrupt practices against three sitting senators—Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla—along with businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles and 34 others, for the pork barrel scam, the repercussions of which have hit the Philippine political system like a seismic wave. As the Inquirer has reported, the avalanche of revelations that a cabal of government personnel and well-connected civilians funneled billions of pesos of pork barrel appropriations into dubious third-party agencies and then into the pockets of politicians and their enablers resulted in the unprecedented sight of three powerful senators clapped in jail, and the Priority Development Assistance Fund itself eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

As the products of hard work, tenacity and focus—and in the face of undoubted pressure from influential quarters that the NBI must have endured to ease up or look the other way in pursuing the likes of Palparan, or the Enrile-Estrada-Revilla triumvirate—these achievements cannot be sneezed at. The NBI deserves commendation when it does its work well, and these cases show that it can rise to the occasion and fulfill its mandate.

Its record, however, remains mixed in the public mind, chiefly because the bureau has also landed on the bad side of the news on many occasions. Its unique position in the government as a sprawling agency for justice and law enforcement set apart from the police force, with a contingent of crack detectives, lawyers, accountants and the like tasked to pursue major and consequential criminal investigations, has also led to chronic charges of corruption, ineptness and inefficiency, typified most visibly in the public mind in the labyrinthine process that ordinary citizens have to go through just to get an NBI clearance.

In the Napoles case, for instance, reports said it was two ranking NBI officials themselves who had tipped off the businesswoman and her brother about the impending issuance of warrants for their arrest (she later turned herself in; he remains at large). President Aquino publicly lamented that the NBI had in its roster “less than trustworthy” officials—a stinging appraisal that drove its then director, Nonnatus Rojas, to do the honorable thing:  resign.

And in January 2012, the President ordered the dismissal of the then NBI director, Magtanggol Gatdula, after he was implicated in kidnapping and extortion charges involving a Japanese woman, along with a number of other bureau officials.

But if its recent track record is any indication, the NBI under the new director, Virgilio L. Mendez, appears to be trying to recover lost ground, to become again an agency trusted by the public to pursue high-profile malefactors and criminal syndicates. For that job to be not only efficient but also thorough, much remains to be done. The hydra-headed pork barrel case, for one, awaits many more indictments, including the allies of the administration. Mendez and his agency must know: The people are keenly watching.

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