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Cops, military, NBI, US narc in ’90s drug bust

/ 12:26 AM February 11, 2016

In the 1990s I did a magazine investigative series on the bloody encounter at the Magallanes Commercial Center in Makati between National Bureau of Investigation agents and suspected members of a drug syndicate. When the smoke cleared, two military officers and a civilian operative lay dead, shot by NBI agents under retired police general Alfredo Lim (later mayor of Manila), who acted on a tip about a big heroin haul.

It was a shootout like no other. In Pinoyspeak, naghalo ang balat sa tinalupan.

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Killed were Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) deputy commander Col. Rolando de Guzman, 52;  Nolcom intelligence chief Avelino Manguera, 26; and Criminal Investigation Service civilian agent Franco Calanog, 39. A woman from a prominent family was arrested. After the shootout, the NBI team led by former police captain Reynaldo Jaylo recovered 10 kilos of heroin worth about P230 million at that time. Jaylo said the seized dope was being sold by the slain military officers to one Phil Needham, an American drug dealer who fled after the shootout.

Turned out, Needham was a US narcotics agent who, along with other US agents, orchestrated the “drug bust.” According to reports, American agents based in the Philippines had arranged the “controlled delivery” of the heroin using De Guzman as courier. Needham, who was a US Drug Enforcement Administration operative based in Bangkok, and not known to De Guzman, was to pose as the buyer. Needham then tipped off the NBI agents, who acted thinking they were on a real drug bust operation.

That encounter was a big front-page story the next day and several days after. I worked for weeks on the what, where, when, how and, most of all, the why, to come up with a magazine series much later. It was disturbing to learn about the underworld and the operatives involved. For no sooner was the 10-kilo heroin “buy bust” splashed all over the dailies than the story mutated into a complex, intriguing web involving military men, the CIA, the NBI and a woman of high social pedigree. (I interviewed the woman while she was in detention. She is now out of prison.)

Many interviews later (with law enforcers, the accused, lawyers, etc.), and with documents in my hands (some of them once classified), I was able to form a picture and write a story that, I must regrettably say, still happens today. Yes, as in the case of the recent drug raid in Sta. Cruz, Manila, where Lt. Col. Ferdinand Marcelino, a former official of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, was apprehended along with a Chinese national allegedly operating as an interpreter, and several others. When the PDEA closed in, these persons were found in the shabu laboratory that contained huge amounts of drugs. They were promptly handcuffed.

An Inquirer report said Marcelino’s arrest in the raid came as “a total surprise” to his former organization, Undersecretary Arturo Cacdac Jr., PDEA director general, told a news conference at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame. For Marcelino had contributed a lot to the national antidrug campaign during the time of PDEA Director General Dionisio Santiago. Unfortunately, Cacdac said, Marcelino is a suspect because he was present at the shabu lab. A Marine officer with the Philippine Navy, he denied any link to drug syndicates and insisted he was on a “legitimate intelligence operation.” (He is now on the tenth day of a hunger strike.)

The question remains: If he was on a legit intelligence operation, what exactly was the nature of his presence there? Portraying himself as an underdog, he tearfully said the handcuffs were the price of his loving his country so much. He was saying that although he was no longer with the PDEA, he continued his mission and that was the reason he was there. Doing what, we would like to know. PDEA operatives were not immediately buying his explanation. Marcelino was “not in their radar.” Just show us proof—a mission order or whatever—to justify your presence there, PDEA was saying. Marcelino couldn’t seem to produce it. So, what was the PDEA to do? Should Marcelino be simply released on his own say-so? What would that mean when a similar predicament presents itself again?

Marcelino’s full explanation about his presence in the shabu lab when he had no business being there has to be sufficient; otherwise, testimonials from his colleagues about his integrity would not be enough.

We wait for the story to unfold, for the twists and turns to be presented, like the 1990s case of the bloody “buy bust” involving the NBI, military officers and a US narcotics agent that revealed the intricacies of the underworld. But even as I dug deep then, I knew I was scratching only the surface. Reading my series again just now gave me the shivers.

Journalists, like undercover agents, go to places where many people fear to tread. We have only our press cards to show when the going gets rough. Still we take risks. But I would not go into a drug den or laboratory—surreptitiously or not—to get a story unless I had the go-signal of my editor. My trips to rebel lairs and remote places always had my editor’s nod, and included travel insurance from our personnel department.

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Journalists live dangerously, but we always remind ourselves that no story is worth dying for—that is, if we know that the risks are very high. We should never join military convoys in battle areas. Several colleagues had died or were wounded for doing that. Or while covering a rebel camp, we were never on our own. There would be armed men or women ready to pull us away from the line of fire in case a battle erupted. But we could always explain our presence if we survived.

***

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TAGS: Alfredo Lim, Arturo Cacdac Jr., Avelino Manguera, Dionisio Santiago, drug bust, Ferdinand Marcelino, Franco Calanog, National Bureau of Investigation, PDEA, Phil Needham, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Rolando de Guzman, US Drug Enforcement Administration
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