‘What happened to the Marcos millions?’
The above is the title of a carefully researched article by Nick Davies. The Guardian, a British newspaper, ran the article in May, two days before the Philippine elections that saw then Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. seeking the vice presidency. Davies interviewed a lot of people, read all reports, looked at the customs record detailing what the Marcos family carried with it to Hawaii and examined the records of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).
Here are some of his findings. The Marcoses fled to Hawaii, compliments of the United States, which flew the family to Hawaii on a C-141 transport plane loaded with possessions amassed during the period when Marcos was the strongman of the Philippines.
The official customs record, we are told, ran to 23 pages. The contents listed 12 suitcases, bags and various boxes containing enough clothes to fill 67 racks; 413 pieces of jewelry, including 70 pairs of jewel-studded cuff links and an ivory statue of the infant Jesus with a silver mantle and a diamond necklace; 24 gold bricks inscribed “To my husband, on our 24th anniversary”; and more than P27 million in freshly printed notes with a total value of $15 million.
Now, why should the United States rescue a man like Ferdinand Marcos who defrauded his people? In fact, the PCGG calls it the biggest theft in history. People may ask, “Why indeed did the US help Marcos?” Well, my friends, in foreign relationships, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
US ‘son of a bitch’
Marcos was the United States’ “son of a bitch.” The United States kept mum and did not do a thing while Marcos was running the country during martial law and ruining its economy.
In the beginning, Marcos was just doing small-time theft. Thanks to some backers and the Central Intelligence Agency, he got cash and won a seat in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He did influence-peddling, selling his favors for just 10 percent.
Not for long. By March 1968, Marcos and Imelda deposited $950,000 in four accounts with Credit Suisse using false names—Marcos as William Saunders and Imelda as Jane Ryan. Later, the two transferred the money to a foundation registered in Liechtenstein.
Amassing money seemed to have turned Marcos’ head. So he declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972. The rest is history. He exercised absolute power. Any sign of opposition was dangerous. It meant incarceration or death. He shut down Congress. He arrested and imprisoned his opponents. He took control of the media and courts, and suspended civil rights.
In his diary, he wrote: “The legitimate use of force on chosen targets is the incontestable secret of the reform movement.” During his term of office, which then had no foreseeable end, an estimated 34,000 trade unionists, student leaders, writers and politicians were tortured with electric shock, heated irons and rape. Some 3,200 men and women were killed and dumped where they could be seen by the public. A total of 398 people just disappeared.
The idea of power and wealth turned Marcos’ head. He stole even whole companies, like Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), using what Davies describes as “the tactics of a gangster.” The owner of Meralco handed over control of the company to Marcos. He had no choice, even as to the selling price of the company. Marcos paid him only $220. It was worth $400 million!
Davies describes Marcos’ tactics so well. He said: “To have gunmen is a gangster’s requirement. To have gunmen in uniforms, with all the power of the state behind them, is a gangster’s dream.”
Armed with the power of a tyrant, he took over companies and controlled the sugar industry. He bought from farmers at rock-bottom prices and sold for a considerable profit.
There was no stopping him. He made coconut farmers give part of the money earned from their harvest to one of his dummies—a crony. Yes, this was the time of crony capitalism. He was indeed clever, masking evidence that he was behind the theft. He set up his own companies but not in his name.
Power had made him mad, like the Roman emperor Nero. He stole what should belong to the people. He skimmed from the Japanese War Reparations. He stole international aid money, gold from the Central Bank, loans from international banks and military aid. He seemed to have lost his bearings at the prospect of power and money.
From the likes of it, Marcos raided the Philippine Treasury. Where else would he get the money? It seems what he brought with him was only a small part of the Marcos’ wealth. He had offshore accounts in several places where he hid the money, like the account in daughter Imee’s name as revealed in the Panama Papers, the big exposé on off-shore accounts of some world leaders.
There was more. Marcos acquired “multiple houses for the extended family, a $5.5-million yacht, private planes and helicopters, and dozens of Mercedes-Benz.” When daughter Irene was married in 1983, a new runway and hotel were built, a 200-year-old church was renovated, and nearby houses were demolished and rebuilt in traditional style. Carriage from Austria and horses from Morocco were ordered. Such unbelievable expense!
The PCGG, which is tasked with investigating the Marcos wealth and “shenanigans,” is driven by anger each day as its uncovers more theft by Marcos. One financial aide gave details of five Swiss bank accounts. Unfortunately, the Swiss bank refused to turn them over to the Philippine government but the PCGG was able to convince the court to freeze it.
The PCGG knew about some valuable paintings and antiques that Imelda had acquired. But they were not in the Palace. They knew about the Madonna and Child of Michelangelo, the Marquesa de Santa Cruz by Goya, a couple of Monets, a Pissarro and Manet. Papers found in various homes revealed that the Marcos family had bought at least 304 valuable paintings.
Where they are, nobody knows at present. These paintings belong to the Filipino people as they were no doubt bought with the Filipino people’s money.
What should be of interest to many is the story of a young civil servant named Chito Roque. According to him, on the night Marcos fled the country, he went with the crowd to Malacañang. With his boss, he entered the Palace and went to the Marcos family’s private quarters. There were signs of hasty departure: food still warm on the table, empty boxes and papers scattered about, shredding machine stuffed with paper.
He opened a safe as the combination number was on the door. Inside, he found records of bank accounts in Switzerland and Canada, certificate of shares and some letters signed by Marcos. These papers are now with the PCGG.
There were more documents that were found in the Palace attesting to Marcos’ ownership of 50 or so properties that Marcos and his allies owned in the Philippines as well as homes and offices in the United States. More papers have been added to the PCGG files as the office continues its work in tracing more papers attributed to Marcos and his activities.
The report on how Marcos stole without any conscience (did he have any at all?) would break your heart for the money belonged to the people. He went crazy as he kept busy amassing wealth.
What constitutes an unforgivable crime is that he decreed that impoverished coconut farmers must pay a levy purportedly to improve the industry. He stole from this coco levy fund amounting to $216 million, which came from the blood, sweat and tears of coco farmers.
As he stole money right and left, Marcos faced the problem of how to handle all the money flowing into his coffers. He found a solution: He set up banks that would handle the money flowing in. He asked his cronies to buy private banks and control the state banks. This way he could access more money and access foreign currency. Indeed, Marcos was getting so wealthy by the day. And he was very clever making sure his wealth was safe.
The PCGG gathered more information about how Marcos was handling the money he was stealing, as there was no stopping him. A former manager of the New York branch of the Philippine National Bank revealed that he created accounts for two fictitious companies to conceal the Marcos millions. As to the paintings, they seemed to have ended in the hands of a Saudi arms dealer named Adnan Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was arrested in Switzerland and extradited to New York to be indicted together with Marcos, Imelda and others under the antiracketeering law. Unfortunately, Marcos died in September 1989 before the trial began. Besides, the White House was putting pressure on the prosecutors to put on the brakes because of the embarrassment it would cause the five US presidents who turned a blind eye to what Marcos was doing during the martial law years.
In July 1990, the court declared all defendants “not guilty” on all counts. So the Marcoses got away unscathed. Marcos knew how to win foreign government to his side. Some foreign governments ignored what Marcos was doing as they were getting contributions from the strongman. So why ask where the money came from? Marcos gave bribes to win approval.
Partners in theft
The PCGG felt frustrated with the United States for never handing over all the papers seized from Marcos. Some papers were blank. Some inventory pages were also blank, like transactions involving US organizations. The PCGG believes that the United States removed the information on transactions with US organizations, which were partners in theft.
Having so much power, Marcos did not brook any opposition. In 1981, two union activists who campaigned against Marcos in Seattle were murdered. A jury found out that the Marcoses were implicated. The jury ordered them to pay $15.1 million in compensation to the victims’ families. The money has not been paid.
In Hawaii, a court found that Marcos was guilty of abusing the human rights of thousands who have been tortured and killed. The court ordered Marcos to pay nearly $2 billion in compensation to be drawn from his estate. Only less than 1 percent has been paid.
When Imelda returned to Manila in September 1993, she was sentenced to 18 years in prison for defrauding the state in a land deal during Marcos’ presidency. She filed an appeal. Later, for some reason, the Supreme Court threw out her conviction on technical grounds.
The work of the PCGG is not easy. For whatever motive, the Aquino administration ordered the PCGG to seize nothing but work through the courts. Their work is hampered as the Marcoses have the money to hire the best lawyers. What is discouraging to the PCGG is the fact that Marcos’ allies in the US intelligence knew that Marcos had stolen up to $10 billion but refused to disclose what they knew.
Same with the Japanese government, saying it was not going to reveal information. To do so would jeopardize its aid package. It would seem that foreign governments knew what Marcos was doing but turned a blind eye to what was going on because their companies were thriving in the Philippines, encouraged by Marcos’ generosity. Marcos gave bribes to politicians here and abroad, even contributing to the election campaigns of two US presidents—Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
When this fact was revealed in 1986, both politicians claimed they had no knowledge of where the money came from. The US government refused to hand over papers seized from Marcos. That makes them complicit, from my point of view.
So far the PCGG has recovered $3.7 billion, which is less than half of the estimate of what Marcos took. What is disappointing to the PCGG is to see Marcos associates live so well seemingly without a care in the world. There are many more cases the PCGG is handling. The wheels of justice grind very slowly, according to the former head of the PCGG, Richard Amurao, who impressed Davies, the journalist, as a decent man.
Amurao, a lawyer who recently stepped down as PCGG chair, said that a single piece of Imelda’s jewelry could pay for 2,000 young Filipinos to go through college. Deep in the vault of the Central Bank, according to Amurao, is a large collection of Imelda’s jewelry, which is due to be auctioned soon.
Christie’s, the auction house, estimates Imelda’s jewelry to be more than $4 million. The collection includes the tiara with 25 pearls in a diamond frame seized from the Russian tsar’s family during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The people at PCGG coined a word to describe anyone who is extravagantly wealthy: IMELDIFIC.
Helen N. Mendoza, Ph.D., is a retired University of the Philippines professor, who studied in the United States, Norway, Germany and England.
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