Government News Analysis

De Lima – a damning case is building

The case against Philippine Senator and Human Rights Watch attack dog, Leila De Lima, concerning her alleged involvement in the illegal drugs business, is building quickly. Her reputation as a Department of Justice (DOJ) secretary,

The case against Philippine Senator and Human Rights Watch attack dog, Leila de Lima, concerning her alleged involvement in the illegal drugs business, is building quickly. Her reputation as a Department of Justice (DOJ) secretary, has also become increasingly tarnished. From sworn testimonies given by a number of witnesses including inmates of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the country’s largest penitentiary and home to some of the country’s most notorious drug bosses is starting to look less like a jail and more like the election-funding nerve centre of De Lima’s Senate campaign, the corporate headquarters of Philippine Narcotics Inc. and a Philippine franchise of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Despite De Lima’s protests that the witnesses had been tortured to give their accounts, the NBP inmates seemed relaxed – tucking into potato chips and playing with their cell phones – as they waited to deliver their testimonies and answer questions in the House of Representative. And what they revealed was nothing short of stunning. Even by Philippine scandal standards, this is off the scale.

Now we learn that the Anti-Money Laundering Council has presented the DOJ with documents to show illegal drug transactions of between PHP500 million and PHP1 billion that may well have ended up in De Lima’s bank accounts.

This revelation and the evidence given at the House hearings looks very damning and the Liberal Party, of which De Lima is a leading light, needs to make a decision very quickly on how it is going to deal with this. A scandal of these proportions threatens to bring down the entire party; they need to cut her loose or they will be seen to be guilty by association. Which other Liberal Party campaigns were funded out of drug money? Who else in the Liberal Party (LP) was complicit in this?

The questions will queue up, and not just in the official arenas, but in homes across the country. Damage control is going to be extremely challenging to put it mildly. And then there’s that other potential Liberal Party scandal looming; the alleged rigging of the Vice Presidential elections that put the LP candidate in the VP seat.

As far as Human Rights Watch is concerned, if De Lima is found guilty of using drug money to secure a seat in the Philippine Senate, what would that really say about her human rights credentials? And what would it say about Human Rights Watch’s own integrity, that they would use as their mouthpiece someone who has attained high political status with money earned from helpless addicts?

Now, back to the House hearings.

Caesar’s Palace Bilibid. A better name for the prison would be New Bilibid Entertainment & Resort. Here, concerts were staged for which “truckloads of beer” were delivered;  high-price call girls were also waggoned in; cells were converted into ‘no-tell-motel’ rooms; concert acts included top-line performers Freddie Aguilar, Sharon Cuneta, the Mocha girls, and Ethel Booba. There was no secret about any of this; the concerts – and they were staged regularly – were promoted; cash from ticket sales, booze and hostesses ran into millions. What’s more, they were held at a venue in the maximum-security unit! You gotta wonder what was going on in those parts of the prison where security was not so keen.

Convicted drug dealer, Herbert Colanggo, said his living quarters resembled a suite at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel. If that’s prison life, what are the rest of us doing out here? And all this, when De Lima was running the Justice Department. Under her stewardship, NBP became fondly known as “Little Las Vegas” – a transformation which was facilitated by cash for favours.

Philippine Narcotics Inc. According to Rafael Ragos, a former De Lima subordinate in the National Bureau of Investigation, NBP was regarded as the “drug-trade centre of the Philippines”. VIP resort guests – including drug barons visiting courtesy of the Philippine courts from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan – continued their operations unhindered. Shabu (crystal meth) for domestic consumption by other guests at New Bilibid Entertainment & Resort, was supplied by them. They had that contract sewn up.

Executives of Philippine Narcotics Inc. conducted external trade via their sales teams across the three island regions of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Phone orders, received by the drug companies inside the prison, were relayed to their field agents who would execute the transactions. Some 80% of New Bilibid Entertainment & Resort guests had cell phones, according to Ragos. Recent investigations by the DOJ, which used the Anti-Money Laundering Act to access bank records of New Bilibid’s drug barons, revealed that drug profits made from the prison-based operations ran into billions of pesos.

The NBP De Lima Senate Campaign Fund.  Ragos told the hearing that a payment of PHP5 million – made in 2012 under the codename “limang manok” (five chickens) – had been delivered to De Lima’s home in an upscale area of Parañaque in Metro Manila.

Colanggo said that he and other inmates delivered million of pesos to De Lima or her staff. He told the hearing that in all he had handed over PHP60 million – 60 chickens, presumably, in their money – to her, with regular monthly payments of three chickens (PHP3 million) and a chicken (PHP1 million) “per concert”, via her security aide, Jonel Sanchez. He added that on one occasion the “bagman” had let him speak to De Lima by phone. He needed to know if she’d received all the chickens. He said that De Lima reassured him that all was “OK” and thanked him.

Another witness, convicted kidnapper and one-time Philippine National Police inspector, Rodolfo Magleo, told the hearing that contact had been made with him in mid 2011 by De Lima’s chauffeur and suspected lover, Ronnie Dayan.

According to Mageo – an inmate leader, a ranking position within the prison hierarchy – he and a ‘co-fundraiser’, another inmate leader, were given a weekly target by Dayan of PHP50,000. Phone numbers were exchanged, “We always got texts [from Dayan] saying ‘we need your support … We need your help for expenses in DOJ,’” said Mageo. However, when they failed to meet their quota they were demoted. “We were then removed from our position as inmate leaders”.

But those amounts were – if you’ll excuse the expression – chicken-feed, compared to what was being pulled out of the facility for De Lima and for payments to Bureau of Corrections’ officials, according to Mageo. The big bankroller of De Lima’s Senate campaign, he claimed, was New Billibid’s leading drug lord, its most powerful gang boss and concert impresario, Jaybee Sebastian (JB), who instructed his underlings across the prison to deliver monthly cash transfers for payoffs and campaign contributions, which ran into millions of pesos.

It also seems that JB and DL might have had other business to conduct during the latter’s visits to New Bilibid Entertainment & Resort. Apparently, according to Mageo, the then Justice Secretary would spend two to three hours alone with JB in his private condominium while her bodyguards remained outside. “For me, it’s something abnormal, and I could sense something,” said Mageo. What on earth would make him think that? A man and a woman in private seclusion in the heart of no-tell-motel accommodation on sultry afternoons with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ message at the door; witness Mageo obviously has a vivid imagination. For her part, De Lima fondly refers to JB as her “asset” – um-er …

During the hearings, De Lima’s cell-phone number and residential address were made public as part of the evidence, resulting in a bombardment of “text messages … and phone calls from unknown persons, threatening me, harassing me, calling me the vilest of names,” the embattled senator claimed later. Good heavens! Communications from disgruntled members of the Philippine electorate. Surely, Leila Norma Eulalia Josefa Magistrado De Lima shouldn’t have to answer to them.

But humility, it would seem, is not one of her most endearing qualities. And, of course, she denies everything. Nothing happened. Nothing that is apart from the merciless torture of the potato-crisp eating witnesses, apparently. That’s her story and you can take it from The Volatilian™, she’s going to stick to it for as long as she can.

She rejects the House hearings as a “blatant exercise in harassment and persecution.” Now that’s really rich. What exactly was she indulging in as chairman of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights just a couple of days ago, to which she introduced the flimsiest of witnesses to defame Philippine President and arch political foe, Rodrigo Duterte?  A blatant exercise in harassment and persecution, perhaps? Well, that’s certainly how it came across.

When asked by the Inquirer news organisation to comment on the latest Anti-Money Laundering Council’s revelations, she seemed uncharacteristically less self-assured. “As far as I know, there’s nothing there that would establish my alleged drug links,” she said in a text message. As far as she knows? She’s not exactly certain? She can’t fully recall if there’s a billion pesos in her accounts that was transferred there by drug associates?

De Lima subscribes to the theory that attack is the best form of defence; so when Duterte intimated some weeks back that he had proof of her being a recipient of drug money, she decided that her best option would be to go after him. But, for Mz De Lima, that may turn out to be a gamble too far. This could well be a case of fact being much stranger than fiction. But this is far bigger than the possible exposure of a corrupt former government official – in the Philippines, that’s not exactly a rare occurrence. This has the potential of completely destroying an entire political party. Even it’s most ardent supporters would have problems justifying something on this scale.

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