February 2007
Local Bosses

Luck and the governor

JUETENG LORD NO MORE? Batangas Governor Armando Sanchez is believed to be a major jueteng operator in his province as far back as 2001. Other people are reportedly now running the game in the province but who are nonetheless using Sanchez’s name.

WHETHER OR not he is or once was a jueteng lord as many people seem to be believe, it can at least be said that Batangas Governor Armando Sanchez has been enjoying the luck of the draw for the past few years. In 2001, he was elected mayor of Sto. Tomas town, which leaped from being a fifth-class municipality to first-class during his term. In 2004, he emerged winner in a field of seven candidates for governor, despite the fact that he was a relative unknown who was up against big-name and more experienced politicos. In 2006, he narrowly escaped death (although two of his aides were killed) when a planted bomb blew up his Humvee, which he was riding at the time.

It did look like he was finally running out of luck last month, when he was among the local officials ordered suspended by the Ombudsman in connection with complaints filed against them. But at the last minute, Sanchez was able to secure a temporary restraining order and he was able to keep his seat at the capitol.

This May, the 52-year-old Sanchez is up for reelection. If his lucky streak holds, then he may be in the capitol of the country’s coffee-and-beach capital for another three years. If it doesn’t, say his detractors, then that may mean it’s now the turn of the province itself to enjoy some good fortune.

When Sanchez heard that he had been granted a TRO last Jan. 16, his eyes had welled up with tears as he thanked the people who helped him barricade the gates leading to the provincial hall. He then walked around the premises toting a Sto. Niño statue, a contrite look on his face.

But his sporting such a look and his cuddling of an image of the Christ Child may not be enough for one of his harshest critics, who just happens to be the Archbishhop of Lipa, Ramon Arguelles. Earlier, the church leader had even made it clear that it would take more than Sanchez heeding the Ombudsman’s order to step down temporarily for him to see the governor in a new light.

“Only if he confesses to the people and to me will he be forgiven,” the archbishop said. “That is, if he wants redemption or if he still believes in God.”

“The worst crime that Armando Sanchez committed in Batangas is his being a governor,” he also said. “He created that black spot in the history of Batangas when there wasn’t any achievement that could have helped the people. All that darkest time in the history of Batangas could speak of was the heightened criminality and violence. I hope he realizes that if he lives by the sword, he will die by the sword. “

For sure, these are rather severe words for someone whose only supposed crimes three years ago were confined to his being an alleged jueteng lord and a confirmed bad dresser. But then the Philippine National Police (PNP) itself has said that in the first half of 2006, Batangas racked up the most murders in Calabarzon, which includes Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Quezon provinces. In just six months, said a Philippine Daily Inquirer report quoting the PNP, Batangas had 103 murders, most of them resulting from “heated arguments.”

Location map of Batangas courtesy of Wikipedia

THE POLICE themselves told the Inquirer that the famed ego of the Batangueño may be to blame for much of the bloodletting. Batangas, after all, is the land of the barako, the man’s man who will not let pass the littlest slight without a fight. (See Barako sidebar)

Still, as chief executive of the province, Sanchez could probably be faulted for being unable to keep the peace in Batangas, where just a week or so ago off-duty policemen menaced at gunpoint Philippine Tourism Authority chief Robert Dean Barbers and his family, who were on their way to a beach resort. The governor’s critics, however, have also noted that some of those who have somehow crossed him personally have wound up as corpses.

These include Rolando Meer, who was town council secretary of Sto. Tomas during Sanchez’s term as its mayor. (Sanchez’s wife Edna is now its mayor.) Sometime in 2001, Meer charged Sanchez and two others with abuse of authority at the Office of the Ombudsman. In September 2002, Meer was back at the Ombudsman, this time charging Sanchez and three other people with technical malversation, misconduct, and abuse of authority. Six months later, Meer was dead, courtesy of a gunman riding a motorcycle.

On August 5, 2004, two months after Sanchez took his oath as governor, Dyaryo Veritas columnist and DZRH correspondent Arnel Manalo was shot dead in Bauan town. That was a month after Manalo’s column in Dyaryo Veritas, a local newspaper, published his stories that told of how the capitol was being run like martial law by Sanchez, and which depicted the governor as the berdugo (killer) at the capitol. In fairness, though, Manalo was said to have other enemies, since he was a member of the As-is barangay council.

On May 30, 2005 Batangas ombudsman and graft investigator Guillermo Gamo was gunned down in Batangas City on his way to the capitol. At the time, Gamo was investigating what he described as multimillion-peso anomalous deals and projects at the capitol. In fact, he was supposed to meet with this writer on May 31, 2005 to discuss what he had found out. But whatever he was to have divulged went with him to the grave. His briefcase, which contained all the pertinent documents about his investigation, went missing at the crime scene and has yet to surface.

Members of the police task force formed to investigate his death told this writer that a staunch Sanchez supporter, who they said was behind the ombudsman’s car when he was shot, had pointed out the target to the gunman. They also identified the gunman, who they said belonged to an organized-crime syndicate. Officially, however, the task force will go only as far as saying that it has yet to find credible witnesses and that the investigation is ongoing.

Batangas Provincial Police Officer SPO3 Jaime Mendoza does say that Task Force Gamo had been pursuing “two possible angles” to Gamo’s killing, both involving revenge for the government official’s investigations. One, he says, was about alleged corruption at a provincial hospital while the other was supposed to involve a barangay captain. But the task force, he says, seems to be at a standstill these days. Asked whether they had pursued the angle regarding involvement of the capitol, Mendoza says, “We did hear of something like that, but that was all hearsay, that’s why we didn’t pursue it.” (See Dead and Buried sidebar)

THE GOVERNOR has denied any involvement in Gamo’s murder not just once or twice, but many times. He has probably denied as often (maybe even more) the allegation that he is a major operator of jueteng, the illegal numbers game. But the jueteng-lord tag has haunted him for years now, and it antedates all the other allegations that have been hurled against him, such as those accusing him of graft, corruption, and yes, masterminding murders.

Practically every Batangueño has heard talk about Sanchez being a big jueteng operator. And while many of them are also quick to point out that no one has yet presented proof that he is or was one, many of them also say that was about the only thing they knew about him when he ran for governor in 2004 (he had vied for the post earlier, in 1995, but lost). Which is why there are those who say they were surprised when he won.

“I didn’t vote for him in 2004 because of the talk he had jueteng links,” says one retiree who has lived and worked in Batangas for decades. “I don’t think that has been proven yet, but that is what we knew and know about him.”

“We thought (former Justice Secretary Hernando) Perez had a good chance because he was close to the president,” says another Batangueño, who also says all he knew about Sanchez was that he allegedly had jueteng links. “But I guess Sanchez also had the backing of the president.”

Perez ran as the administration’s candidate. But Sanchez ran under the Liberal Party, which was then allied with the ruling coalition.

SUSPENDED. Gov. Sanchez earned a suspension order from the Ombudsman for the P350-million computerization project won by Automatic Data Processing Technologies (ADPT) and Generation E-Systems, both of which are believed to be owned by him.

It was actually opposition bet and former Nasugbu mayor Rosario ‘Charito’ Apacible who was the race’s early frontrunner, garnering a lead of 50,000 votes over Sanchez three days after the May 10 polls. At the time, only the election results from the towns of Rosario and Padre Garcia, as well as Batangas City, were still to be counted. When Sanchez was declared winner on May 15, 2004, beating her by 35,000 votes, Apacible thought she smelled something foul. She filed an election protest, but she has since withdrawn it.

About a year after the elections, Konseho ng Mamamayan Laban sa Jueteng at mga Ilegal na Pasugalan (Komalaban), a nongovernmental organization that wants to wipe out jueteng and other illegal gambling operations, urged Congress to investigate the game’s operations in Batangas, saying that the province’s top officials, including the governor, were involved.

Provincial Administrator Ronaldo Geron shot back that Komalaban was probably working for the government-owned Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), which is the only entity allowed to run gambling operations in the Philippines. But he also remembered to deny that Sanchez had anything to do with jueteng. Geron said the governor was even able to stop the jueteng operation in Bauan town. Geron challenged Komalaban to check every town, saying that if it did so, it would find that jueteng had been stopped.

A month later, Sanchez was summoned to the Senate, which was then conducting an inquiry into jueteng. Sanchez was unable to show up because, he said, he was scheduled to be in Japan for business during the inquiry. He thus failed to hear his name mentioned 11 times by witnesses at the inquiry, all of whom claimed he was a jueteng lord. But in a September 2005 Newsbreak article, Sanchez again denied having anything to do with jueteng, which he said was actually being controlled by the mayors.

Komalaban says that in 2005, the total jueteng bets in Batangas averaged P70,000 to P150,000 a day. Minus the 35-percent regular “payroll” for some police officers and media practitioners, whoever the jueteng lord is could rake in between P2.5 million or P7.9 million a month, the group says.

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who is known for his nationwide anti-jueteng crusade, says that up to 2005 to 2006, reports from Batangas “point to Governor Sanchez as the jueteng operator (there). But even before then, reports pointing to Sanchez go as far back as 2001.”

He says he has no knowledge about the years prior to 2001. He adds, however, “From 2006 to 2007, it is said that Governor Sanchez is no (longer) the jueteng operator in Batangas. (But) reports say there are other persons who are allegedly operating in his name. We don’t know if he knows this or not. They said he allows them to operate, that he gives them the go-signal.” This means, he says, Sanchez may “not (be) operating as directly as before.”

THE PCIJ contacted the office of the Batangas governor to get his take on this supposedly new jueteng setup, as well as on other matters. Provincial administrator Geron said the governor would reply to the questions the PCIJ faxed to Sanchez’s office. As this was being readied for publication, however, the replies had yet to arrive.

If the talks about Sanchez and jueteng refuse to die down, though, it may be partly because while Batangueños know their governor is a rather wealthy man, they do not really know where that wealth came from.

Sanchez, a mechanical engineering graduate, reportedly began several businesses soon after he came back from a working stint in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, among them a travel agency, a security agency, and construction companies. In his 2004 Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SAL), he listed his net worth as P82.9 million. But he did not list any business interests.

His 2005 SAL shows him poorer by about P750,000, with a net worth of P82.14. This time around, he did list one business interest: Galaxy Cable Corporation.

Yet there are those who say that the governor has other businesses — only that these are not under his name. The P350-million computerization project that earned Sanchez a suspension order from the Ombudsman, for instance, was won by Automatic Data Processing Technologies (ADPT) and Generation E-Systems, both of which are believed by many people to be owned by the governor.

On paper, ADPT’s biggest shareholder is Geraldine Enriquez; for Gen-E, it is Marigrace Murillo. Sanchez is not mentioned anywhere in the corporate documents.

Both Enriquez and Murillo, however, are Sanchez’s nieces. Thus, while Sanchez may not appear as the companies’ owner, they are still barred from entering into any contract with the government because the Government Procurement Reform Act (Republic Act 9184) forbids relatives of government officials from doing such. Moreover, ADPT and Gen-E won the project allegedly without the bidding required by law.

These irregularities prompted Vice Governor Richard ‘Ricky’ Recto to file graft and corruption charges against Sanchez at the Office of the Ombudsman in September 2005. (A year later, it was the governor’s turn to accuse Recto, whom he says was behind the bombing of his Humvee, and who should therefore face charges of murder and frustrated murder.)

It took 18 months for the Ombudsman to issue a suspension order for Sanchez. In the end, the Department of the Interior and Local Government was unable to implement it because Sanchez barricaded himself inside the capitol and waited for Lady Luck to rescue him in the form of a TRO.

THEN AGAIN, Sanchez may have just been too attached to the capitol to let go easily. Beautifying the 23-hectare capitol was one of his pet projects, and it is what many Batangueños point to when asked if there is any one thing they can say to be their governor’s achievement.

‘MONUMENTAL’ FEAT. When asked if there is any one thing they can consider as their governor’s achievement, Batangueños point to the refurbished provincial capitol.

“I like it, now the capitol looks presentable,” says a 32-year-old businesswoman of the project that Sanchez at first said had a P500-million price but then later said that it could not have cost that much.

Even the retiree who says he will still not vote for Sanchez this May because of persistent jueteng talks marvels at the capitol’s transformation: “Napakaganda nga naman kasi, batbat ng ilaw! Bakod na bakod pa lang ay napakaganda na. (It really is beautiful, it’s studded with lights! Even the perimeter walls surrounding it are already beautiful.)”

Like other Batangueños, however, the retiree has also heard that money was made illegally on the project, and that the dirty money trail could go straight up to the governor. Says another local in his 60s: “The general impression of the public is, if there’s a contract, there must be some kickback. But for me, that’s rather unfair because no one has proven anything yet.”

The beautification project contract was won by Primaforma Company, which is headed by Caridad Salonga and Carmelita Go. Coincidentally, Salonga and Go were also Sanchez’s favorite contractors when he was still Sto. Tomas mayor.

It’s information that could furrow the brows of the likes of Archbishop Arguelles, who has offered an explanation why no one has come out in the open regarding what they have supposedly seen or heard behind closed doors at the capitol. The archbishop, who was born and bred in Batangas, said at one point, “In Sanchez’s rule as governor, even my former belief that Batangueños are brave was proven wrong. I discovered that when money and fear reign, the brave Batangueños cannot be found.”

But more than anything else, Arguelles has been upset over the way the governor cleared the capitol of squatters. If truth be told, that was what had him butting heads with Sanchez in the first place. There used to be some 323 squatters occupying the 1.8-hectare piece of government land behind the capitol building. When Sanchez became governor, among his first acts was to draw up a plan calling for the clearing of the land and turn it into a forest park.

Provincial administrator Geron had noted that the 30-year contract signed by the land’s original occupants in 1966 had already lapsed. The residents then sought help from Arguelles, who decided that putting a request in writing was best.

“I wrote a letter to Sanchez, asking him not to evict the residents,” says the archbishop. “He responded by saying he will not evict them, but he did the opposite.”

There is still no forest park in the vacated area. During the demolition, one man died of a heart attack while watching the demolition team flatten his home. The operation was done swiftly; much unlike Sanchez three years later, the residents had no chance to seek a reprieve from the courts. — with additional reporting by PCIJ staff

Mei Magsino was herself the subject of a PCIJ story in late 2005. Click here to read “Reporting Under the Gun.”