Special Issue
The Queen's Gambits
Virgilio Garcillano

Master Operator

The man whose voice is heard on The Tapes is an expert in election fraud.

FRAUD EXPERT. Virgilio Garcillano used his skills and experiece to manipulate the 2004 count.

VIRGILIO Garcillano will go down in history as the election official whose wiretapped conversations mortally wounded a president. He disappeared from public view in the second week of June, as the controversy over the wiretaps heated up, and many may have a hard time recalling what he looks like. Yet his raspy voice, distinctive lisp, and thick Visayan accent are now embedded in the audio memory of millions of Filipinos who have listened to the “Garci” tapes.

It is unlikely Garcillano would ever live this down or that he would be able to return again to the Commission on Elections (Comelec). Already, the damage his recorded phone calls have caused, not only to the Comelec but also to the presidency, is so severe and so devastating, both these institutions have to undergo massive cleansing if they are to recover their credibility and respectability.

Philippine elections are complex. The manual voting, counting, and canvassing are governed by arcane rules. There are for example, 28 rules just on the appreciation of ballots. And that’s just one small section of the Omnibus Election Code, a huge ton)e guaranteed to give the reader migraine. The section on prohibited offenses alone is mind-boggling.

The law, therefore, abounds with procedural minefields awaiting those who are ignorant of it. But Garcillano honed his skills and his knowledge of election laws and procedures through his long years in the poll body. He also developed an extensive network of contacts, especially in Mindanao, where he was assigned.

Garcillano’s life was the Comelec, the very office that he helped destroy. He joined the agency as a lawyer in 1961, when he was only in his mid-20s. Except for a six-year gap from 1986 to 1993, when he was purged by the leadership of the post-Marcos commission, he served at the Comelec continuously until he dropped out of sight last month.

He had risen up the ranks, eventually retiring as director for Region 10 (Northern Mindanao) in 2002. Thanks to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, he was appointed commissioner on February 11, 2004, just as the presidential campaign was kicking off.

A technocrat of fraud

Garcillano was an election technocrat, a career bureaucrat with specialized skills in a specific sphere of government. These skills are invaluable for the efficient administration of elections. But they can also be used for more sinister purposes. As the “Garci” tapes revealed and as those who know him well say, the commissioner was a master fraud operator who used his knowledge of election laws and procedures, his long field experience, and his extensive network of contacts to rig the vote in favor of President Arroyo, Senator Robert Barbers, and a few other local politicians.

“He was the plotter for electoral fraud, the overall supervisor and commander in chief,” says a Comelec official who asked not to be named. “He was working for GMA.”

“He set up the infrastructure for cheating,” says Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, who has heard the “Garci” recording and who led the opposition protest against alleged vote rigging in the 2004 elections. “He was the operator for Gloria. He knew how the cheating was done in Mindanao and he manipulated the vote so GMA’s lead would not be less than one million.”

In an interview with journalists on June 7, just days before his mysterious disappearance, Garcillano denied all these allegations and insisted it was not his voice on the tape. But several Comelec officials interviewed by the PCIJ as well as former Comelec chair Christian Monsod confirm it is indeed Garcillano’s voice that is in the recording. Moreover, Garcillano identified himself in several of the wiretapped conversations and also spoke to various individuals — his wife Grace, his secretary Ellen Peralta, and his maid Lyn — whose connection to him cannot be denied.

Still, while Garcillano is almost surely the one on the tape, he was probably not the overall fraud strategist. That role probably belonged to other aides of the president. His specialty was postelection fraud in Mindanao. As reported elsewhere and as alleged by the opposition, the rigging of the 2004 vote took place in many parts of the country, and was particularly intense in Cebu, Iloilo, and Bohol. Mindanao may have been typecast as the arena for fraud, but the reality is that candidates cheat where they are strongest and where the manipulation would be less obvious.

Mindanao, however, was Garcillano’s particular area of expertise, and he was probably appointed for this reason. It also happened that Mindanao was the arena of contention between the administration and the opposition. While the surveys had indicated that Luzon would likely go for Fernando Poe Jr., and the Visayas, for Arroyo, Mindanao was up for grabs. Its votes were likely to deliver the winning margin, and it was apparently Garcillano’s role to make sure that margin went to the President.

The wiretapped recordings, which start on May 17, 2004, a week after elections, and end on June 18, give little indication of Garcillano’s role during the election campaign and the actual voting. It is, however, a treasure trove for uncovering the postelection manipulation of the results. It is apparent from the conversations that Garcillano was the orchestrator, the conductor of a symphony of fraud, at least for Mindanao. He was the one coordinating the workings of elections officials on the ground, Comelec officials in Manila, and the military and the police, which are “deputized” or placed under the authority of the Comelec for the duration of the elections.

In other words, the very individuals and institutions that were supposed to guard the ballot were actually the very same ones manipulating the count. Garcillano was thus not the sole culprit: he was at the hub of a network of fraud that included scores, if not hundreds, of other government officials and employees.

The most powerful commissioner

But Garcillano was one of the most crucial parts of that network. His rise to become, in the words of one Comelec insider, “the most powerful commissioner in Comelec” — eclipsing even Chairman Benjamin Abalos — was largely due to his election expertise and experience. At 68, and with 40 years of election experience behind him, Garcillano had a far more comprehensive knowledge of election procedures than his other colleagues in the agency. The other commissioners deferred to him because of this, as well as his seniority and his perceived closeness to Malacañang. In addition, he was an assertive figure who knew how to exercise power while getting along superbly with the others. It was then no surprise that he eventually overshadowed Abalos, a lackadaisical and lackluster Comelec chief who was not very familiar with election laws.

“He really knew the law and the process,” Monsod said, referring to Garcillano, in a recent television interview, “and he was very good at interpersonal relations.”

For sure, the commissioner was popular among Comelec employees. As election boss in Northern Mindanao, he was famous for treating his staff to overseas trips and for organizing athletic competitions with big prizes solicited from politicians. He was popular at the main office in Intramuros as well. Garcillano liked to drink and to socialize with the Comelec staff, and managed to cement friendships with many of them during those drinking sessions. (In one of the recorded conversations, his wife reprimands him for drinking with his colleagues even in the afternoon.) He was such an amiable boss and colleague that some of the elections personnel whose conversations with Garcillano were recorded in the wiretaps referred to him as “Tatay” or “‘Tay” (dad). With his thinning hair and soft facial features, he even looked the part of a doting father.

“He was very friendly,” says a Comelec official, “and he loves to lead a group, he takes the initiative.”

By being Mr. Congeniality, Garcillano was able to pinpoint compliant elections officials and persuade them, through gifts and other inducements, to do his bidding. Indeed, even prior to his appointment as Comelec commissioner, Garcillano had already earned a reputation for being a master of dagdag-bawas or vote padding and shaving operations. These entail tampering with the results of the municipal or provincial canvass. This is wholesale fraud, and is consequently more efficient than the retail doctoring of the count at the precinct level.

Sen. Pimentel, for one, says that even during the Marcos era, Garcillano was already “a known partisan operator of whoever was in power at that time.” Pimentel has accused Garcillano not only of involvement in dagdag-bawas operations but also of distributing money in previous elections to Comelec officials from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

All these qualities made Garcillano perfect for the role he was to play in the 2004 elections. Although he became a commissioner only three months before the polls, he was soon taking on a lot of tasks, including vetting appointments, even of utility personnel, say Comelec insiders. Before long, he had a say in who was going to be named to man election posts in sensitive areas. It eventually came to the point that all memos issued by Abalos passed through Garcillano. By election time, he was acting as the Comelec’s de facto chair, says an elections official. He was therefore in a position to orchestrate large-scale, institutional fraud.

Messing around in Mindanao

Although of Ilocano parentage, Garcillano was a native of Mindanao and was also assigned there for many years. This made him particularly useful for post-election operations. Mindanao is key to the last-minute manipulation of the count. For logistical reasons, such as the longer travel time from precincts to canvass centers, lack of transport, etc., the Mindanao count is slower compared to those elsewhere.

There are also fewer independent pollwatchers in Mindanao, so it is easier to delay and manipulate the count. In places where private armies rule, the vote can be rigged wholesale. In other areas, Comelec officials can be persuaded to delay the count because of either election protests or other problems.

Sometimes, elections are postponed or a failure of elections is declared, so a new voting would have to be held, again delaying the canvass.

These delays in the municipal and provincial canvass — whether deliberate or unintended — allow unscrupulous election officials to bargain with politicians desperate to get the “winning” margin of votes. By then, the trend elsewhere in the country would already be taking shape and a senatorial or presidential candidate, for example, would have some indication if he or she would win and whether last-minute operations would be needed.

Even if Mindanao votes are involved, some of the transactions that are part of the wholesale fraud are done in Manila. In the past, some of the dagdag-bawas or vote shaving/padding took place at the three-star Aloha Hotel on Roxas Blvd., where election officials from Mindanao were billeted and where they met with the hatchet men of various candidates and parties. In a June 3, 2004 conversation, Garcillano was talking to an unidentified man, telling him he would be hanging out at the Aloha Hotel.

Hub of fraud

Garcillano’s functions were multifaceted. It is apparent that he acted as:

Overseer of fraud operations in Mindanao. In several conversations, it was obvious that Garcillano was giving instructions to local election officials to manipulate the count for particular candidates. These included the president, Barbers, and some local candidates. In a conversation on May 24, for example, the commissioner ordered an unidentified man, “Isagad mo kay Senator Barbers, ha. Tapos huwag mong ipababol si Biazon (Push Senator Barbers to the max and don’t allow Biazon to catch up). He also assured the person he was talking with: “Basta may regalo para sa ‘yo (I’ll make sure there’s a gift ready for you).”

It would seem from the conversations that the manipulation took many forms. This could include delaying or finishing a canvass, depending whichever would suit a candidate at a particular time. It could also mean declaring a failure of elections (if a favored candidate lost) and scheduling special elections. In some places, as in Cotabato, it entailed replacing the statements of votes or SOVs, which carried the tally of the votes for a municipality, with new and presumably tampered ones. These tactics could only be thought of by someone like Garcillano, who has intimate knowledge of election laws and procedures.

Liaison officer between politicians, on one hand, and dections officials and me military, on the other. Garcillano’s conversations indicate that he acted as a facilitator between politicians who wanted to ensure their victory and a range of officials in the areas where the vote manipulation was taking place. He was like a clearing post to which instructions were sent and from which orders were passed down the line.

He was dealing with officials higher up (the Comelec chair and the president) as well as lower down the ladder. In one of the most damning and most frequently replayed “Hello Garci” conversations, one which supposedly took place in the morning of May 29, 2004, President Arroyo wanted an assurance that her lead would be about one million votes. “So will I still lead by more than 1M overall?” she asked. Garcillano told her that so far it was about 982,000, but more votes would come from Lanao, where tallies from seven municipalities had not yet been included in the provincial canvass. “Pipilitin ho natin yan (we will try our best),” he assured her.

Garcillano was apparently also coordinating with the police. He told President Arroyo that his people in Zamboanga were already cooperating with Arturo Lamibao, then head of the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and now PNP chief. In addition, the commissioner told the president he had problems in Marawi, because the Marine commander in charge of the Lanao provinces, Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, was sympathetic to the opposition. But, said Garcillano, thanks to the support of Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Roy Kyarnko and Brig. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who once headed the Presidential Security Group and was then Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for operations, Gudani was taken out of the way.

In fact, Gudani was pulled out of Marawi on May 11, 2004 and some of his staff was grounded. As Newsbreak reported then, Gudani’s transfer to Manila the day after the elections violated the rules as personnel transfers in the military cannot take place from election day and 30 days after. Newsbreak also reported that the action taken against Gudani demoralized the ranks of the Marines.

Paymaster and damage controller

Damage controller who ensures no complaints of fraud are filed or made public. It was also Garcillano’s task to make sure that none of the fraud was discovered. He had to be quick on his toes and ready to take whatever damage-control measures were needed at that time. When told, for example, that Rashma Hali, the election officer of Tipo-Tipo, Basilan, was set to testify on election anomalies on the opposition’s side, Garcillano tried to locate her. Someone identified only as “Boy” suggested having Hali or a member of her family kidnapped to silence her, but Garcillano batted for taking a “soft touch” first by finding a “well-meaning” relative to “persuade” her not to say anything.

He was also asked by the president to make sure that the administration was well covered both in fighting the fraud from the opposition and in ensuring that complaints of fraud against the administration would go nowhere. “I’m just letting you know everything I found out para we can always make the appropriate remedies,” she told the commissioner in one of their conversations. Among the president’s worries were reports of empty ballot boxes in Camarines Norte (Garcillano said he would call up the election supervisor there and check) and a mismatch betWeen the statements of votes (Says) and the certificates of canvass (COCs) in Basilan and Lanao del Sur (he assured the president that the artificial increase in her count in those places was done well and would resist detection).

In a conversation at about 10 p.m. on June 2,2004, Garcillano complained to the president that the military didn’t do such a good tamper job in Sulu but assured her that it was okay, because he would ensure that no one would testify in case of a complaint. He also told her not to fret about a report that the opposition would file an election complaint in Languyan, Tawi-Tawi and that it already had teachers (who act as elections officers) in the Witness Protection Program. ..Wala naman tayong ginawa do’n (we didn’t do anything there),” he assured the president. We even lost there, the commissioner added.

Paymaster for bribes to elections officials. In several of the conversations, particularly those with Barbers, the subject was payoffs to be made to Comelec personnel in the field. Garcillano was apparently a conduit for the bribes, with his secretary being seconded to accept the money. In a talk with Barbers on June 5,Garcillano asked that P.1.5 to P2 million be delivered to his office, through his secretary Ellen Peralta. Presumably that money was going to be used for special operations to add votes for Barbers, who was trailing in the senatorial count. In an earlier conversation, on June 3, Barbers had asked the commissioner for help to get 70,000 more votes.

Barbers also complained about the exorbitant amounts that Comelec field personnel were demanding, although the candidate appeared prepared to pay. “‘Di bale kung rasonable,” Barbers said, “puede naman tayong magdagdag (As long as what they’re asking for is reasonable, I can add more).” There were similar references to payoffs in other conversations. Euphemisms were used: regalo (gift), requirement, para sa mga bata (for the boys).

As if he weren’t already very busy with all these, Garcillano did other operations on the side. He promised to look into the request of Isabel a Gov. Faustino Dy Jr., who wanted a favorable decision on his case holding the proclamation of gubernatorial candidate Grace Padaca. As a member of the First Division then hearing the proclamation case, Garcillano was asked to help out with the case when it went to the Comelec en banc. The First Division had in fact issued a restraining order on Padaca’s proclamation. He was also asked by former Biliran Rep. Gerry Espina to talk to members of the Second Division and intercede for the case of one of the congressman’s wards. It appears that Garcillano did some magic as well to ensure the victory of Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia.

The rot at the core

How Garcillano could last so long in the Comelec and even assume a top position in the very body tasked with guarding the sanctity of the ballot attests to the rot in the very core of the commission. Blame also rests squarely on the shoulders of President Arroyo, who appointed Garcillano despite protests from her own allies.

Senator Franklin Drilon, for instance, had urged the president to withdraw Garcillano’s nomination. “People in the know say nasty things about him,” Drilon said in February 2004, and asked Arroyo to help rebuild the Comelec’s credibility by appointing officials with unquestioned integrity to the poll body.

Namfrel and other NGOs, too, objected to the appointment of a man with a less-than-savory track record, especially at a time when the Comelec had not even recovered from the controversy over overpriced counting machines. Monsod said he wrote a letter to then Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo to say that Garcillano’s appointment would be a grievous mistake.

Yet the president stood by Garcillano, and her spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, even issued a statement saying that Garcillano’s appointment “is obviously being exploited as a tool for mudslinging and an avenue for settling a personal grudge. We will not dignify this allegation unless it is substantiated by strong and concrete pieces of evidence.”

Abalos promptly appointed Garciliano as the corrunissioner in charge of Northern Mindanao, Western Mindanao, and Socsargen (South Cotabato, Sarangani, and Gen. Santos City). But this assignment was so scandalous that Abalos was forced to withdraw it. The Comelec chair then put Garcillano to task in the Southern Tagalog region, where it was thought he would do less harm.

But the mischief continued. At the height of the debate over the citizenship of Fernando Poe Jr., Garcillano said the candidate should be disqualified from the presidential race. That statement cast serious doubts on the commissioner’s impartiality and he subsequently had to apologize for being “too presumptuous.”

On May 13, 2004, barely three days after the election, Garcillano was seen dining at a private room at the Manila Diamond Hotel with Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) chair Efraim Genuino. Pimentel promptly held a press conference, accusing the commissioner of accepting a bagful of money from the Pagcor head. Garcillano denied the meeting took place, although Newsbreak independently confirmed that it did. The commissioner also said that the bag his aide was seen carrying out of the hotel contained a stuffed toy, not cash. But it didn’t help him any that Pagcor itself was swirling in controversy for supposedly siphoning funds to the presidential campaign.

Thus, when President Arroyo reappointed Garcillano to the Comelec onJune 30, 2004 because the Commission on Appointments had bypassed his nomination before Congress closed earlier that month, the howls of protest were heard again.

The Institute for Popular Democracy said that the reappointment was “a sign of a dark future for electoral reforms under the new administration.” Little did it — or anybody else — foresee how much of an understatement that would turn out to be.