The mighty Persian Empire once kept a tight-knit, well-trained and well-equipped force of elite soldiers collectively known as the “Immortals”. The name, although pretentious as they were mere human beings and thus vulnerable to death, was as accurate as possible due to the seemingly ‘untouchable’ status these men held. They were the most envied and most feared in their society; the Immortals’ main responsibility was the protection of the Persian God-king and thus, were the most pampered unit in the entire army.
In another nation, far-east into the continent of Asia an exclusive brand of military men enjoys the same preferential treatment and pampering in exchange for protecting the elites in their hierarchy. These soldiers enjoy the same feeling of being ‘untouchable’, effectively being ‘immortals’ themselves.
The 27th of July 2003 saw a band of hundreds of young officers and soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines abandon their posts and barricaded themselves inside a five-star hotel in the capital Manila. They called themselves the “New Katipuneros”, the term Katipuneros referring to the revolutionary group that fought for Philippine independence, and declared a rebellion against the higher echelons of the armed forces for their alleged corrupt activities. Led by an army captain Gerardo Gambala and a senior grade lieutenant Antonio Trillanes, the group composed of mostly fresh graduates from the Philippine Military Academy and junior officers in the Philippine military protested against the greed of military generals and favoritism in the promotion of officers.
Due to their youth and perceived inexperience as well as their lack of a clear plan for their revolution, the coup was crushed within hours as the group failed to rally support from the public. Instead they were criticized for unsettling a Philippine economy that was still reeling from a previous revolution just two years earlier; citing that there were no signs of rampant corruption happening in the armed forces and that they were merely making up facts.
Fast forward a year later, in 2004 the name of Major General Carlos Garcia was thrust into the picture and Gambala and company had the last laugh. Two young men were questioned by U.S. customs agents upon arriving at the San Francisco airport from the Philippines. The two would later be identified as Ian and Juan Garcia, the sons of AFP comptroller Carlos Garcia. For one not too familiar with the rank of a comptroller, this is an office-position in the military who handles all budget appropriations and disbursements for armed forces-related projects. The AFP’s comptroller’s sons failed to declare $100,000 in cash inside their luggage. How does one forget to declare being in possession of that much cash? The two claimed to have forgotten to include the cash in their customs form as they were fatigued. Being the intimate family that they are, the mother came to their rescue claiming that the money was payment for a condominium unit they were buying in the U.S. As procedure mandates, the customs officers who apprehended the family asked for a written statement from the mother, Clarita Garcia. In Philippine culture there is a saying that goes: “A fish is always caught by its’ mouth”, if translated into the context of human beings it means that culprits are exposed often by what they confess; and what this wife of a two-star Philippine general divulged that day would shock the nation.
Clarita confidently declared in her statement that there was nothing shady about her sons possessing that much money as her family had four income sources in the Philippines: including stakes in two local companies and a daycare center business. These facts are not peculiar, surely any individual who has been employed for decades have managed to save and make fruitful investments with their salary. But Mrs. Garcia’s statements did not end there, she then went on to say that her husband, the Armed Forces’ very own comptroller and a public employee receives travel allowance that covers all expenses of their family including airfare, accommodation and shopping money. Clarita then stated that their fourth source of income was in the form of ‘gratitude gifts’ given to her husband from companies who were rewarded bidding contracts into military projects. That in itself is a crime, the comptroller being gifted by bidders of a project taints the integrity of the bidding process and is an obvious conflict of interest. Mrs. Garcia boasted all this to the U.S. customs officials to prove that their family could afford that much travel allowance, but what she didn’t realize was that she effectively threw her husband into controversy back home.
The most damning of all was this – Mrs. Garcia also boldly stated that “under Philippine taxation laws, we are allowed to declare zero income”. The full extent of the Garcia family’s wealth was then a mystery; the brothers had money to buy property in the U.S., but did they already have existing properties there? What kind of properties did the family posses in the Philippines? The mere fact that the Garcias were not declaring such astronomic incomes was already a huge travesty especially for a government employee. The answer was a mystery, but for certain the luxuries enjoyed by this Major General Carlos Garcia was a stark contrast to the pitiful lives lived by his foot soldiers: the thousands of lower-ranked Philippine soldiers who could barely afford to provide basic needs for their families. Not to forget, the substandard state of the armed forces that is desperately relying on hand-me-downs from their ally countries.
The most confounding mystery is this: how did such a practice manage to elude the watch of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the organization which is supposedly based on moral principles and integrity? How long has this culture of extravagance in a penny-pinching AFP been happening? Surely, Garcia was not alone. Even if he acted as the accountant for the organization, there are several procedures in place to ensure that the limited funds of the AFP are put to good use. This was the question that boggled the mind of the House of Senate upon investigating the case of General Garcia’s unexplained wealth, who else was in this? Surely enough and amid the public furor, the then-administration of Gloria Arroyo quickly reviewed the case and investigated the AFP comptroller. But as most cases of corruption in the country, justice was very slow and more problems aroused in the country which faded public attention for General Garcia like a bubble.
While that may have been the perception of the country, that General Garcia had gone scot-free taking advantage of the short attention span of the media, justice proved that it has a funny way of presenting itself. In 2011, during a hearing for General Garcia’s case a man named George Rabusa, the AFP’s former budget officer, stepped forward. It proved to be a blessing.
Mr. Rabusa revealed the bigger picture; the former budget officer testified of an even bigger injustice happening in the armed forces, of a culture of unscrupulous corruption within the ranks of the military particularly among generals and colonels who were rewarded with a “pabaon” (Tagalog for allowance) when their wives would travel overseas and a handsome retirement fund that would make private C.E.O.s look like minimum wage earners. According to Rabusa, there was a system in place in the AFP that afforded travel allowance to senior ranking officials and their travel companions that covered their airfare, accommodation and even shopping money. All those perks are enough to rival that of a professional athlete’s. He then added that all retiring chief-of-staffs, the highest official in the entire armed forces, were paid colossal figures in “send-off” retirement pay; and the most disturbing of all, he revealed, was that these benefits were channeled from funds that were intended for other purposes that would have helped the military. This made the Garcia case a mere tip of a massive iceberg that would have sunk the AFP’s organization.
This case caught the attention of the country in 2011 when it was investigated by the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, and just when the name of Major General Carlos Garcia started to become a household name, the country became familiar too with the names of Jacinto Ligot, Angelo Reyes, Roy Cimatu, Diomedio Villanueva to name a few. They were all men-in-uniform who had been accused of betraying public trust and siphoning funds from the armed forces coffers.
General Jacinto Ligot for example, could not explain his wealth either. In his SALN he had declared a cash bank account of Php400,000 but in the same year he had sold a condominium unit in the plush Forbes community for Php25 million. He also owned an apartment unit in Anaheim, California worth $500,000. Not to mention, his wife Erlinda was also a jet-setter like Clarita Garcia who travelled frequently bestowed with the same travel allowance as well. Her frequent companion was another wife of a military official, Teresita Reyes, wife of Angelo Reyes and former chief-of-staff of the AFP. But the biggest mystery did not concern his own bank account but that of his brother-in-law, the buyer of his condo unit. His wife’s brother amassed Php300 million in the period between 1998-2004 despite being unemployed and having no declared mode of income either. The scenario considered during the Senate hearing of 2011 was this: could it be possible that Edgardo Yambao acted as a personal treasurer for General Ligot in order to evade suspicion from the public sector?
This month, the Sandiganbayan ordered the arrest of Jacinto Ligot for perjury during his trial in 2011. One can remember how Blue Ribbon Committee members Senator Franklin Drilon and Senator Jinggoy Estrada grilled Ligot for the inconsistencies in his statements and the undeniable nervous tone of his voice when answering questions about how he amassed such a fortune. The trials resulted in Ligot invoking the 5th Amendment several times, to a point where he had looked like a headless chicken running aimlessly. During the said trial Ligot tried several antics including not being able to identify his own signature and forgetting what he wrote on important government documents, none of these deterred the Senators from getting the truth out of him.
Throughout the course of the proceedings in 2011, the anti-corruption panel of the Philippine Senate revealed a culture within the Armed Forces of the Philippines that explained why generals are so wealthy. The higher echelons of the armed forces adopted a “pasalubong” system, which is a common practice in the Filipino culture but is very unethical if taxpayers money is being used. The “pasalubong” system gave generals hefty sums to be used as travel allowance when making trips abroad. The coverage of this allowance accommodated their travel companions which mostly composed of their wives and children. This turned the AFP’s coffers into a pot of gold that senior officers reached for when they travel abroad, effectively transforming the AFP into a carousel of jet-setters.
While our soldiers deserve the best rewards for their service to the nation, the amount being given to them transcends what can be considered acceptable. The Senate revealed that the amount generals received ranged from a minimum sum of Php50 million to Php300 million peso in retirement pay. If these sums are indeed what is mandated by the policies of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ structure then so be it. These exorbitant fees and benefits may be impractical but if they are not illegal then why did so many retiring officers find it a point to cover-up receiving such payments? Why did Major General Ligot made it a point to have his brother-in-law carry the bulk of his wealth? Why did the Garcia family need to declare zero income and cloak their true bank accounts?
It just did not seem fair that generals are paid such unethical amounts while the soldiers fulfilling combat roles in the front-lines of war are reported to be wearing boots that are tattered, firing defective mortar shells and even missing the proper field equipment to deal with the elements. Where does the priority of the Department of National Defense lie anyways?
The bigger injustice is why such a corrupt practice only came to light then; Clarita Garcia was caught in the act in 2004, why did we wait seven years before the Senate found Rabusa and listened to his testimony? The administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was one which would be looked back to in history as one marred with atrocities and severe levels of corruption; regardless of the brutality of the Maguindanao massacre or the travesty of the Fertilizer Fund Scam, the AFP corruption scandal will be the true case which will truly implicate Mrs. Arroyo of the suspicions hurled at her. This was further supported by another witness for the prosecution, Commission on Audit employee Heidi Mendoza, an auditor assigned to review the AFP’s accounts when Garcia came under the spotlight in 2004. She gave her account of how her superiors told her to be careful with her investigations as the Palace put them under surveillance. She also recalled how the findings she made were rejected by the COA head and was shunned even by the Ombudsman at that time, Merceditas Gutierrez.
In a scenario where the auditors who monitor the accounts of the corrupt and the court that is specifically created to go after the corrupt are both on the side of the corrupt, how can the truth ever prevail? No wonder so many investors were put off into investing in the Philippines, it’s hard to be confident about a country where the public officials are dishonest.
It’s hard not to pinpoint Arroyo on this matter, how can the commander-in-chief be oblivious of such corruption among her soldiers? Unless she purposely gave a blind eye on the matter, there is no justification as to why she may not have any knowledge on this issue. No wonder she survived so many attempts to derail her tenure as president, she kept her enforcers well-fed to be able to endure such matter. She made herself invulnerable, all of the channels which would have implicated her: the auditors, the courts, the military and the like were all her ‘immortals’ that she carefully maintained to safeguard her position. It is a human right for all human beings to be innocent until proven guilty by the court, but in Mrs. Arroyo’s case the evidence seems to align against her so perfectly.
Whether it was Arroyo, the generals themselves or another individual who was the mastermind behind these misdeeds one thing for certain is that the biggest losers are no doubt the Armed Forces. The AFP, who once had the proud title of one of the most well-equipped in Asia has lagged behind its’ regional counterparts in terms of hardware. For decades, the lack of adequate funding was the reason given for this disappointment; just imagine the frustration they must feel upon knowing the true reason of where the bulk of funds go: into the pockets of a few who are not even in the combat zone.
For the soldiers who have been deceived and stolen from, let us hope that the generals know that they are not immortals like them. In fact, these foot soldiers are the complete opposites of immortals; they are men who are very vulnerable, to terrorists lurking in the jungles, to I.E.D.s due to a lack of equipment for protection and from the elements in the battlefield they fight for their country on. What’s even worse is that these men and women in the frontlines have spouses and children waiting for them back home who do not have millions to lean back on when their loved ones are killed, who do not have travel allowance to enjoy of in case they lose their fathers or husbands. Some of these soldiers are the sole breadwinners of their families, their salary is what provides food on the table for their children, what sends their brothers and sisters to school, what their parents use to pay for medicine. In case they perish at war, will they also receive compensation that matches the retirement pay of a chief-of-staff?
It is always heartbreaking to see scenes of the surviving relatives weeping on flag-draped coffins of slain soldiers or hearing stories of soldiers who starve to death or bleed to death because of a lack of supplies in the battlefield. It makes it all the more unacceptable to hear of such tales of corruption happening within the armed forces. While it may be disheartening to know this, one can find solace at the fact that although moving at a turtle’s pace, justice will sooner or later be served to these few. Hopefully, during the administration of a President whose sole platform into his presidency is to follow the “path of righteousness” or ‘daang matuwid’. Jacinto Ligot and his wife are being arrested once again. The nation has another chance at putting the case to rest and serving justice to the criminals who orchestrated the siphoning of the AFP’s funds. Hopefully, the souls of the fallen members of the country’s defense force may finally find peace and that this culture of corruption be finally over.
Just as what King Leonidas and the brave Spartans did in their time, may the incumbent presidency of Noynoy Aquino put the names of these “Immortals” to the test and show them that in this great nation, only God is untouchable.