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The underside of history

Historian Alfred W. McCoy made headlines in the Philippines when, shortly before the snap election of 1986, he showed that the medals for valor as a guerrilla leader claimed by President Ferdinand Marcos were fake. Since then he has by his archival research turned over more rocks to reveal the creepy things lying beneath. In his latest book, “Policing America’s Empire: the United States, the Philippines, and the rise of the surveillance state,” he shows how the dark underworld of crime, subversion, vice and drugs in the Philippines has been linked to the bright, public world of politics. The link? The police and security forces, particularly their shadowy side: spies, undercover agents, specialists in covert operations, assassins. The currency passed up and down the system? Information, particularly incriminating information, scandal, graft, murder.

McCoy shows how the need to control a defeated but sullen and rebellious people in the first decades of 20th-century Philippines involved more than open military and police action. It also gave rise to a system of information collection on “individuals of interest” by spies and undercover agents of the occupying forces, with personal data all filed and indexed, a system unknown up to that time. It was developed by Capt. (later Gen.) Ralph Van Deman, the “father of US military intelligence.”

Spies, informants and undercover agents were used successfully in the early years of the occupation of the Philippines, to break up and defeat nationalist opposition to the American regime by raising mutual suspicions within the movement and setting one faction against another. But the scandal which they dug up could be–and was–used by both American and Filipino officials, to blackmail and control each other and eliminate rivals. Practically all of the better-known names in the history of the time appear as either aggressors or victims, and in many cases both, of slander and blackmail–focused on sexual transgressions, financial irregularities or illegal gambling. These include William Howard Taft, Leonard Wood, W. Cameron Forbes, Dean Worcester, Manuel Quezon, Francis Burton Harrison, Sergio Osmeña, Rafael Crame. In 1930, the grandfather of the former first gentleman, Gov. Mariano Arroyo of Iloilo, was dismissed for protecting jueteng as a source of funding for his political party.

Methods of sleuthing in the early days were primitive but sometimes creative. In 1907, for example, acting customs chief H. B. McCoy hid an operative within a cabinet in the office of his rival Frank Cairns to eavesdrop on conversations, and had another one lying on a catwalk above Cairns’ office ceiling, whence with binoculars he read through a tiny hole in the ceiling the combination when the latter opened his office safe, as a prelude to lifting incriminating documents.

This three-tiered pattern–a visible world of politics and an underground world of criminality and subversion, the two linked by a security establishment which is partly visible and partly hidden–has survived and become deeply entrenched in the structures of Philippine society. Covert operations have been used to control the labor movement; combined with psy-war techniques they were used brilliantly by Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay in defeating the Hukbalahap. Deep penetration agents were used against the Huks and with dramatic success against the New People?s Army, creating suspicions that led to bloody purges of loyal members.

Tragically, these same covert operations led to thousands of cases of torture, “salvaging (summary executions),” enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of activists. The Marcos regime used widespread terror to maintain its grip on power, with 3,257 salvaged, “disappeared” or victims of military massacre in 14 years. President Corazon Aquino’s “total war” on the communists and support of vigilantes and poorly trained and disciplined Cafgus had 2,696 such victims in just six years.

Meanwhile the “take” from illegal gambling, kidnapping and the drug trade–carried on often in connivance with corrupt elements in the security forces–continued to fuel political campaigns. This came before the sensational public disclosures of Gov. Luis Singson of President Joseph Estrada’s effort to centralize the profit from jueteng in his own hands, disclosures which led to Edsa 2 and the fall of Estrada.

Most disturbing perhaps are McCoy’s accounts of the Red Scorpion kidnap gang, the Kuratong Baleleng bank-robbing gang and the Abu Sayyaf. All three, it seems, were established under the Aquino regime as elements in covert military action, the first two against the communist underground and the third against the Muslim separatist movement. All three descended into sheer banditry under the Ramos regime. The extra-legal “termination” of members of the first two by agents of Vice President Estrada’s Presidential Anti-Crime Commission led by Panfilo Lacson burnished their images as crime-fighters and helped lift Estrada to the presidency.

The story of corruption, clandestine operations and scandal reached a crescendo under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: the “Hello, Garci” tapes, the fertilizer scam, the ZTE case, her links to reputed jueteng king Rodolfo Pineda. Her allies engaged in a bitter duel with Panfilo Lacson (whose funding reportedly proceeded from the drug trade) finally trumping the latter’s privilege speeches with the revival of the Dacer-Corbito murder case.

Where the story will lead with the new administration remains to be seen. Perhaps McCoy’s most disturbing reflection, however, is that this is not just a story of individual “bad guys.” The three-tiered structure has functioned to preserve the power and interests of an entrenched oligarchy against an increasingly alienated and resentful lower class. President Benigno Aquino III, in other words, is faced by massive structural evil, with roots very deep in Philippine history.