📰 Sen. Panfilo ‘Ping’ Lacson: Controversy-Magnet Supercop [Sunday Times Magazine]

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From The Sunday Times: Behind all the legal controversies, political intrigues and whispered innuendoes, who is the real Ping Lacson? Let’s take a look at one of the most fascinating political figures in our generation. 

Sen. Panfilo ‘Ping’ Lacson: Controversy-Magnet Supercop

By Jonathan Aquino, Writer-Researcher

The air is almost always electric with tension when Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson is grilling a witness at hearings. He has had witnesses found to be lying to jail in contempt of the Senate.

Panfilo Lacson is an enigma. He’s a crusader against crime or, his enemies claim, a criminal. His achievements as a police officer have been lauded by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, even his exploits were made into a movie. Behind all the legal controversies, political intrigues and whispered innuendoes, who is the real Ping Lacson? Let’s take a look at one of the most fascinating political figures in our generation.

Sterling reputation

Panfilo Morena Lacson was born on June 1, 1948 in Imus, Cavite. A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy Class 1971 and a Cavalier Awardee, “Ping,” as everybody calls him, earned his Master’s Degree on Government Management from the Pamantasan Ng Lungsod Ng Maynila in 1996.

In the first year of the Cory Aquino administration in 1986, in the aftermath of the EDSA People Power Revolt, Lacson was appointed to lead the Anti-Carnapping Task Force of the PC-INP (Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police), the precursor of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Lacson earned a sterling reputation as an incorruptible police officer throughout his various posts: as provincial commander of Isabela, provincial director of Laguna, and commanding officer of Cebu Metrodiscom, where he was hailed as an adopted son of Cebu in 1991.

Crime wave

The nation was on the verge of mass panic by the mid-1990s because of the Kuratong Baleleng, the bank robbery gang notorious for killing innocent civilians during their heists. In its first year the Ramos administration in 1992, in an effort to curb the escalating crime wave, formed the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC) under then Vice President Joseph Estrada.

Specifically targeting the K. Baleleng gang, the PACC created a team under the command of C/Supt. Jewel Canson. The composite team was made up of four units: Task Force Habagat led by Lacson, the Traffic Management Command led by P/Sr. Supt. Francisco Zubia, CIS led by C/Supt. Romeo Acop, and PNP-NCR led by Canson.

On the night of May 18, 1995, the members of the K Baleleng gang were gunned down during an encounter with the PACC team. Then witnesses materialized out of nowhere, claiming it was a rub-out not a shoot-out, castigating the police for neutralizing criminals.

The witnesses would later admit they were never at the scene. The K Baleleng rub-out case was investigated and dismissed by the Office of the Ombudsman on October 20, 1995. On March 29, 1999, it was tried and dismissed by Branch 88 of the Regional Trial Court. On August 24, 2001, the decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals (CA). Finally, the Supreme Court, on May 28, 2002, affirmed the CA ruling in a unanimous 13-0 vote.

But an inexplicable thing happened. On April 1, 2003, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 10-4, reversed itself and, like a necromancer, summoned the case from the grave. The Kuratong Baleleng case has become a nightmare—a dead issue that refuses to die like a zombie and continues to haunt like a malevolent ghost.

Uncompromising leadership

In the first year of the Estrada administration in 1998, Lacson was appointed chief of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF). He was honored as one of the Ten Outstanding Policemen for that year by the Philippine Jaycees.

Lacson, in the twilight of the last millennium on November 16, 1999, became the chief of the PNP. Virtually overhauled under his disciplined and uncompromising leadership, the PNP entered a new era where bribery and extortion became taboo, achieving its highest public approval rating in history.

The war against drugs being one of his personal crusades, Lacson was instrumental in improving the police communication network throughout Asia to paralyze the transshipment of illegal drugs in the region.

The adventures of Panfilo Lacson was made into a movie. Ping Lacson: Supercop stars no less that the late action superstar Rudy Fernandez. This 2000 Toto Natividad film also stars award-winning actress Lorna Tolentino, Fernandez’s real-life wife, as Lacson’s wife, Alice.

Series of exposes

The year 2001 was one of the most tumultuous in recent memory. It was the first year of the Arroyo administration when the then Vice President Gloria Arroyo assumed the country’s top post after Estrada was ousted by EDSA 2.

Lacson was soon elected senator and the public was enthralled by his consistent series of exposes of high-level corruption in the Arroyo government. He has spearheaded investigations on IMPSA, textbook scam, congressional bribery in the railroaded impeachment bid against Arroyo, Quedancor, the diversion of social security pension funds, among others, in rapid order.

Price to pay

Lacson stood up in his September 2009 “Prosecution or Persecution” speech at the Senate floor to show all these controversies from a larger perspective:

“Jose Pidal. Hello Garci. The NBN-ZTE Broadband Deal. The Fertilizer Scam. Jueteng Anomaly. The C5 Extension Road Project Double Appropriation. The Pork Barrel Anomalies. Plus many others . . . I did not have to seek out most of these anomalies. They came to me. The easiest and most convenient thing to do was to ignore them. Wala akong magiging kaaway, tahimik pa sana ang aking buhay [I won’t have any enemies and my life would have been peaceful].”

But that, he said, “would be betraying my oath to the Filipino people as an elected Senator of the Republic.”

He went on: “Perhaps no incumbent senator has had the multiple displeasure of being vilified, his reputation assailed repeatedly than this humble representation. If this is the price to pay for fearlessly contributing my share in the fight against graft and corruption in government, then so be it. If by exposing people in high places and those in the corridors of power would mean creating bitter enemies or losing friends thus making my life miserable, I am willing to pay that price.”

Array of accusations

Lacson was relentlessly hounded by one controversy after another. Mary “Rosebud” Ong was a businesswoman who leads a double life as a narcotics undercover agent. She slammed Lacson in a series on press conferences. The media had a field day with Rosebud’s stunning array of accusations. One spectacular headline-grabber was how a shipment of 2,000 kilograms of metamphetamine hydrochloride worth $1.8 billion, according to her, was confiscated and kept by Lacson. The police authorities of Hong Kong, its supposed country of origin, officially refuted the existence of such shipment.

Then there’s Angelo “Ador” Mawanay, a self-proclaimed civilian asset of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF). Mawanay’s allegations were even more electrifying. He came out in public, he told the media, to let the whole world know that Lacson has a mind-boggling, whopping $700 million in various banks abroad. Rosebud and Mawanay were backed up by Col. Victor Corpus, who was then head of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP).

Corpus first gained national prominence in the 1970s when he publicly denounced the democratic way of life and joined the communist New People’s Army. He has since returned to the fold and got back his slot in the military. Like Lacson, his story was made into a film starring Rudy Fernandez.

Reminiscent of the Joseph McCarthy communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Corpus raised the specter of the $5 billion narco-politics scenario, with politicians led by Lacson on the payroll of drug kingpins running the government—trying to prove his accusations with Ador Mawanay’s testimony of Lacson’s $700 million.

Grand scheme

Ping Lacson’s gut instinct, sharpened by years of surviving life-and-death situations, convinces him that all these accusations and their rehashed versions are part of a grand scheme to destroy him because of his consistent exposes of high-level corruption in the government.

Vindication came on March 24, 2003. Ador Mawanay officially recanted his earlier statements and publicly confessed that his $700 million story was a hoax meant to discredit Lacson. In his affidavit of perpuity, Mawanay identified First Gentlmen Mike Arroyo as the mastermind behind the campaign against Lacson.

Murder charges

Lacson was also implicated in the The Dacer-Corbito double murder case. On November 24, 2000, publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and his driver, Manuel Corbito, while on the way to Manila Hotel, were abducted, tortured, strangled to death and their bodies burned. Lacson was tagged as the mastermind by former P/Sr. Supt. Cezar Mancao in his affidavit signed February 14, 2009. Lacson slammed Mancao’s statements, citing inconsistencies and contradictions. He also showed Mancao’s pending application to be discharged as a suspect to become a state witness.

Lacson was out of the country when murder charges were filed against him. An arrest warrant was issued by a regional trial court on February 5, 2010; a week later, an international notice came from Interpol. It effectively meant he could be arrested even in countries without extradition treaties with the Philippines.

The supercop had become a fugitive.

‘Fabricated testimony’

Vindication came once again on February 3. The justices of the Court of Appeals unanimously decided to junk the case against Lacson because they agreed that witnesses had fabricated their testimonies.

Lacson returned, from wherever he had mysteriously been hiding abroad as fugitive from Philippine justice for more than a year, on March 26, arriving in Mactan International Airport in Cebu City at 11:42 a.m. aboard a Cathay Pacific Flight CX 921 from Hong Kong. At that time President Benigno Aquino 3rd had been in office for nine months.

Instinctive compass

“For 13 months, I was a fugitive . . . from injustice,” Lacson says in his statement upon his homecoming. “I have been subjected to the vitriol of arrogance and hatred by my old and new detractors. I have been humiliated, unfairly eviscerated of my dignity and personal honor, even as I am humbled by an experience so surreal I never imagined could happen. Every single day that I was underground, the crucible stared each time I opened my eyes.”

During his self-exile, Lacson “lived the life of a prisoner outside a prison cell. The only difference from one who suffers in confinement is that, I could on my own will, navigate my movements using the best of my instinctive compass.” He has struggled in life since childhood. “But the life struggle that I had for the past year was the most challenging. The worst pain of all is that I didn’t know who my true and real friends were. I still thank God I found a few of them.”

Every crime, he says, “demands justice. But justice means truth and action. Without action to bring out the truth, justice will never be served.”

Armed with more than a quarter-century experience in law enforcement, Lacson says, “I dedicated myself in helping tens of thousands of victims of crimes without fear or favor. I risked my life hundreds of times rescuing kidnap for ransom victims, battling criminal groups, busting crime syndicates and disciplining the rouges in our country’s police force for various offenses . . . fully aware that I was creating bitter enemies out of armed and trained malefactors.”

He says his sympathies are with the families of crime victims, “But I am likewise all-out against the hecklers and their cheerleaders who want to make me a cannon fodder by strutting their stuff for reasons they themselves may not even understand.”

Lacson was man enough to admit that “evading arrest may be legally difficult to justify, if not hardly defensible. True, going underground is politically incorrect. And, I must admit that I was constantly balancing the bigger picture with the issues of the moment. But at the end of my daily debate with my own wits, I decided not to place myself under the jurisdiction of a court whose judicial determination of probable cause and the subsequent issuance of a warrant of arrest I was questioning before a higher court of the land.”

“The unvarnished truth is,” he says, “I was made to suffer for a crime I did not commit.”

Just in time

With his nuanced grasp of the zeitgest, Lacson knows that the people see pork barrel funds as the source of graft. So he refused to accept his allocation, hoping other legislators would follow suit to change the public mindset.

Panfilo Lacson ran for president in 2004, pushing strong leadership to eradicate crime and corruption as his main platform. It was Gloria Arroyo who was proclaimed winner in that (still) hotly-contested political slugfest. Still, Senator Lacson’s performance of his public duties easily won him re-election in 2007.

His term as Senator ends in 2013—just in time for the next presidential election.