Inside Bilibid: Resurgence, resignation, 'recanting'

The New Bilibid Prison (NBP) has been shaken recently by multiple issues hitting it at once. But there is a common denominator: drugs.

It started around April when Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II first started announcing to media that there may be a resurgence of drug trade inside the national penitentiary. In June, Aguirre said drug syndicates inside the jail "are very active again." By July 4, he had ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to look into it.

Then things happened very fast after that.

Six days after the order to NBI, or on July 10, a stabbing incident occurred inside the maximum security compound where inmate Efren Ventura died.

Again, Aguirre asked the NBI to conduct a parallel probe into the incident, even as he issued the same order to the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), which directly supervises Bilibid. NBI and BuCor are agencies attached to the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Aguirre.

Three days after the incident, on July 13, Benjamin de los Santos resigned as chief of the BuCor. His statement to the media was vague: "Issue about resurgence of drug trade has made me irrelevant. I will refrain from further comments and take the vow of silence."

De los Santos still refuses to elaborate what he meant by the statement.

Inmate transfer

Another unit caught in the middle of all this is the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF), which was tasked to guard the maximum security compound and Building 14 and make sure drugs do not proliferate there. Building 14 is a separate building in the maximum compound specially designated to high-profile convicts.

Aguirre had been giving pronouncements that he wants to take out SAF from Bilibid and replace them with soldiers because of the resurgence.

PNP Chief Director General Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa defended SAF and said his men do not have "total control" of the jails, especially that some of the high-profile drug convicts are in the medium security compound.

How I wish ibalik na ang mga drug lords sa building 14 at SAF ang mag-guwardiya (How I wish they would return the drug lords to Building 14 and allow SAF to guard them),” Dela Rosa said in July.

Some of the drug personalities moved to the medium security compound were the witnesses against detained Senator Leila de Lima. Three of them – Vicente Sy, Jojo Baligad and Peter Co – were moved to the medium security compound in October 2016 after they were hurt inside a riot in Building 14.

All these have led to Department Order 496 issued by Aguirre on July 24 directing the return of inmates to their original detention facility.

'Recanting'

On July 26, lawyer Francis Acejas held a press conference appealing to Aguirre not to transfer the inmates back to the maximum security compound. He is referring to inmates under the Witness Protection Program (WPP), including Sy, Baligad, Co, and two others: Froilan Trestiza and Hanz Anton Tan.

Acejas represents the group Kabalikat which claims that "there is reasonable ground to believe that certain shadowy or unknown personalities whom the WPP witnesses accused of illegal drug activities will have the motive to disrupt and discredit their participation as such witnesses."

"Effectively, their disqualification from the program will weaken, if not fail, the prosecution of the drug cases against persons involved," Kabalikat's statement added.

Acejas was then quoted in the press conference as saying that there is a possibility these witnesses might recant their testimonies against De Lima. But he retracted that statement shortly after.

The confusion that arose from that conference has led to several theories since. (READ: The high life: Illegal drugs and the New Bilibid Prison)

For one, lawyer Ferdinand Topacio, who's representing other witnesses against De Lima, said he has never heard of Acejas. Topacio's clients are Noel Martinez, Herbert Colanggo, Engelbert Durano, German Agojo and Rodolfo Magleo.

"I talked to them, none of them are recanting. I talked through an intermediary to Peter Co and Vicente Sy, they are not recanting," Topacio told Rappler in a phone interview on Friday.

But one thing about what Acejas said is true, at least according to Topacio: the inmates-witnesses do not want to be transferred back to the maximum security compound due to fear for their safety.

"Sy and Co are appealing not to be transferred to the maximum camp. They are asking me to convey to Aguirre that people are feeding wrong information to him to sow dissension among them," Topacio said, speculating that De Lima might have something to do with it.

Topacio said he will seek a meeting with Aguirre to discuss the request by Sy and Co.

Aguirre described the recantation statement as an attempt at disinformation. 

In the morning of Friday, July 28, the NBP moved 9 inmates back to Building 14. They are:

  1. Rico Caja (Cell 23)
  2. Joel Capones (Cell 23)
  3. Jojo Baligad (Cell 23)
  4. Benjamin Marcelo (Cell 24)
  5. Sam Lee Chua (Cell 24)
  6. Hanz Anton Tan (Cell 25)
  7. Che Kit Chua (Cell 25)
  8. Peter Co (Cell 26)
  9. Vicente Sy (Cell 26)

"All these cells are located in Block Charlie while Jaybee Sebastian is in Block Alpha far from the cells of the 9," DOJ Undersecretary Erickson Balmes said.

Acejas has not responded to Rappler's request for comment on the statements of Topacio and Aguirre.

De Lima's response

In her latest dispatch from her jail cell in Camp Crame, De Lima said that these calls to Aguirre by inmates not to be transferred back to the maximum security compound are proof of the "transactional nature of the whole case" against her. De Lima was charged of 3 counts of drug trade now pending before the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC).

DOJ dropped the complaints against Sy, Co, Baligad, Colanggo and Durano to be able to use them as government witnesses against De Lima.

"This is the value of the testimonies of the convicted criminals, as a bargaining chip for prison privileges, including the use of cellphones, wifi, TVs, airconditioners, etc., some gadgets of which are used in the continued operation of the Bilibid drug trade," De Lima said.

De Lima reminded Aguirre of the criminal complaint she has filed against him before the Office of the Ombudsman, one of the grounds being the use of false testimonies in charging her of drug trade.

"Ginoong Aguirre, mahiya ka naman sa sarili mo, kung may natitira ka pang hiya para sa sarili at pamilya mo. Pinakulong mo ang isang inosente, gamit ang mga pekeng ebidensiya at testimonya... Alam mo namang kagagawan mo lahat 'yang paggawa-gawa ng ebidensiya laban sa akin, alinsunod sa utos ng iyong Hari, si Duterte," De Lima said.

(Mr Aguirre, be ashamed of yourself, if you still have shame left for yourself or your family. You jailed an innocent person using fake evidence and testimonies. You know that you faked all the evidence to follow the orders of your boss Duterte.)

In the meantime, Aguirre has taken over the supervision and management of BuCor while President Rodrigo Duterte chooses the replacement for De Los Santos.

Aguirre has also conducted Galugad operations, or the raid into jail cells inside Bilibid to seize contrabands. Dela Rosa and SAF Chief Director Benjamin Lusad were with him during the operations. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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