Wild, Wild North
The late literary great Adrian Cristobal, whose readers sometimes thought he was serious when he meant to be joking, or joking when he meant to be serious, had a nice pitch for Vigan, Ilocos Sur. He said:
“Local and foreign experts describe Vigan as ‘a place like no other.’ Its uniqueness lies in its historic townscape which is an architectural blend of Asian, European, and Latin influences. Being the only surviving colonial town in the country, Vigan, earlier known as ‘Ciudad Fernandina’ from 1758 to late 19th century, is the oldest surviving Spanish colonial city in the country. It has auspiciously escaped the bombs of World War II unlike its sister cities, Manila and Cebu. How and why it has survived the wrath of war is a fascinating story on its own.”
Adrian, of course, was taking snap shots. One would wish he could say those nice words with the entire length of Vigan’s history in mind. Kidding aside, that is.
Vigan is the birthplace of Chavit Singson. And what happened in Vigan at the time he was making a name for himself could bring to light on possible answers to questions of the hows and the whys surrounding his partici-pation in the Erap presidency, or, more to the point, in Erap’s fall from the presidency.
The truth is, without necessarily contra-dicting Cristobal, Vigan survived the recurring madness of war. But what Vigan and, by extension, the whole province of Ilocos Sur, might be in greater pain of was the wrath of home-grown violence. It is hard to mention the province without some thoughts on the political violence that marred its history.
Since the mid-1950s until late 1960s, the Province of Ilocos Sur in northern Philippines gained a dubious recognition for its violent politics. Not that the 3 Gs (guns, goons, and gold) of traditional Filipino politics were unknown elsewhere, but one may argue that a 1967 police report on election-related mayhem in Ilocos Sur could only be used to describe other parts of the country with difficulty:
|Year||No. of Murder/ Homicide Cases|
|1967 (1st half)||153|
|Source: The 9 Lives of Luis “Chavit” Singson by Linda Limpe and Luis “Chavit” Singson|
The mix of violence and partisan politics in Ilocos Sur probably took its shape and content from the tribal mores of pre-hispanic times. The Itneg and Tinggian aborigines, which both drew their ancestry from the Igorot and Kankanaey tribes of the Cordilleras, ruled parts of northern Luzon that included what is now known as Ilocos Sur. They were recognized—and feared—for their aggression and expansionist bent. They chose as their leaders the ones who killed the most number of warriors of opposing tribes.
Nevertheless, the cycle of political violence in the province appeared to have been ignited by the bitter split in 1955 of the two political forces in the area. The Liberal Party, then undisputed as the dominant partisan player in Ilocos, wobbled when one of its key leaders, Vigan (capital town of Ilocos Sur) Mayor Lorenzo Formoso, Sr. defected to the opposing Nacionalista Party in an act that signified his intention to go to war against the other Liberal Party overlord, Congress-man Floro Crisologo.
Formoso allied with the private army-backed Faustino Tobia during the 1957 elections and both of them won—as Vigan Mayor and Ilocos Sur congressman, respectively—over their respective opponents: Jose Singson and Crisologo.
It was not only a contest for votes. It was also a dash for longevity. Formoso and Tobia won their seats. But scores of people lost their lives.
Crisologo vowed not to be defeated again in such a deadly game.
In 1958, Formoso fell from a bullet. This was a man who, in the world of guns, himself did not bother to hide his resort to the trigger. Once, while delivering a speech in a plaza, he offered a reward for anyone who could put to permanent sleep three people whose names he identified.
Lorenzo Formoso, Jr., the son, pulled himself out of relative obscurity to assert his bloodline. Riding on the flood of sympa-thetic emotions generated by the killing of his father, the young Formoso paddled his way to the finish line of the 1959 elections ahead of anyone else. Thus another Formoso rose to become mayor of Vigan.
Crisologo by this time had assembled the pioneering roster of his own private army—called saka-saka—that in later years would become notorious for their rapacity.
In 1961 Crisologo reclaimed his congres-sional seat from Tobia. Instead of promoting his candidacy through whatever niceties there might have been in an electoral campaign, Crisologo simply drove conten-ders away by force or by fear, and came out just as effective.
The dread effect of the Crisologo formula once more yielded positive results in the next —1963—elections. Two Crisologos became new entrants to the deadly power game. Paquito, the brother, had been elected as Mayor of Vigan; and Carmeling, the wife, was the new Governor. During the campaign, provincial morbidity and mortality rates shot up; the Formoso residence could have qualified for conversion to a tertiary hospital.
For the efforts they put into these new conquests, Crisologo saw in Chavit, his nephew, a reliable hand. Explosive yet calculating, the young man showed some flair for thrill. Crisologo thought that Chavit could be a vital cog in his kingdom’s grand designs.
At the same time, there crept a sense of doubt among members of the Crisologo household in their capability to contain the saka-saka within “manageable” limits. Floro himself, while acknowledging the indispen-sability of the armed band for the presser-vation of his rule, saw the monster that his creation had become.
The saka-saka had gone berserk. The group started out solely as an extension of Crisologo’s political apparatus, not much unlike any government that has its armed forces. Crisologo supplied the group with guns, ammunition, bandit paraphernalia and cost of dying allowance.
Then it morphed into a fully-committed criminal organization. And although capable of acting independently from the Crisologos, it enjoyed impunity based on its alliance with them.
In between electoral campaigns, during which time the expertise of the saka-saka was utilized to the hilt, they kept themselves busy with an atrocious pastime—extortion. At the point of a gun, many business establish-ments in Vigan had to bear the cost of arbitrary impositions. Worse, killings and threats to life and limb became a necessary attachment to the gang’s full package of terror.
Vigan, after having earned for centuries the tag as commercial and cultural hub in the north, would lose its lure as a business and historical destination, and not a few business people thought that relocating elsewhere was their only option.
The livelihood of the people suffered assaults from various fronts. Aside from peace and order problems, the local economy took a beating from shrinking job opportunities.
And so, confronted with the above challen-ges, and in recognition of Chavit’s gut, the Crisologos decided to put him in harness. New mayor Paquito appointed Chavit, then 23, to become Chief of Police of Vigan. The Crisologos thought that Chavit could contain the saka saka while keeping the alliance in the service of their reign.
It turned out Chavit had to contend not only with the saka-saka and the widespread lawlessness in his turf, but also with one Vincent “Bingbong” Crisologo.
Bingbong—Floro’s eldest son—was Chavit’s cousin. After years of thrill-seeking adven-ture in the big city, Bingbong had to resettle himself in Vigan. In 1966, Bingbong figured as one of the suspects (with Jaime Jose, et al) in a robbery with rape case in Pasay City, Manila.
From a crime-littered life in Manila to one that led an abusive gang in Vigan: anyone who lived that life was quite a police character, and Chavit knew he had to deal with it.
The Crisologos tasked Bingbong with managing the family’s Virginia Tobacco—the principal cash crop of Ilocos Sur and lifeblood of farmers in the area—redrying business, known by the name “Farmers of the North Tobacco Company (FNTC) Redrying Plant.
In the typical way of a brat, Bingbong hardly played by the rules. With the saka-saka manning the key entry and exit points throughout the province, he imposed an embargo on the tobacco trade, forcing the tobacco farmers and traders to consign their items to FNTC at one-fifth of the prevailing market price.
The farmers and traders suffered from the forced commercial practice. And yet they felt helpless. They had to bear and endure the pain inflicted on them by the bully.
Then hints of something new loomed in the horizon. Chavit, showing bricks of different mold, saw the world from the eyes of the oppressed.
At the outset people regarded him as one of “them” (the oppressors), but in time they found him sincere (and surprisingly out of the ordinary) in carrying out his task, as policeman, to enforce law and order.
“People saw that I was fair and sincere in carrying out my tasks. If somebody broke the law, I locked them in prison, regardless of who they were” Chavit said. He was referring to an instance when he apprehended and jailed a Crisologo bodyguard for the charge of grave threats.
And yet Chavit’s job demanded not only sincerity. It risked the health and safety of the one performing its functions.
One day Chavit led a convoy of 20 trucks full of tobacco headed towards Manila. Also on board the fleet were farmers who owned the precious leaves, and desperate enough to sell their products at a fair price.
Chavit had equipped each vehicle with weapons in preparation for any eventuality. The sign of desperation was obvious: People were prepared to lose their lives in the defense of their livelihood.
As the convoy passed through each saka-saka checkpoint, the bandits cringed and slithered away at the sight of Chavit. The threat of mutual destruction dumbed the nerves of terrorists. From where the oppressed saw it, the fear of power behind the embargo had dissipated. The Crisologo tobacco blockade was defeated.
Since that day, the tobacco embargo ceased being a symbol of tyranny and lordship. The subjects—constituting mostly of farmers—felt liberated.
People found a new hero in Chavit. On the other hand, the Crisologos felt they had raised a traitor in their midst.
In 1967, Chavit, aged 26 and egged on by a growing number of fans, forayed into politics. He ran, along with his father Jose “Seling” Singson, as Liberal Party stalwarts opposite Crisologo’s Nacionalista Party bets, for councilor and mayor of Vigan, respectively.
The Crisologo candidates won the contested seats in practically all of Ilocos Sur. Many of them ran unopposed anyway, as their opponents had been forced to withdraw their candidacies before the voting.
Except Chavit and Seling. They did not balk. In fact, they won.
The battle lines were now clearly drawn. The Singsons versus the Crisologos. And the rivalry was just warming up.
The 1969 national elections offered Chavit a bigger arena for his burgeoning political stock. The Liberal Party fielded him as congressional candidate for Ilocos Sur. The opponent: Floro Crisologo.
Days after the campaign period began, on September 16, 1969, armed men barged into the house of Florencio Parel in Bantay, Sto. Domingo, Ilocos Sur. They fired at him and left as soon as they were certain he was dead. Parel was Chavit’s campaign manager.
The next day Chavit, along with a dozen or so supporters, went to Bantay to see and condole with the Parel family. On their way back, danger awaited them in Sto. Domingo. There they were—Bingbong and a hundred of his armed saka-saka men. It did not take long for a firefight between Chavit’s and Bingbong’s group to erupt. For 12 hours, from 8 am to 10 pm, staccato of gun shots rang from the poblacion of Sto. Domingo. It was as if the scene was taken out of a gang-land movie, except that this was not a movie.
Jose Paolo dela Cruz, writing for the Philip-pine Star on November 17, 2011, framed in words what it must have been like: “To many who remember, tales of the old Ilocos [Sur] are a case of life imitating art. Art being the classic cowboy films, where the West is governed by guns, goons and gore. Only, the Old North is not the West and Clint Eastwood is nowhere to be found. Filling in for these elements are our local version of a “wild” North, and its version of the legendary Clint Eastwood—Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson.”
Reports on the number of casualties varied. Some said as many as 16 people died from the madness.
The killings and cases of violence went on and on, almost without let-up, throughout the campaign period.
Philippine Constabulary records showed that from January to May 1970 alone, no less than 78 cases of murder have been reported in the province, of which only 21 were said to have been solved.
Chavit lost in the election. But it was not the end of his and his supporters’ misery. In Ora Centro and Ora Este, two barangays of Bantay, Ilocos Sur, the fury of the scorned candidate was unleashed.
Floro, the winning congressional candidate (Chavit said he won the vote but lost in the counting) along with other Crisologo candi-dates who vied for provincial positions, got zero votes in those barangays. On May 22, 1970, armed men descended on the communities and set their houses ablaze. In Ora Este, one resident—Vicenta Balboa—was too old to flee and died from the heat and burns caused by the fire.
The national press—and the nation—turned its attention to what it now collectively labeled as Ilocos Sur being “The Wild, Wild West of the North.” Members of Philippine Congress, particularly those who were identified with the political opposition, bristled at the brazenness by which life and property were being violated in the province.
Senators Gerry Roxas and Ninoy Aquino of the Liberal Party delivered fiery speeches on the Senate floor to denounce the Ora atrocities. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, a Crisologo ally, could not ignore the mounting pressure for him to look into the gripping reports of violence that had been rocking the province of Ilocos Sur.
After a series of government-sanctioned investigations (there were initial attempts at white wash and cover-up) and an exchange of charges between the camps of Crisologo and the allies of Chavit, Bingbong and about a hundred of his men would be tried in court for arson with homicide. This led to his conviction to two life terms; he eventually carried on to serve time for 11 years before being pardoned.
The spiraling cycle of violence was hitting every which way. On October 18, 1970, it was Floro’s turn to fall from an assassin’s bullet. The Crisologo patriarch who, as Congress-man, was known as father of the Philippine Social Security System, was far from secure even in his own kingdom. His was one more dot in a long list of unsolved crimes in the Wild, Wild North.
Floro’s death did not end the Crisologo side of partisan political feud in Ilocos Sur. The Crisologo-Singson rivalry, in fact, had revved -up even more. But Chavit would not be denied of his political destiny. In 1971, Chavit pressed on with jabs at electoral bouts. This time, he would go on to win as Governor of Ilocos Sur. Evaristo Titong Singson, Chavit’s brother, also won the mayorship of Vigan. And yet, except for the Singson brothers, all the other contested seats in IIocos Sur went to the Crisologos or their allies.
The Crisologo-Singson rivalry fueled more mayhem. On September 24, 1971 while on the campaign trail, Chavit’s convoy of vehicles ran through an ambush. Quirino Pilar, seated beside Chavit, was hit by a bullet and died. Three Chavit supporters—Felix Kaabay, Alfredo Taypa and Eddie Follosco—who were on board in another vehicle, sustained bullet wounds but survived.
Barely days after winning the governorship of Ilocos Sur, Chavit cheated death one more time. He was invited to grace the fiesta celebration of Cabugao, one of the province’s 34 towns, and, while on the dance floor, grenades exploded in the middle of the town plaza, which was the site of the celebration. The blasts shook the ground and threw everything out of their places. There was bedlam. Blood sputtered everywhere. People screamed, gripped with horror.
The deadly attack was meant for Chavit. But he survived, with nothing more than bruises in his arms. The crimsoned barong tagalog he wore for the occasion is currently on display at the family museum. His dance partner was not as fortunate; she suffered, along with hundreds of revelers, multiple shrapnel wounds. In all, 11 people died from the explosions.
No. 71—Ilocandia’s Hope
Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos had 7 as his lucky number. He declared Martial Law on September 21 (divisible by 7) 1972. A quarter of a century later, Ping Lacson (who belonged to PMA Class 71) would be identified with the code name “71.” Another man came around to make a name for himself—Chavit Singson—and likewise staked his claim to the number “71.”
In 1971, the time of Chavit—at least in politics—has come. He won as Governor of Ilocos Sur in that year.
“71 seems to be my lucky number,” he said.
Born on June 21, 1941, Luis Crisologo Singson is the second of 8 children by Seling Singson and his wife, Caring Crisologo. Looking back, Luis admits he does not know why he ended up being called “Chavit.”
The Singsons were descendants of Chinese ancestors. In 1764, Joaquin Ayco, a Chinese merchant, married Rosa Songnio, a Chinese mestiza, of Vigan. Six generations later, Chavit was born.
Chavit’s 6 siblings, aside from Titong, included Bernardo, Fernando (Dodoy), Maria Livia (Honeygirl), Jerry, Germilina (Germy), and Bonito.
Like the Crisologos, the Singsons were not new to local officialdom. In 1846, Don Leon Singson, a third-generation member of the clan, served as Gobernadorcillo of Vigan. From then on and at any given period of the area’s political history, a Singson or one of its kind would be at the helm.
Chavit grew up in a family that was free from want. Seling, Chavit’s father, was a civil engineer and a businessman. His construc-tion firm was a leading contractor in the region. Caring, Chavit’s mother, on her own or in partnership with family members, had likewise operated a number of thriving businesses. These included restaurants, movie houses, movie production and, of course, tobacco trading.
Steeped in the Chinese tradition of social and business networking at the time, Caring liked to gather her friends for parties and mahjong sessions. Sources say Chavit acquired from his mother his flair for win-ning money games, mahjong among them.
Chavit went through formal education in what might be considered as an erratic school hopping, undoubtedly influenced by an environment that promoted a mix of leisure and vices, and probably driven by the thrill-seeking appetite of his youth. Never-theless, he did manage to earn a degree in Bachelor of Science in Commerce from the Colegio de San Juan de Letran. He also tried architecture at the University of the East but hardly made a dint in it. He even studied embalming (to help the family’s funeral parlor business, he said).
A man with a myriad of dreams, Chavit was also into tobacco trading business. He needed to develop contacts for this venture, and this was how he developed friendship with Evelyn Verzoza, also of Vigan, and a distant relative of the Crisologos.
Evelyn and Chavit carried on to being more than friends. They tied the matrimonial knot in May 1962. He was 21; she was 19. They begot 7 children before they eventually untied their marital union and went their separate ways.
At 23 Chavit added to his long list of pre-occupations his first job in government—as Chief of Police of Vigan.
At 26, in 1967, he was elected as Councilor of Vigan.
He assumed office as Governor of Ilocos Sur in January 1972. At the Provincial Capitol, his first order of business was to restore the peace. He dangled an amnesty program for the saka-saka, among others, to give up their arms and their nefarious trade. The bandits responded positively and the result was dramatic for the province. The people of Ilocos Sur, in the main, once more lived in relative peace.
Business confidence returned. Gradually, and in small doses at first, the local economy generated livelihood opportunities for the people.
Chavit’s label as the knight in shining armor for Ilocos had been marked. The son of the Itneg and Tinggian tribes of the Cordilleras, a descendant of Chinese bloodline, and survivor of the Wild, Wild North, had come of age.
Tested by adversity and molded by his past, Chavit was all set to seize his future.
It was a future where the people of Ilocos Sur affirmed and re-affirmed their trust in him. For more than 30 years now (as Governor from 1972 to 1986 [14 years], then as Congressman from 1988 to 1992 [4 years], and back as Governor from 1992 to 2001 [9 years], then from 2004 to 2007 [3 years], and finally from 2010 to the present [2011, 2 years and counting]), Chavit had earned his people’s mandate through the electoral process.
And it was with his being Governor that he got around to realize the magnitude of his task. He saw the need to redeem the majority of his people from the bondage of want.
The provincial government had little with which to push a truly responsive develop-ment agenda. In 1988, he decided to seek a congressional mandate with one objective in mind: collect from the national government a share of excise tax on Virginia tobacco being produced by Ilocos Sur and 3 other provinces.
He succeeded in winning a congressional seat as well as in enacting a law—Republic Act 7171—also known as “An Act to Promote the Development of the Farmers in the Virginia Tobacco-producing Provinces,” or simply “Tobacco Excise Tax Law.”
“Nobody did it on purpose,” Chavit beamed, “but there it was, my favorite number—71.”
The law required the national government to remit, on pro rata basis, to the four Virginia tobacco-producing provinces—Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra and La Union—at least 15 % of proceeds from excise tax on the Virginia tobacco they produced.
“Ernie Maceda advised me to just let the bill lapse into law,” Chavit remembered.
Ernesto “Ernie” Maceda was member of the Philippine Senate at the time, and he probably felt that Fidel “Eddie” Ramos—earlier endorsed by Cory for President in the upcoming 1992 presidential election—might make it hard for President Corazon “Cory” Aquino to sign RA 7171. Months earlier, master organizer Eddie had been working hard on the skeletal make-up of his political networks at the local level, even as he ostensibly served Cory as Secretary of National Defense.
In Ilocos Sur, Eddie miscalculated. He thought Chavit was not worth the trouble having him as an ally. Eddie and Chavit, therefore, had an awkward time together and Ernie, always keen on political dyna-mics at the highest level, knew this.
RA 7171, already signed by both chambers of Congress and parked at Cory’s desk, would automatically become a law after 30 days even if she did not touch it. Indeed, it was not necessary to nudge her with her pen if Eddie’s presence loomed somewhere at the back.
“You’ll get your RA 7171, anyway,” was what the diplomatic Ernie could be telling Chavit.
But Chavit ignored Ernie. “Not my style,” he could have told Ernie. He went to Malaca-ñang and called on Cory. The President signed RA 7171 into law on January 9, 1992, or some six months before her term ended.
Even then, the amount of tobacco excise taxes was already running into billions of pesos. A portion of that would already mean a lot to the four Ilocos Provinces.
For two decades, from the time Chavit became Governor in 1971 to the day he delivered RA 7171 in 1992, the province of Ilocos Sur—compared to many other provin-ces in the country—has had a bright past. With the law, its future looked brighter.
But not too fast. When Eddie won the 1992 elections and became president of the Philippines, RA 7171 failed on its promise. Or, to be more precise, the government did not implement it.
And something worse—as far as Chavit was concerned—was yet to come. Eddie, the cigar-chomping President, wanted the law amended. For Chavit, amending a law that has never been implemented smacked of high-handedness and deceit on the part of the Ramos government. “How can we know something needs to be fixed when it has yet to be tried?” he reasoned, explaining that “the role of the President is to implement the law, whether he likes it or not.”
Eddie wanted all tobacco-producing provin-ces, and not just the Virginia tobacco-producing provinces, to be beneficiaries of RA 7171. Although most northern Luzon provinces—including Pangasinan (Eddie’s home province)—produce tobacco, not all—except the four mentioned earlier—produce Virginia tobacco. Virginia tobacco is harder to grow and thrives only in areas where climatic conditions are similar to that of Ilocos Sur and nearby provinces. What differentiates Virginia tobacco from other tobacco products is its industrial value. Cigarette and cigar manufacturers exclu-sively use Virginia tobacco for their produc-tion requirements.
By shelving RA 7171 and pushing for its contorted amendment, Eddie and his government had erected a wall so frus-trating—where Chavit was concerned—for its immovability. He felt like he was up against a powerful Marcos-Crisologo-type-of-chal-lenge all over again.
Chavit did not run away from Marcos and Crisologo then. He would not shy away from a fight now.
At the House of Representatives, Chavit lobbied with then Speaker Jose de Venecia against the bill amending RA 7171. To be more precise, he actually threatened cong-ressional leaders with belligerence. “I will take up arms and go to the hills if you pro-ceed with this amendment,” he warned. The law survived the attempted assault on its integrity.
And Chavit kept his peace.
Still, nothing even remotely encouraging for its advocates came out of the law after six years of the Ramos presidency.
When Joseph “Erap” Estrada became president, Chavit knew the wheels of fortune have turned in Ilocandia’s favor. It was time to reap the fruits of RA 7171.
Erap was his friend. “I was the first Provincial Governor in the Philippines who openly supported his candidacy in 1998,” Chavit said.
Just the same, it was not as easy as Chavit imagined it might have been. Insofar as his version of the story went, the release of RA 7171 funds to Ilocos Sur and the rest of the beneficiary provinces would be dependent on what Erap wanted him to do. When Erap asked him to collect his share of the jueteng money, he obliged, all for sake of his pet law. When Erap hinted at his share of the RA 7171 windfall, Chavit also caved in.
When he was still alive, Jaime Cardinal Sin was once quoted as saying that “I will receive money from the devil so I can give it to the poor.”
Chavit said he never admitted—during the impeachment trial (December 2000) and Erap’s plunder trial (2002-2007)—that he was a jueteng lord. What he said was he agreed to collect jueteng money so the release of funds due his province as mandated by RA 7171 could be facilitated. He thought something good would come out of the devil’s money.
“I was used by jueteng operators,” he claimed. He also called Erap as lord of all jueteng lords.
In August 1998, Erap—barely a month in office—bared his priorities as head of state. He called Chavit and Rodolfo “Bong” Pineda to a meeting at his private residence in San Juan to discuss new directions for the game. More specifically, to set new directions of how Erap could collect his share from jueteng money. Like masiao and other numbers game, jueteng is illegal in the Philippines. But they thrive, because, one, people like to gamble and, two, gambling operators bribe law enforcers and other government officials with “protection money” so they could go about their trade unhampered. The meeting ended with Chavit tasked to collect Erap’s share of the protection money.
“I could not afford to be out of his inner circle of friends, lest the release of RA 7171 funds for the beneficiary provinces might be compromised again,” Chavit rationalized.
“But why it had to be you?” I asked him in an interview, in reference to his being the designated chief cabo.
“Erap thought that Bong coming over to deliver jueteng money would be too vulgar,” he said. Chavit related that Erap and Bong had been into jueteng for years. “But if it was me doing the chore, people would think it was all official business because I was Governor. And,” Chavit added, “I was not only Governor. I was also his kumpadre.”
Bong Pineda, of course, is to jueteng as Tiger Woods was to golf. Although Bong and Erap had been friends (they are kumpadres—Bong stood as one of Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada’s, Erap’s son by Luisa “Loi” Pimentel Estrada, sponsors in Jinggoy’s wedding), since Erap was Vice President, people would have found it hard not to connect the dots when Bong was seen hobnobbing too often with Erap.
During Erap’s plunder trial at the Sandigan-bayan (2002-2007) where he was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt, both he and son Jinggoy denied Chavit’s allegations, including the one linking the then President to Bong.
Erap charged that Chavit, not him or Jinggoy, was the one involved in jueteng. But he did not explain why he, as President and there-fore chief implementor of the law, had not apprehended Chavit despite the many instances that they were together and his knowledge that his erstwhile friend was breaking the law.
In trying to disentangle themselves from jueteng, Erap brought up his professional record on the matter.
To quote the court records: “[Erap] Estrada asserted that his policy against gambling had not changed, even when he was a senator, Vice President and President. How-ever, he realized when he was a mayor that jueteng which was a gambling for the poor was illegal and its collectors were harassed while the casino for the rich was legal. He delivered his first privilege speech at the Senate on November 25, 1987 … where he advocated the legalization of jueteng in order that the government through PAGCOR could earn P12 M every day or P360 Million a month which could be used to provide essential services for the poor instead of the enrichment of the police and illegal operators… As President, he appointed Jus-tice Cecilia Munoz-Palma as Chairperson of the PCSO and asked her to study how to legalize jueteng. She retired only after less than 2 months to take care of her sick hus-band. Later it was assigned to her successor Rosario Lopez, who begged off as she was new on the job. Chairperson Alice Reyes of PAGCOR took over and finished the study.”
It would seem that depriving the poor of a legal way to gamble when there was one for the rich was an injustice that Erap wanted to correct by legalizing jueteng. He envisioned millions of pesos in revenues that could be used to fund projects for the poor; but he could not seem to see that such a method would first rip the poor off of their hard-earned money.
Some sociologists say that the Filipinos’ idea of tact is to say “yes” when they mean “no,” or “no” when they mean “yes.” But Erap just could not seem to get it when twice his jueteng legalization push was met with a cold reception—courtesy of Justice Palma and Lopez. They probably could not say no to him; unfortunately, their body language was esoteric.
Laquian, whose long stay in another country might have made it easy for him to do away with Filipino ambivalence, would remark: “The Filipino people had not elected a conceptual President.”
Erap further testified that he issued orders to the PNP to stamp out jueteng and other forms of illegal gambling throughout the country. But aside from the Sandiganbayan, there were others who did not believe him. In a 2009 speech at the Senate, Ping said the directives and the police raids on jueteng operations were all for show.
Chavit said he was concerned during the first few months of being Erap’s collector that General Roberto Lastimoso, then the PNP Director General, did not accept “his share” of the protection money. Chavit delivered P3 M to the PNP chief in Novem-ber 1998 but the bribe offer was initially refused. Chavit however suggested that a round-about route may have found its way to the addressee.
After having informed Erap of Latimoso’s belligerence, the three met at Malacañang where Erap told Lastimoso to coordinate with Chavit in relation to the latter’s task. Lastimoso reportedly explained that he needed to coordinate with the Regional Commanders so that the anti-illegal gamb-ling operations may proceed, but with the intent of making a fuss about them and nothing else. The jueteng crackdown was all but real.
Ping, again in that 2009 speech, thought aloud that his genuine opposition to jueteng might have kept him from the top PNP post. In public, Erap had been heard as saying Ping could not be appointed PNP chief while his Kuratong Baleleng case was pending with the court. Ping and Lastimoso, throughout Erap’s presidency, had been at odds with each other. Lastimoso resigned in November 1999 over allegations that linked him to the underworld, a demolition assault for which he blamed Ping as the mastermind. Erap picked Ping as Lastimoso’s replacement.
The desire for jueteng money—“a convenient resource,” Chavit said of Erap’s position, “because he felt he could not be charged for stealing government money”—would prove to be a reckless chase that tripped their friendship. It was, from Erap’s end, probably an unnecessary fumble that led to his fall from power.
Chavit saw his friend Erap at Malacañang to request action on the RA 7171 funds for Ilocos Sur that were never released during the six years that Eddie Ramos was president.
Erap had barely settled on his presidential seat when Chavit nudged him.
“It was a promise he made to the people of Ilocos Sur during the election campaign,” Chavit said, in reference to the release of R.A. 7171 funds. He contended that the national government owed the Ilocos provinces billions of pesos.
The request brightened up Erap’s day. The newly-elected president confided to Chavit the expenses he incurred during the elections. Chavit instantly knew it and asked: “How much?”
Chavit testified in the plunder trial that they agreed on a 10 % cut for the president from RA 7171 releases. On his turn at the witness stand, Erap said he never ran out of campaign money so he couldn’t have asked Chavit about helping him out on that issue. In fact, Erap said, the donors were so many that his political party—the Partido ng Masang Pilipino—were able to fund the expenses of local candidates.
When the DBM did let go of P200 M at Chavit’s behest and as approved by Erap, Chavit—survivor of multiple ambush attacks—had the shock of his life when informed that he needed to part with P130 M of the total amount.
“I thought we agreed on a 10 % cut,” Chavit complained to Charlie “Atong” Ang.
As Erap’s high-stakes gambling buddy, Atong became a celebrity of sorts when media broadcasted a video showing him and then Vice President Erap playing baccarat at the Silahis Hotel Casino in Manila. It was election time. People had their way of promoting one candidate and denigrating the other. Some lawyers commented then that it was illegal for a public official to sniff air at any casino.
Edgar Bentain, the hotel employee believed to have went out of his way (accounts said he decided to take the spy job when he saw Erap’s security escorts napping after a heavy snack) to record the video in January 1998, was abducted by unidentified men in January 1999. He was never seen again, alive or dead, since then.
“There will be more releases,” Atong assured Chavit. Indeed, better to please than displease the one who held the key to realizing one’s ambition, and say goodbye to the billions in the dreamer’s mind. Chavit relented and, according to him (Chavit), gave Erap the P130 M he asked from the total RA 7171 release of P200 M.
There had been no releases since then. “Erap did not honor our agreement,” Chavit said.
In 2001, after an abortive impeachment trial, and with the deaths of Bubby Dacer, Emmanuel Corbito and 22 more deaths from the December 30, 2000 bombings serving as backdrop, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo supplanted Erap from his royal throne in Malacañang. Heavily indebted to Chavit, Gloria made it easy for the government to implement RA 7171 this time.
7171: Progress of the Province and Towns
When passing to the different towns from Sinait in the North, Tagudin in the South and upland municipalities in the east, municipal buildings and other big infrastructure projects are noticeable; funds mostly came from their R.A. 7171 municipal shares.
The previous wooden municipal and city halls were transformed into large concreted ones, covered courts at civic centers that are now used as venue for different programs tournaments and festivities were established.
The old public markets are replaced by wider and attractive trading centers.
For the comfort of the riding public, bus and jeepney terminals were established. Almost all of the national, provincial and municipal roads were concreted. Nearly all the streets going to the countryside were also cemented. Access roads going to the upland municipalities which are previously narrow rough roads making it dusty on summer and muddy during rainy season [are] now wider and can now be compared to the national highways. Because of this, transporting the different agricultural products from the far flung areas is now much easier. Larger types of vehicles can now go up even during rainy days. In times of emergency, residents can bring their patients to the hospital using the ambulances, [unlike before when] they have to carry the sick using hammock. More children are sent to school as part of the R.A. 7171 fund is allocated for scholarship grants.
Local Government Units purchased dump trucks utilized in solid waste management, service vehicles and heavy equipment used in construction and beautification projects.
Farmers [directly gained from] R.A. 7171. The tobacco excise tax law funded the farm equipment and post harvest facilities distributed to them. Included here are tractors, solar dyers, different farm inputs, financial assistance and seed subsidy.
Ilocos Sur, formerly one of the poorest provinces in the country, soared to become a first class province and [one of top ten wealthiest] places in the Philippines courtesy of tobacco, the green gold of Ilocandia, and R.A. 7171.
—Around Ilocandia Channel
“From an annual income of P2 M in 1972, we now have an annual budget of P800 M,” Chavit said. Almost half of Ilocos Sur’s revenues came from RA 7171.
The provincial government could have appropriated for itself larger amounts of money. Chavit, however, introduced a way by which the component LGUs of the province could have direct access to the fund. Under a sharing scheme adopted through consensus, the entire proceeds for the province would be distributed in accordance with the following formula: 30 % for the two congressional districts (at 15 % each); 40 % for the 32 towns and 2 cities; and 30 % for the provin-cial government.
Much of the progress that happened in Ilocandia could be attributed to the re-flow of funds generated by RA 7171. Continued de la Cruz in his Philippine Star article: “[the law] became the goose that laid golden eggs for the Ilocos region, resulting in more jobs and billions in provincial revenue.”
Chavit went into trouble with both the Eddie and Erap administrations. Looking at how Ilocos Sur—Ilocos Norte, La Union and Abra also have him to thank for—had progressed, one may agree with Chavit that going through those troubles was worth it.
“But the government has a policy against cigarette smoking. Has it not adversely affected the market for Virginia tobacco?”
“On the contrary, sale of Virginia tobacco from Ilocos has been increasing over the last few years,” Chavit replied. “People are hard-headed.”
That there is money in tobacco is true. That Ilocandia is cashing on it is also true. And this, to a large extent, is being made possible by millions of slaves of nicotine who gamely put their own physical health at risk—if we go by what health authorities say.
From FPJ to Erap
In 2006, while the plunder case against him was being tried at the Sandigan-bayan, Erap disowned Chavit as one of his close friends. “I have only one close friend, the late actor Fernando Poe, Jr. Gov. Singson is just an ordinary friend and a political ally,” Erap declared from the witness stand.
Chavit earlier tried to convince the graft court that he and Erap were heretofore bosom buddies by testifying, among other things, that Jacob, Erap’s son by Laarni Enriquez, was his baptismal godson while Erap stood as sponsor in the wedding with his two children, namely Racquel and Randy.
In an interview, Chavit told me that he and Erap became friends through FPJ.
Chavit recalled how the three of them connected:
In the early sixties while he was still young, Chavit had helped out in managing some of his family’s businesses. One of the busi-nesses was his mother’s movie production outfit.
The movie business gave occasion for Chavit to meet the late Fernando Poe Jr., also known as FPJ (Ronnie to close friends and family members). FPJ was a movie icon in the Philippines—actor, producer and director—and often shot his films in Vigan. He also ran for President of the Philippines in 2004.
In time, the association between Chavit and FPJ evolved. They became partners in busi-ness, in work, and in leisure. As drinking buddies, they could while away the hours with alcohol as booster.
“The moment they got to start a drinking session, they hated to part until one was virtually dead,” a source recounted the times when both Chavit and FPJ had those intoxicating refills together.
Another common hobby for the two would be rifle shooting. While FFJ showed his skills in films, Chavit flaunted his prowess in actual competition. He in fact had won several shooting titles in the Philippines and abroad.
Chavit stood almost a foot shorter than FPJ, “but I could easily outbox him,” Chavit boasted. “Those rapid shots to the body are only done in the movies. He dreaded me when it comes to actual physical fight.”
He recalled an incident in Yabut Apartelle in Makati. “I used to stay there whenever I travel to Manila from Ilocos Sur. And Ronnie would often come over whenever he was free from business and domestic concerns.”
One day Chavit found Ronnie waiting for him at the place. “He was at the lobby, gulping beer,” Chavit narrated. “He wanted me to join him. I said ‘no, pare, I need to go…’ ”
When Chavit returned to the Apartelle the next morning, FPJ was still there, like trying to win a drinkathon. “He accosted me: ‘Why did you leave me, pare?’” Chavit continued. “Then he nagged me again about joining him at his table. I got pissed off and I pummeled him down to the floor.”
For a time Chavit and FPJ did not see eye to eye. But they were barkada (clique) and neither of them could wait too long to get reconciled. FPJ sent Erap, who by then had been a common friend, to Chavit to try to patch things up.
Erap’s peace offensive worked and soon the ties that bound the barkada tightened, again. Erap was close to FPJ as FPJ was close to Chavit. But as time progressed, due to common interests, one became as close to any of the other two. All three had thriving business interests—FPJ and Erap in films, Chavit in trading, utilities and, by this time, mining.
Years later Erap and Chavit would be drawn more closely to each other than FPJ would to any of the two, simply because both had interests in which FPJ had little, at least back in the day, which was politics and mahjong (not to mention casino, of course).
“Between us, I can’t say who the better mahjong player is,” Chavit said. “But Erap hated to lose, and those sessions dragged on until he found a way to win.”
In a November 14, 2000 article (A Portrait of Lifestyle and Liability) published by International Herald Tribune, author Thomas Fuller said:
“Before their falling out, Mr. Singson said he and the president spent hours gambling and drinking together in the presidential man-sion, at mistress’ houses, on the presiden-tial yacht, at Mr. Estrada’s house in Los Angeles and in hotels around the world.”
Still speaking of common interests, all 3—FPJ, Erap and Chavit—had managed to make it of public knowledge their monstrous appetite for women. We may correct that: young women.
FPJ had publicly admitted to having sired at least one child each from actress Anna Marin and model Rowena Moran. He was legally married to Susan (Jesus Sonora in real life), a union which, however, did not produce any offspring.
Erap of course had his EZs—Guia Gomez, Laarni Enriquez, Joy Melendrez and Rowena Lopez among them—with whom he had children. (Erap denied the Lopez affair and the rumor that he had a child with her.) He also had 3 children with Loi, the legal wife.
When Erap became President and money poured in like it had no limit, the drive for sex was also limitless.
Part of the Fuller article said:
“If the impeachment process against Mr. Estrada loses its momentum, Mr. Singson said he would disclose the names of Mr. Estrada’s ‘many’ girlfriends and show copies of the checks that he wrote for them on the president’s instructions. ‘He’s always look-ing for new young women,’ Mr. Singson said. He said that during all-night drinking and gambling sessions, a mistress or girlfriend was often present and that he would be instructed by the president to ‘give her 1 million’ pesos.”
Chavit himself had at one time made known what his preference was when it came to the opposite sex. In an autobiography which he co-wrote with Linda Limpe, he was quoted to have quipped: “If I had any interest in women, the youngest that would be my type would be 32 years old—divided by two.”
 These numbers could be viewed in a context where the population was at least 6 times smaller than today.
 Prior to 1986 when a new Constitution was adapted, the Philippines had two dominant political parties—the Liberal Party and the Nacionalista Party.
 In many ways patterned after the US electoral system, Philippine elections at the time were con-ducted every two years. One was for national posi-tions (like President and members of Congress) and two years after for local positions (like Governor and Mayor). Each elected position was for a term of 4 years.
 Other sources claimed that the tobacco blockade was not solely designed by Crisologo. Lucio Tan, with his Fortune Tobacco company, offered bribes to ensure steady supply of raw materials at rock-bottom prices. Marcos, who had been in Malacañang for over a year, acted as behind-the-scene facilitator.
 A decade earlier, the Crisologos were allied with the Liberal Party. But when then Senate President Ferdinand Marcos, a key political leader from the neighboring province of Ilocos Norte, jumped over to the Nacionalista Party to run for President, the Crisologos turned Nacionalista as well.
 In jueteng parlance, a cabo is the one who collects bets, the lowest in the hierarchy of the illegal gambling game’s operations at the community level.
 Ira Pedrasa of GMA News reported that “In 1999, 11 members of Kuratong Baleleng were killed by the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission, led by Panfilo Lacson. In 2003, the High Tribunal ordered the Quezon City Regional Trial Court to try the case against Lacson and 33 other police officials. The trial court however dismissed the criminal case, finding absence of probable cause. The special prosecuting team later moved for new trial before the High Tribunal to remand case to the trial court to present new evidence against Senator Lacson, inter alia. On May 2, 2008, the Supreme Court of the Philippines resolved to take cognizance of the motion of the families of the slain Kuratong Baleleng members for revival of the murder case against police officials and Sen. Panfilo Lacson.”
The Kuratong Baleleng group, according to Jose Torres in his 2003 PCIJ report, the group was originally established by the Philippine military in 1986 to guard against the spread of communist guerrillas in Misamis Occidental, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur provinces. The first leader, chosen directly by the military, was Ongkoy Parojinog, who allegedly used the group both for its expressed purpose as well as to conduct illegal activities. Parojinog was later being killed by Philippine soldiers. When the group was officially disbanded in 1988, they continued to operate as an organized crime syndicate. Over time, the group grew, with other gangs using the name Kuratong Baleleng to cover their own activities. Eventually, the group splintered into multiple, smaller groups headquartered in various cities around the region. The groups are involved in a variety of illegal active-ties, including robberies, smuggling, kidnap-ping, murders, extortion, the drug trade, and illegal gam-bling. According to the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, that part of the group’s strength is that it is protected by both local and national government officials.”
 Chavit charged expenses like this to the jueteng protection money he collected for Erap. A portion of the Sandiganbayan decision reads: “Gov. Singson considered the biggest among the expenses charged to the ‘Tax’ the P1.2 Million given to Laarni Enriquez whom Gov. Singson described as the most beloved or favorite of FPres. Estrada. According to Gov. Singson, he was assessed, like other persons who attended the birthday party of Laarni, the aforesaid P1.2 Million as his share in the price of the necklace birthday gift amounting to P13 Million for Laarni. Jaime Dichavez collected the said amount from Gov. Singson after the party. Gov. Singson paid by check which was deposited in the account of Laarni at PSBank. It was Congress-man Mark Jimenez who pinpointed the guests who would share P1.2 Million each for the gift for Laarni after they had just finished playing mahjong with FPres. Estrada during the party. Gov. Singson charged the P1.2 Million as ‘tax’ in the jueteng collection because it was “a big amount of money.’ ”