CONVICTED FELONS AT HOUSE Witnesses Rodolfo Magleo, Herbert Colanggo, Noel Martinez and Jaime Pacho appear before the House of Representatives committee on justice, which is hearing alleged illegal drug activities implicating Sen. Leila de Lima, who was then justice secretary, at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City. RICHARD A. REYES HIGH-PROFILE prisoners testifying at the opening of a House of Representatives hearing on Tuesday painted a portrait of Sen. Leila de Lima as a corrupt justice secretary who allowed convicted gang leaders and drug lords to turn the national penitentiary into a “Little Las Vegas” and the center of a multibillion-peso national illegal drug operation. Concerts featuring top Philippine entertainers were held in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP). Beer flowed. High-prized call girls were brought in. Cells were turned into virtual hotel rooms. All these happened in the maximum security unit, the preferred quarters of convicts. In return, De Lima allegedly received millions in campaign money for her senatorial bid in the May elections. The wild nights and shenanigans of convicts were brought out for the first time in the latest chapter of the game of tit-for-tat between the embattled senator and President Duterte’s allies as the House justice committee heard testimonies of maximum security inmates and others on the proliferation of drugs at the NBP during De Lima’s term as head of the Department of Justice (DOJ) under then President Benigno Aquino III. It was the latest administration-backed salvo against De Lima, a Liberal Party member whose woes began since she emerged as the President’s fiercest critic, blasting alleged extrajudicial killings in his relentless war on illegal drugs that has claimed more than 3,000 lives and drew condemnation from the United States, United Nations and international human rights advocates. In a privilege speech in the Senate as the House hearing was unfolding, De Lima denied the accusations. “As the saying goes, everything has been thrown at me except the kitchen sink. I am still waiting for the kitchen sink,” she said. (See story on front page).
‘Not about De Lima’ The chair of the House panel, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, insisted that the committee’s inquiry on illicit drug activities at the national penitentiary was “not about De Lima” at all. Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the Palace did not have a hand in the event. “I’d like to say the House is also independent,” he said. But the witnesses, under the direction of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II who was given free rein by the House panel to question them, seemed bent on pinning down the senator on allegations she was a beneficiary of drug money. Aguirre said a large chunk of all illegal drug transactions emanated from the NBP before it was reduced by 90 percent when the Special Action Force was called in to police the compound. “The drug lords earned billions, not only millions there,” he said, adding that the DOJ could only tell the full extent once it made headway with its efforts to open the bank records of certain personalities under the Anti-Money Laundering Act. Upon the prodding of Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, the House panel agreed to grant the witnesses immunity from any legal ramifications their testimonies might entail. King’s connection Within an hour, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez authorized immunity to convicted kidnapper and former Philippine National Police Insp. Rodolfo Magleo, high-profile inmates Jaime Pacho, Herbert Colanggo and Noel Martinez, and two of De Lima’s former subordinates in the National Bureau of Investigation, Rafael Ragos and Jovencio Ablen Jr. In his testimony, Magleo pointed to the senator’s alleged link to Jaybee Sebastian, who became “king of the drug lords” after he orchestrated the transfer of his competitors into the custody of the NBI for eight months beginning in December 2014 after De Lima had led a raid in the NBP. That was the time the so-called “Bilibid 19” group of high-profile inmates were discovered to be living lavish lifestyles in the NBP, and were thus transferred to the custody of the NBI. “[Sebastian] became successful in his plan to centralize drug operations inside the maximum security compound. He maximized the trading and he maximized his shenanigans,” Magleo said, adding that “he would take shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride) from his Chinese suppliers and cheat them.” Sebastian allegedly helped bankroll De Lima’s senatorial campaign by asking those under his fold to deliver monthly payoffs, according to the witness. Under questioning by Aguirre, Magleo accused the senator of complicity in the lax security at the NBP that allowed the drug lords to operate freely like Mafia dons in exchange for monthly contributions to De Lima and Bureau of Corrections officials amounting to millions of pesos.
Colanggo testified that he gave De Lima a total of P60 million, including the regular monthly payoffs of P3 million, plus the P1 million “per concert” until he was transferred to the NBI. He said he had lived a life in luxury while incarcerated. “My room looked like it would belong at Shangri-La, my comfort room at a five-star hotel.” Colanggo said he gave the payoffs to De Lima’s security aide and “bagman,” Jonel Sanchez. He said that Sanchez had allowed him to talk on the phone to De Lima once to check if she was getting the payola, quoting her as telling him, “OK, OK. Thank you.” He said he recognized the voice by watching her on TV. He gave De Lima’s number, which tallied with that in Cebu Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia’s contact list. Relations soured when Colanggo said he failed to meet Sanchez’s demand that he secure 50 kilos of shabu, fearing he would get in the way of the other drug lords and get killed. ‘Little Las Vegas’ In his sworn affidavit, Ragos, a former De Lima subordinate in the NBI, accused the senator of accepting P5 million in drug money with the code name “limang manok (five chickens)” in her Parañaque home in 2012. Magleo said the NBP was also known as the “drug trade center of the Philippines” especially as drug lords from China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong were allowed to continue their operations virtually unabated. He said big-time Filipino players would approach Chinese drug lords for orders of shabu, or “crystal meth.” “They have agents outside covering Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, and they contact each other through cell phones, and then their agents meet outside. The orders are made in Bilibid but the transactions are outside,” Magleo said. “Almost 80 percent had cell phones,” he said. “During the tenure of then Secretary De Lima, the maximum security compound was known as ‘Little Las Vegas’ and at the same time the ‘Wild West,’” he said. Magleo recalled one instance when Colanggo had truckloads of beer delivered for a concert, a claim the inmate confirmed when his turn to testify came. “None of the guards blocked them,” he said.
There were many concerts, he added. “These were not ordinary concerts. There would be celebrities like Freddie Aguilar, Sharon Cuneta, the Mocha girls, Ethel Booba and several comediennes,” he said. Special conduit Under heavy guard by the Special Action Force, the inmates appeared in collared shirts, blending in well with the lawmakers, some of whom were caught in TV cameras crunching potato chips or fiddling with their cell phones. Magleo said he and three other inmate leaders first met De Lima and her former driver and purported lover, Ronnie Dayan, in mid-2011. He said he connected with Dayan, who also hailed from Pangasinan. He said Dayan told him to help maintain peace and order in the maximum security compound, and later exchanged phone numbers with him. “After that, only Ronnie Dayan and I communicated by cell phone,” Magleo said. Two weeks after that first meeting, “we always got texts saying ‘we need your support,’ which was forwarded to all of us. ‘We need your help for expenses in DOJ,’” he said. Something abnormal Magleo said he and a partner were given a quota of delivering P50,000 per week to Dayan, but he could only produce P3,000 to P5,000, not even reaching 10,000. “We were then removed from our position as inmate leaders,” Magleo said. Asked what he thought of De Lima and Dayan’s relationship, Magleo said: “I didn’t see anything, but I could read between the lines. I could sense something in the air.” Magleo insinuated that De Lima’s relationship with Sebastian was also out of the ordinary. “He could invite De Lima to his ‘kubol’ (hut). For me, it’s something abnormal, and I could sense something. De Lima would enter Sebastian’s hut in the afternoon, and there would only be the two of them for two to three hours. The bodyguards were left outside,” he said. The hearing adjourned after nearly 11 hours. It will resume today at 9:30 a.m. With reports from Vince F. Nonato and Leila B. Salaverria