Let’s not forget what happened
when he was the anti-illegal drugs champ
By Raïssa Robles
I’m watching with fascination as Senator Vicente Sotto III reinvents himself – this time as THE opponent of women’s reproductive health rights.
Still, let’s not forget how he used another hot button issue to propel himself to political prominence, so much so that he was once touted to become the vice-presidential running mate of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the 1998 presidential polls.
Arroyo dropped him like a hot potato after he was embroiled in one of the hottest political scandals involving a senator in post-Marcos history.
Many of you probably know I am referring to the scandal involving Sen. Sotto and suspected drug lord Alfredo Tiongco. I had to cover that extensively for South China Morning Post (HK) because Tiongco fled to Hong Kong and became the first – and only – person to be extradited from there upon the request of the Philippine government.
Sotto is now trying to bury this past. He still wants to be known as the champ against illegal drugs but he never mentions Tiongco.
You know what? Don’t let him make us forget that. Because Sotto is clearly eying a higher post – the vice-presidency, perhaps.
And THAT scandal with Tiongco shows the extent to which he is willing to go to achieve his political ambition.
Let me refresh your memory because I have many of the details that I believe remain relevant for as long as Sotto remains in public office and continues to brag about his role against illegal drugs..
A dawn raid exposes Sen. Sotto
At dawn of July 13, 1997, Tiongco’s residence in Talayan, Quezon City was raided by a composite team of army intelligence, police Special Action Force, members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Recovered from the raid were 11 high-powered firearms. Three of them were covered by Memorandum Receipts and Mission Orders issued to Tiongco by seven police aides assigned to Sen. Sotto, including Police Supt. Fernando Vinculado.
Vinculado was then Sen. Sotto’s chief of security and his “special assistant” at the Senate Committee on illegal drugs, which he chaired.
It gets worse.
Among the 12 men rounded up at the dawn raid in Tiongco’s house was SPO2 Alfredo Dulay, who turned out to be Sotto’s security aide. Dulay was carrying an Uzi and an Armalite when he was arrested. Both weapons were covered by an MO and MR issued by Vinculado.
Vinculado claimed Dulay was a DPA (deep penetration agent).
But Vinculado also claimed Sotto himself had instructed him to provide Tiongco with two police “bodyguards” because the latter had asked Sotto for help since he feared for his life.
Sen. Sotto and suspected drug lord Tiongco
When that news broke out, Sen. Sotto said he hardly knew the man.
But it turned out Sotto once sold his car to Tiongco.
And Sotto signed and sent a letter requesting police bodyguards for Tiongco to then Local Governments Secretary Robert Barbers. In his letter of endorsement, Sen. Sotto even vouched for Tiongco’s “integrity.”
He didn’t say anything about it being a ploy to put a DPA inside Tiongco’s household.
As a result, Barbers assigned two police bodyguards to Tiongco.
Sen. Sotto continues to this day to brag about his role against illegal drugs
To this day, Sen. Sotto boasts that he has written books crusading his tough stance against illegal drugs. You can go to his Senate page to see the titles of these books.
What he doesn’t tell you is that one of the books was funded by Tiongco who gave him a P200,000 check for it.
Not only that, then Justice Secretary Teofisto Guingona testified in a Senate probe that 22 checks worth P16.7 million pesos drawn from Tiongco’s account ended up in the account of Sen. Sotto’s chief security aide, Vinculado.
Part of this money, Guingona claimed, was also used to pay for the book launching of Sotto’s anti-illegal drug book at the Manila Hotel, because the receipts were paid with checks drawn from the Vinculado-held account.
As to where the rest of the money probably went, Guingona told the committee to delve deeper into the origin of the money that Sen. Sotto used to buy a 5-room house in San Jose, California in February, 1996 worth US$580,000. Guingona said this was not disclosed in Sen. Sotto’s financial statements.
Read about it here.
Of course Guingona’s motives were also questionable at that time since he, too, wanted to run for vice-president the following year. But that is hardly the point here. Guingona did raise serious issues with concrete evidence against Sen. Sotto.
Sen. Sotto was regularly updated on drug lord list with Tiongco’s name
At the same investigation, senior police and military officials also testified that they had regularly updated Sen. Sotto on their “Most Wanted” list of drug lords. Tiongco was on that list.
Benjamin Libarnes, the army intelligence chief then, testified that they suspected Tiongco of cornering 20% of the shabu market in Metro Manila and being part of Hong Kong’s 14-K triad.
Libarnes even tagged Tiongco as one of the biggest importers of shabu then.
All these contradicted what Sen. Sotto said earlier that he never knew Tiongco was a suspected drug lord.
Whistleblower tags Sen. Sotto
In a separate investigation conducted by the House committee on public order at that time, Tiongco’s close associate Florencio Pareña testified that five senators were among the prominent personalities that he and Tiongco regularly relied on for help. They were: Sen. Sotto, Sen. Alberto Romulo, Sen. Francisco Tatad, Sen. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Sen. Nikki Coseteng.
As proof, Pareña showed his cellphone records of the senators’ numbers calling his mobile.
All the named senators vehemently denied the allegation.
Sen. Sotto bought a kilo of shabu ingredient
The Senate investigation also found out that Sen. Sotto once bought a kilo of ephedrine hydrochloride – a banned ingredient of shabu – which he used to demonstrate on his TV show how shabu was made.
Trouble was, Sotto did not first clear his purchase with the Dangerous Drugs Board. Even more importantly, he could not account for what happened to the ephedrine hydrochloride after the show.
Under the law, mere possession of a kilo of ephedrine hydrochloride is an offense that carries a life term.
Sen. Sotto issued several statements in his defense at that time. He said:
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that my office had been penetrated by shadowy characters, I urge the police agencies to apply the law and prosecute criminals, regardless of their office affiliation. I have no sacred cows.
He also said:
My conscience and record are clear. After nine years of serving the nation especially in my crusade against drugs, and risking my life and that of my family, would I suddenly destroy all these for the sake of Tiongco whom I do not even know?
He said he never knew Tiongco was a suspected drug lord and he refused to bear any responsibility for what his chief of security, Vinculado, did.
Tiongco managed to flee to Hong Kong. He was extradited back after the 1998 elections and tried. But he was acquitted on a technicality.
The judge said the unlicensed high-powered firearms seized from his house could not be pinned against him because he was not there at the time of the raid. The raid was also not valid because the raiders came –
all in black, their faces obscured by ski masks, armed to the teeth, sparing no one, not even young children and a pregnant woman – creating havoc all over – (thus) a lingering doubt is created in the mind of the court as to the regularity in the execution of the search warrant. The raiding team seemingly carried their zeal too far.
Please recall that an eight year-old girl named Paulynn Lacson died in a car because the raiding team mistook the occupants for fleeing fugitives.
Because of the scandal, Sen. Sotto dropped his vice-presidential bid and ran for reelection instead. He felt vindicated because he won.
But it was only three years ago in 2008 when Sen. Sotto took up his anti-illegal drug crusade once more. He got President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to appoint him acting chair of the Dangerous Drugs Board. The post was a “Thank You” from Arroyo. The year before that, Sotto had run for senator under Arroyo’s banner and lost.
Last year, Sotto abandoned Arroyo when he ran for the Senate again. He won.
The cruel joke is really on us. And of course on Paulynn who would be 22 years old now had she lived.
Not on Tito Sen.