Philippine death squad probe: Prison witnesses deal another blow to Duterte critic de Lima

Philippine Senator Leila de Lima delivering a privilege speech in the Senate yesterday. She claimed the witnesses from the penitentiary had been coerced into testifying against her.
Philippine Senator Leila de Lima delivering a privilege speech in the Senate yesterday. She claimed the witnesses from the penitentiary had been coerced into testifying against her. PHOTO: REUTERS

They allege she profited from turning penitentiary into drug distribution hub

High-profile inmates, a former corrections chief and a government agent on Tuesday gave nearly 12 hours of testimony detailing how the Philippines' national penitentiary had been turned into a "little Las Vegas" and a narcotics distribution hub under the watch of Senator Leila de Lima, who allegedly profited from it all.

The allegations dealt another blow to Ms de Lima, who on Monday was unseated as head of a Senate inquiry into President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly anti-crime war.

Convicted robbery gang leader Herbert Colanggo told a hearing of the House of Representatives that he gave a security aide of Ms de Lima 9 million pesos (S$256,000) between October and December 2013. Ms de Lima was at the time the justice minister who oversaw the national penitentiary.

Colanggo said the aide, a certain Jonel Sanchez, told him that as de facto "governor" at the penitentiary, he had to rustle up 30kg to 50kg of "shabu", a local methamphetamine, from Chinese drug lords serving time in the penitentiary. This was purportedly to raise cash for Ms de Lima's Senate bid.

Ms de Lima has been under fierce attack from Mr Duterte's allies in Congress days after she presented as a witness a self-confessed hitman who linked the President to more than 1,000 murders when he was mayor of Davao city from 1988 to 2013.

 

Ms de Lima, who also investigated the Davao killings as human rights commission chair in 2009, had been leading a probe into over 3,000 extrajudicial killings that have marred Mr Duterte's anti-crime push since he took office as president on June 30.

Convicted robbery gang leader Herbert Colanggo testified that in exchange for the money he supposedly gave Ms de Lima, he got unfettered access to luxury items, including golf carts, beer, mobile phones, laptops and prostitutes.

US President Barack Obama and United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon had expressed concerns over these killings. But Mr Duterte had replied: "I don't care."

Yesterday, he told off the European Union, which deplored the killings on Monday.

The House of Representatives launched its own investigation into Mr Duterte's allegations that Ms de Lima had been coddling narcotics kingpins and other criminals, including Colanggo, at the national penitentiary.

Colanggo testified that in exchange for the money he supposedly gave Ms de Lima, he got unfettered access to luxury items, such as golf carts, beer, mobile phones, laptops and prostitutes. He even managed to build his own recording studio, where he cut an album that became a modest hit.

Another inmate, former police chief inspector Rodolfo Magleo, who was convicted for kidnapping in 2004, said that Colanggo transformed the maximum security compound at the national penitentiary into a "Little Las Vegas".

Colanggo admitted running a brothel inside the compound. He said he would smuggle 10 "models" for 25,000 pesos into the penitentiary and charge "clients" 7,500 pesos for each girl.

He said despite the supposed millions in payoffs to Ms de Lima, he was transferred out of the maximum security compound because a rival "governor", Jaybee Sebastian, was apparently giving her more money and wanted to monopolise the drug trade at the penitentiary.

Magleo said Sebastian managed to hand over at least 100,000 pesos a week to Ms de Lima's driver, Mr Ronnie Dayan.

Former Bureau of Corrections chief Rafael Ragos said he delivered 10 million pesos from a Chinese drug lord on two occasions to Ms de Lima's house in November and December 2012 and handed the money to Mr Dayan, whom he described as her "boyfriend".

Reacting to the allegations in a privilege speech at the Senate, Ms De Lima claimed the witnesses were coerced into testifying against her. She described the national penitentiary as a "state gulag" where inmates were being "psychologically tortured" to stand by "lies and fabrications" against her.

Mr Duterte, meanwhile, appeared to backpedal from his direct attacks on Ms de Lima. "It would be unfair to say that de Lima was into drug trafficking, but by implication…" he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'Prison witnesses deal another blow to de Lima'. Print Edition | Subscribe