Murder in Puerto Princesa

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JUST TWO weeks after the Jan. 24 murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Dr. Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa, Mayor Edward Hagedorn dramatically announced to the press that the crime had been solved—swiftly as he had vowed over Ortega’s grave.  Most of the media would buy Hagedorn’s claims hook, line and sinker.

Hagedorn pointed the finger at his political rival, former Palawan Gov. Joel T. Reyes.  He claimed that one Rodolfo Edrad, who he alleged was Reyes close-in aide, had surrendered to him and confessed to have hired the killer upon the ex-governor’s orders. He had even given, using Hagedorn’s words, “a blow-by-blow account” of how Reyes ordered the murder.

Hagedorn wasn’t aware that he was being ridiculous in his attempt to explain why Edrad confessed so easily: “The softness of Edrad’s heart led to the identification of the mastermind.”  It turns out though that Edrad is hardly a person anyone would describe as having a soft heart.

Despite his denials, the accuser of the ex-governor turned out to be a fugitive from the law, with warrants of arrest issued against him for a vicious murder in 2007.  He therefore would have nothing to lose and much to gain by giving false testimony, as long as he is paid for it by some patron.

To give Edrad some credibility, Hagedorn said that he was an ex-Marine who unfortunately was discharged because of his participation in the Oakwood mutiny.  No such marine in our roster, past or present, the Philippine Marine Corps spokesman reported.  He wasn’t at all Reyes’ “close-in aide,” but months before the murder had, quite suspiciously, bugged the ex-governor, unsuccessfully, to hire him as a gofer.

Edrad’s claims was so contrived as to be preposterous: Expecting to be asked how he could have spent in two weeks the P500,000 which the ex-governor allegedly paid him for the crime, he said he was robbed by six goons.

That powerful, rich personalities were behind Edrad became all too obvious in the April 15 affidavit the finger-pointer supposedly wrote. The 48-page affidavit was written in flawless English using sophisticated legal terms, and even contained a complicated matrix to argue that Reyes’ counter-arguments were erroneous.

It was in all likelihood written by a lawyer from the law firm representing Edrad: that of Evaristo O. Gana, Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s former chief of staff.  Without any employment and hardly a tycoon, it was a mystery how Edrad could afford such an expensive law firm. The affidavit though clearly aimed for a newspaper headline:

“I have been offered no less than P25 million in exchange for recanting my previous statements against (former Governor Reyes).  I have refused and will continue to refuse any bribe… The truth cannot be bought.”

With Edrad’s claims against Reyes appearing to be contrived, the accusing fingers have been turned to the person to whom Edrad had “surrendered” and who backed his accusations to the hilt: Hagedorn.

It seemed to be a big blunder that another person who had some connection to the ex-governor was accused of being part of the conspiracy.  Percival Lecias, the photographer of Reyes’ wife, was detained for several days by the police and National Bureau of Investigation agents, after which he issued a statement supporting Edrad’s statements.  But Lecias claimed a day later that he was forced by NBI operatives to make those statements, and filed a case against them at the Commission on Human Rights.  He claimed under oath that when he was brought to the NBI office in Manila, Hagedorn, and significantly, tycoon Jose “Pepito” Alvarez met him there, with the mayor even giving him a wad of cash as he told him to “side with the truth.”  The implication was that Hagedorn was working with Alvarez in a conspiracy to pin Ortega’s murder on Reyes.  Alvarez was known to have blamed his defeat in the recent gubernatorial elections on Reyes, who supported former Rep. Abraham Mitra.

Hagedorn, on his sixth term, is not your usual small-town mayor. His life’s narrative is one of the very bad guy turning a new leaf.  He was with the notorious, violent  Manila-based “Axis” gang in his youth, and was said to have controlled jueteng in Palawan before he run for office. He has achieved national popularity though and had been even put in the same mold as another small-town mayor, former President Joseph Estrada, with the consequent implication that he could be a national-level politician one day.

His ally, Alvarez, is among the country’s top magnates, who made his fortune in logging in Palawan, and then moved on, among other businesses, to distributing BMWs, Mazdas and Kia cars in the country.

On the other hand, Reyes is also not your usual provincial politico. He has been one of a new generation of managerial, no-nonsense Manila-educated governors.  He had been a man-about-town who moved within Manila’s old-elite circles, and is related to the Far Eastern University’s Nicanor Reyes and Roces (as in Chino) clans.

Ortega’s murder is arguably one of the biggest, and most intriguing news story of the year, especially for Philippine journalism and the environmental movement.  When the truth is finally out, the murder’s mastermind or masterminds would be the elites not only of Palawan but of Philippine society, who ordered the killing to further their particular, unique vested interests. This is actually the more accurate pattern for the murder of over 100 journalists in the country, the overwhelming majority of whom were in cities outside Manila, rather than the simplistic explanation of state-sponsored attacks on press freedom.

I find it amazing that the media haven’t devoted resources and efforts towards getting to the bottom of the murder of Ortega, a hero of the environmentalist movement. An important related story would be the equally ruthless attempt at political murder in Puerto Princesa.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer