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What Marcos prisons were really like

Second of Two Parts

What they were like was completely different from what a crackpot writer, who has never seen even a picture of a single detention center, recently depicted in a rabidly anti-Marcos book, which is simply a huge money-making project if it is adopted as a textbook in our schools, as the Yellow Cultists are lobbying for now.

I can speak of only five Marcos detention centers where I was incarcerated, together with my late wife Raquel, from 1973 to 1974: the Philippine Constabulary’s (PC) 5th Constabulary Unit in Camp Crame; that of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) in Camp Aguinaldo; that of the National Intelligence Coordinating Authority in its headquarters at V. Luna Road in Quezon City (where it still is); as well as the Ipil Youth Rehabilitation Center and the maximum security Youth Rehabilitation Center, both in Fort Bonifacio—these latter two being the biggest during the Martial Law period.

For me and most other political prisoners of that time, the horror part of our saga, from which much of the tales of “torture” emanated, was our “processing period”—the weeks after our arrest when Marcos’ intelligence services raced against time to extract from us information that could lead to the capture of our other comrades, especially the big fish.

I was arrested in July 1973, together with nearly all of the Communist Party’s Manila-Rizal Regional Committee, which I headed. Several of the committee’s members would, three decades later, constitute the core of the revolution’s leadership, among them the party’s chairman, now Benito Tiamzon, his wife Wilma, and secretary-general Adelberto Silva.

We were jailed for several weeks at the 5th Constabulary Security Unit’s headquarters in Camp Crame, all 20 of us in a cell roughly half the size of a regular classroom. A bucket at a corner was our urinal, so small that you had to kneel to piss in it and which got to be so stinky in the morning. The cell was so cramped that we got into each other’s nerves: I once lunged at Tiamzon for making fun of me meditating in the lotus pose, which I credited for my keeping my sanity.

Such cells shocked our middle-class comrades, especially writers romanticizing themselves as glorious heroes of a Revolution, as they, of course, had seen nothing like those circumstances in their cloistered lives.

I, and my lower-class comrades, knew better. The PC cell was actually much better than the horrific bug-infested and crowded Marikina City Jail, where I spent three nights in 1970 when I was arrested, together with several other Atenean activists, for joining a labor strike at the Goya Chocolate factory in Marikina.

Detention cells the same
Detention cells during Martial Law and after Martial Law are the same, with many of those now even much worse, as shown by TV news footages of crowded prisons in Quezon City and elsewhere.

Our society’ class system, of course, was followed at the 5th CSU jail, and every other prison. After several punches at my solar-plexus and liver by soldiers who, I learned later, routinely slug a bottle of gin to fight off fear in operations against communists, I wasn’t touched again, other than through a truth-serum session later at the headquarters of the army’s intelligence services. However, my bodyguard and other staff who were from the poorer classes were beaten up badly, sometimes just for fun by these soldiers to relieve their tension.

Again middle-class political prisoners are shocked by such beatings, which however, routinely occur today in detention cells in police precincts.

After a month, when the military felt they couldn’t get any useful information from us, we were taken to join about 2,000 other detainees to the Ipil Rehabilitation Center at Fort Bonifacio, which was the regime’s biggest detention center. As I entered Ipil, with its huge grounds, and seeing our other comrades, I think I heard choirs of angels singing hallelujah.

Ipil was nothing like the terrible detention centers ignorant anti-Marcos writers describe. I think this is the reason why the Yellow Cult, even with their absolute power in 1986, had not preserved—in the manner they have done with Ninoy’s cells in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Pangasinan—any detention centers during Martial Law as these would conflict with their horror tales. I haven’t found even a single photo of these centers.

Ipil was converted from a training school for non-commissioned officers, and consisted of five buildings, two of which where our barracks, another for the women detainees (which was separated by a gate from our barracks, closed in the evening). The fifth building, which had an elevated stage (for graduation ceremonies mainly), was our dining hall.

It reminded me of the Ateneo High School complex, with the desks, of course, replaced with two-level bunk beds. What would be a more familiar analogy would be that Ipil looked like public elementary schools in the provinces, but with higher ceilings. And like these schools, Ipil had vast grounds, which we tilled into huge vegetable plots encircled by a jogging path. There was a regulation-size basketball court, the scene of not a few fisticuffs between detainees’ and the guards’ teams.

The bunk beds were in high-ceilinged halls of the three buildings. It wasn’t really so bad, after one has gotten used to sleeping deaf to the orchestra of snores from several people around.

Not a few comrades decided to bring in their children into Ipil — as my wife and I did with my daughter Andrea, who stayed at the women’s quarters for months. A comrade of ours we called Dolphy, from a poor area of Tondo, set up in one corner of the hall his very own territory, surrounded by two bunk-beds covered by banigs, where he, his wife, and child lived.

Revolutionary government
We were left mostly on our own, and we set up our own covert “revolutionary government” of sorts, which I led being the highest ranking communist there, until I resigned form the party. We had communal vegetable production, a store, a cultural group, a medical group (which, unfortunately administered bad acupuncture) even our own security unit, which on one occasion beat up a detainee whom we suspected was a mole.

We set up a library, which I volunteered to run with the sickly writer Ricky Lee, as this had the privilege of living with private space in the quonset hut were the library was housed.

Ipil’s warden was a grandfatherly Master Sergeant we called “Master.” He often practically begged us not to do anything that would mar his service record, since he was to retire soon. His two main assistants were young army privates from some distant provinces who were so self-conscious like awkward teenagers and apologetic when they held the morning assembly to check if no one had escaped.

The food was bad, of course, especially if you came from the middle or upper classes that accounted for probably 70 percent of the detainees. But I later learned it was the same chow distributed to all soldiers in Fort Bonifacio. Our relatives brought the best food they could every time they visited, and we shared these with our poorer comrades.

I was transferred to the Youth Rehabilitation Center (YRC), also in Fort Bonifacio, where I stayed for a few months, for leading (with a priest) a hunger strike at Ipil for reasons in hindsight so trivial I forget now what it was.

YRC was supposed to be a higher-security prison, where well-known communist leaders like Nilo Tayag and NPA commanders were detained, together with rich people Marcos thought were financing the movement to oust him, such as the Araneta brothers, Antonio and Enrique. YRC was in an old castle-like building and had fewer detainees, perhaps about 100.

After a week in a solitary cell like you see in the movies—the worst episode in my detention—I was “released” to join the other detainees. While YRC was dreary, and didn’t have the vast open spaces of Ipil, detainees had more privacy, with most of them living in two-person cells, which in my entire stay there I never saw locked. YRC was run in practically the same way Ipil was by the AFP, which Fidel Ramos supervised.

It is understandable for those detained during Martial Law, who are now in their 60s, to try to give meaning and drama in their lives through narratives that they heroically fought dictatorship, and suffered terribly under it in detention.

Communist cadres
What isn’t mentioned at all in such narratives is that many, if not most, of them were cadres of the Communist Party, which would have tried to overthrow any government.

In my case, I not only headed the Party’s organization in metropolitan Manila, but was also organizing the first armed group intended to operate in the metropolis, the prototype of which would later be the dreaded Alex Boncayao Brigade. Why shouldn’t the state arrest and detain me?

How many of the political prisoners during Martial Law, who spent years in detention centers, were cadres of the Party, or instead were – as a common Filipino joke always says of innocent young victims of circumstances, which was popular in detention camps – merely sent out by their mothers on an errand to buy vinegar from the store, when they were arrested?

We dramatically portrayed ourselves as freedom fighters, a concept which our non-communist supporters – especially gullible clerics looking for some meaning in their otherwise empty lives – fell for, hook, line, and sinker. Yes, we were fighting a dictatorship, but we were also fighting to install a dictatorship of the proletariat, represented, of course, by the Communist Party. We were waging, as Party Chairman Jose Maria Sison repeatedly wrote, a people’s war. For Marcos’ military at that time, they were waging a war against Communists and Moro secessionists.

There were, of course, torture, rape, and summary executions by Marcos’ military. But what war has there ever been in the world in which there were no atrocities by the sadists, the cruel rogue elements from both protagonists? Even the Communist Party, in the 1980s committed such atrocities, even against their own comrades, in their paranoia that the revolution had been massively infiltrated by spies and moles.

The crucial questions are whether there was a Marcos policy to undertake such horrific human rights abuses and if these occurred in such scale as the Suharto regime’s genocide of at least 500,000 Chinese-Indonesians in 1965 or the institutionalized torture by the Chilean state under Pinochet in the 1970s.

That Filipinos voted Fidel Ramos as President and Juan Ponce Enrile as senator for several terms—the two men who supervised the military and the police during Martial Law—implicitly provides us with a resounding answer to those questions.