Marcos heir to oversee hunt for loot if he wins Philippines presidency

·5-min read
The son and namesake of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos is the frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election (AFP/Ted ALJIBE) (Ted ALJIBE)

Nearly 40 years after the Philippines began hunting for the billions of dollars plundered during former dictator Ferdinand Marcos's regime, much of the loot is still missing and no one in the family has been jailed.

There are fears the rest may never be found if his son and namesake wins next week's presidential poll, which would put him in charge of the government agency leading the global search.

The elder Marcos, his flamboyant wife Imelda, and their cronies are estimated to have stolen as much as $10 billion from state coffers during his 20-year rule.

Cash was stashed in foreign bank accounts or ploughed into art masterpieces, jewellery fit for royalty, thousands of shoes, and real estate from Manila to New York.

The task of tracking down the ill-gotten wealth went to the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), set up after Marcos was deposed and the family chased into exile.

Based in a drab building seized from a Marcos crony on a busy highway in Manila, the agency has recovered 266 billion pesos ($5 billion) in cash and assets in the past 36 years.

Funds returned to the government have been largely used for land reform and compensation for the victims of Marcos-era human rights abuses.

But if the Marcoses move back into the presidential palace, critics worry the search effort will be defanged or stopped altogether.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr "will be sure to end the investigation against the ill-gotten wealth, dismiss all the cases against him and his mother," said Judy Taguiwalo of the anti-Marcos group CARMMA.

More than 300 pieces of art by masters such as Picasso and Michelangelo were purchased by the Marcoses with stolen funds, said Andres Bautista, who was PCGG chairman from 2010 to 2015.

Among them was a Monet water lily sold by Imelda's former secretary to a London art gallery for $32 million in 2010.

As many as 160 paintings are still missing, Bautista told AFP.

"Just imagine how much one of these paintings is worth now -- that can bankroll a whole presidential campaign," he said.

- 'Patently disproportionate' -

The Philippine Supreme Court has ruled that Marcos and his family committed fraud on a huge scale and has ordered them to repay millions of dollars.

In one of the biggest recoveries, the court ordered in 2003 that more than $658 million found in Marcos Swiss bank accounts be handed to the government.

The couple legally earned $304,372.43 during their two decades in power, the court said, describing their assets and properties as "patently disproportionate" to their salaries as public officials.

Their fortune allegedly came from raiding the treasury, taking kickbacks on government contracts, seizing private companies and dipping into foreign loans.

But accusations of plunder and graft that later left the country heavily indebted and impoverished have largely faded from public memory.

That has been helped by a well-funded social media misinformation campaign that has sought to portray the Marcos years in a positive light.

A popular claim debunked by AFP's Fact Check team is that the patriarch made his wealth when he was a lawyer via a huge gold payment from a client.

The false narrative has been strengthened by no one in the family serving time behind bars.

After Marcos died in Hawaii in 1989, the clan returned to the Philippines and began their political revival.

Scores of court cases have been filed against the family, including presidential frontrunner Marcos Jr and his senator sister Imee, who replaced their dead father in PCGG civil suits.

In a rare legal setback, Imelda was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in 2018 for funnelling roughly $200 million of embezzled funds through Swiss foundations decades ago.

But the 92-year-old remains free on bail while the case is appealed.

"Let the courts do their work," Marcos Jr told CNN Philippines recently.

He has fended off allegations that the family also owes nearly $4 billion in estate taxes.

"If a court orders us to do something we'll do it," he said.

- 'Fox guarding the hen house' -

Known for her lavish spending sprees, Imelda boasted a staggering collection of luxuries by the end of her husband's dictatorship.

Documentary evidence of the extravagant spending and government efforts to retrieve the booty is stored in thousands of boxes and manila folders behind a vaulted door at the PCGG.

Christie's catalogues feature photos of seized jewellery the auction house estimated in 2015 to be worth $46.5 million.

The valuables are kept at the Philippines' central bank waiting to be auctioned. The most expensive piece is a 24.9-carat pink diamond pendant worth as much as $14 million.

Ruben Carranza, a former PCGG commissioner, alleged the Marcoses had taken cash and opened "other accounts elsewhere" when they went into exile.

"They still have access to money that can buy impunity and that can even buy an election," Carranza told AFP.

"And they've also been pressuring Marcos cronies to give them what they claim to be their share of ill-gotten wealth that cronies hold for them."

The PCGG is still fighting 87 court cases in the Philippines and two in the United States and Switzerland involving more than $2 billion worth of assets.

Incumbent PCGG chairman John Agbayani told AFP in an email that he was confident Marcos Jr would not interfere in the cases if elected president. And only Congress has the power to abolish the agency, he said.

But he added: "PCGG would appreciate if the new President could help to expedite the resolution of these cases in order to benefit the Filipino nation."

Marcos Jr has said he would "strengthen" the agency and expand its remit to government corruption.

But Bautista believes it will become "irrelevant" with the Marcoses back in power.

"How can you do your job well when the president is the person that you're supposed to run after," he said.

"It's the fox guarding the hen house."

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