by Caroline Kennedy
This month, 50 years ago, the young actress Maggie de la Riva was abducted and raped. This is an article I wrote about Death Row in Bilibid Prison, Muntinglupa, where the four abductors were held until their death.
“I’m tired of waiting. I want them to end it for me. I don’t care what they do to me. I just want it finished.”
The young man’s voice, speaking to me from the corner of the cell, lacked all emotion. I watched as his fingers groped for a brown plastic comb in his jeans pocket and, with defiant strokes, he attempted to sleek back the obstinate lock of brylcreemed hair dangling over his eyes. In the gloomy, fetid corner of this tiny room, a welcome stream of sunlight from the high window filtered over one side of his face illuminating his sallow complexion.
I was visiting Death Row at the New Bilibid State Prison in Muntilupa at the invitation of the Governor, Alejo Santos. I had met Santos, a tall, elegant man with graying hair and freshly manicured nails at a dinner party some weeks before. He told me he followed my column avidly in the Saturday Mirror magazine and asked if I would consider writing something about “his prison.”
“Despite all this,” he explained, swiveling his eyes around the opulent interior of our hosts’ North Forbes Park home, “no one seems to care about my prison. They don’t mind spending millions of dollars on private residences, public buildings, corporate offices and high-profile projects but nowhere is there money to be found for Bilibid.”
Bilibid was built in 1944, in the then verdant suburbs south of Manila. In the early days there were only dirt tracks leading to the site. It was considered inhospitable territory, overgrown, swampy and mosquito-infested, suitable only to house the archipelago’s most dangerous criminals. It was a forlorn place where hopes of escape were the futile dreams of desperate men. But, by 1968, Manila’s tentacles were fast spreading out into its rural surroundings. Muntinlupa, about 20 miles to the south, was no exception.
Under Marcos’s presidency the rapidly growing middle classes had fuelled an unprecedented building boom. Their greed for large plots of land on which to build their, often sumptuous, family compounds, demanded more space than the densely packed urban ghettos of Manila could offer them. And Alabang, bordering the notorious Bilibid Prison, was choice land – easy to build on and within commuting distance to the city. Within five years it was unrecognizable, being swiftly transformed from acres of tangled undergrowth into some of Greater Manila’s most sought-after real estate, complete with facilities the upper middle classes had come to expect – swimming pools, tennis courts and manicured golf courses. The sound of builders at work, emanating from behind the high electric fences of Alabang’s nouveau-riche mansions, could clearly be heard from inside the walls of Bilibid on the day of my visit.
Back in the cell, Santos introduced me to the nervous young man in the corner. Eyes downcast, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, he replaced his comb and proffered his hand. He told me his name was Apolonio Adriano, he was twenty-five years old and he was one of 12 residents currently confined to Death Row. In a voice hardly above a whisper he told me the reason for his incarceration. His crime, by any standards, was horrific and unforgivable. He and three of his friends had hacked to death five security guards of the Rice and Corn Administration when they had tried to prevent the four men robbing its treasury.
“We have all been on Death Row now for…” His eyes lifted towards the Director for an answer.
“Almost ten years, hindi ba?” Santos finished the sentence for him.
“Yes, sir….ten years.” Mariano Domingo, one of Adriano’s co-conspirators, stepped forward, his slippers shuffling almost soundlessly across the cement floor.
He spoke very little but his expression, a permanent scowl, expressed the depth of his anger. But whereas Mariano was, according to Santos, still praying for an unlikely last-minute reprieve, Apolonio had almost certainly given up all hope. So far, every time the dreaded moment had arrived where they would come face to face with the “silya electrika” (electric chair), there had always been an eleventh-hour stay of execution and the interminable waiting had begun all over again. This cruel game of suspense by the authorities, Apolonio said, had literally driven several of Death Row’s inmates insane.
The Row, itself, was hushed, unlike the other wings of the prison where raised voices, even laughter and singing, could be heard. Although there was no solitary confinement here the inmates were under the constant scrutiny of heavily-armed wardens. They were permitted to walk around inside and chat quietly to each other but they were not allowed to leave the main cell without permission. Any infringement and they would immediately be locked up in solitary and their few privileges removed.
“But there’s nothing to talk about.” Mariano’s frown eased for a moment. “What can we say to one another with a death sentence hanging over our heads? What can we say to each other when our families have forgotten us – when they don’t visit us anymore?”
The only thing these men had in common, it seemed, was their ultimate fate – the electric chair, or “death seat”, as they called it. It had been transported from the Old Bilibid Prison in Sampaloc, downtown Manila, where death by electric chair was first introduced by the United States in 1888. It was now situated at some distance from the present cellblocks, in a stark concrete chamber, on the other side of the prison. Most of the inmates had never even seen it. But, despite many descriptions from those few who had, Apolonio said he still couldn’t or, perhaps, didn’t want to visualize what it looked like. The only certainty was its permanent, ominous presence and that one day soon each of the twelve men would have their chance to see it for the very first and very last time. This is the only thing they shared – this was the recurring nightmare of Death Row.
I asked Apolonio and Mariano about their crime, about how many times they had asked themselves since, “Why did we do it?” “How did it happen?” or “Where would we be now if…..?”
Apolonio’s reply was curt and unexpected. “No. Never. I had my reasons then. They haven’t changed.”
Apolonio introduced me to one of Death Row’s most recent occupants, Jaime Jose, a slender, shy boy and, despite his twenty-two years, displaying no hint of a beard. Jaime, along with three of his friends, had been convicted of abducting and gang-raping a young actress, Maggie de la Riva. Abduction and rape were two of the twenty-four offences currently punishable by death under the Marcos regime and so the Court, ignoring the defendants’ plea for leniency, had shown them little mercy. On 6th February 1971, a little more than a year after my visit, it would hand down its verdict – death by electric chair with no right of appeal.
Although it was obvious from the way the others treated him, Jaime was the star personality on Death Row, he appeared lonely, introverted and subdued. There was no doubt he had brooded long and hard over his actions that night of heavy drinking four years earlier and regretted it.
“I’m not an animal,” he murmured to me, almost as an aside, “I just don’t remember what happened.”
I asked him if he’d ever thought of writing to the victim to apologize. He nodded. “Many times but the others – they said, no, don’t do it, it’ll prove you’re guilty. I just wish I hadn’t listened to them.”
I told him there was still time but he shook his head. “No, it’s too late now.” He turned and wandered off, a forlorn figure receding into the darkness of his cell.
Within a year of the verdict being announced, amid a carnival atmosphere and in the full glare of TV cameras allowed into the death chamber to film an execution for the very first time, Jaime Jose and two of his co-defendants were electrocuted. Although I refused to watch the “festivities” on television that day, I shed a tear for the shy, slender boy I had met on Death Row. It saddened me that the authorities had chosen to ignore the fact that Jaime had shown genuine remorse and, thus, was very unlikely to re-offend. They also refused to take into account that he was only a boy when the crime was committed and under the influence of bad company and alcohol. I felt that, if only given the opportunity and with his new found “celebrity” status, he could have forged a successful career in any area he cared to choose. Ironically, due to the huge amount of publicity surrounding the case, it was his victim’s career that took off and, for some years after the event, Maggie de la Riva became one Manila’s hottest actresses.
Another man joined Alejo Santos and me as we made our way around the cells. Alejo introduced him as the former movie star, Pancho Pelagio. Pancho was a large man, with broad shoulders, an expanding belly and a contagious laugh. He wasted no time in telling me he had murdered someone in a fit of anger. That, he said, was why he was here on Death Row. He seemed almost proud of the fact. I gulped. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. And then, just as swiftly, he patted me on the back, guffawed and said, “I’m joking, of course!”
Smiling at my obvious discomfort Pancho slid his arm up my back and around my shoulder. I automatically stiffened. We walked out into the prison grounds. I was glad for a bit of sunlight and fresh air.
“Did you believe me then?” Pancho asked, his eyes twinkling at his practical joke.
I felt off-balance. “I’ve no idea what to believe,” I replied. And I hadn’t.
“He’s an actor, remember, Caroline,” Santos interrupted. “Maybe he even acted in court. Who knows?” He winked at Pancho who clutched his ill-fitting trousers and erupted into one of his belly laughs.
“No, the truth is, Caroline, I planned a robbery. I was the look-out. I waited at the gate.”
“That’s your story, Pancho,” Another young man had joined our group and butted in. He held his hand out to me, “Excuse me, m’am, my name is Dominador. Dominador Aguilar. Don’t listen to Pancho.”
“But it’s true.” Pancho scowled at the interloper. “The judge believed me. My friends went inside the house – and my other friend went to hail a taxi down the road so we could make a quick getaway. I stayed at the gate, watching out.”
“And….what happened?” I relaxed briefly. I was curious now.
“Pancho saw someone coming out of the house. Not his friends. So he ran.”
Dominador’s voice was brimming with sarcasm. He was obviously enjoying himself.
“Yes, I admit. I was afraid.” Pancho retorted, “I thought this guy would call the police. So I left.”
“Not very brave, huh?” Dominador joked. “Big Pancho, brave Pancho, ran away! Just like he did in the movies!”
“And did he?” I asked.
“Did he what?” Pancho was stalling, deliberately keeping me in suspense.
“Call for the police, of course?”
“He did. The others were just making their getaway in the taxi and suddenly the road was blocked by a jeepney coming from the opposite direction. A man got out and walked towards their taxi. One of my friends recognized him as a police officer. They shot him. Pumped him with bullets. He was killed.”
“So you had nothing to do with the murder?” I asked..
“Nothing whatsoever – honest.” Pancho began stroking my shoulder a little too intimately to be reassuring. I wanted to believe him because I was not quite sure how I would respond if I knew a cold-blooded killer had his hand so close to my neck. A little further, I imagined, and his fingers could be caressing my throat.
I turned to Santos for protection. But he had stopped briefly to speak with a guard who was hovering over a group of prisoners at the edge of the path. Dominador, too, had lingered behind to mingle with the group. I could see now why Pancho had taken this opportunity to be a little too familiar with me. I moved slightly away from him.
Pancho followed close behind. “You know, Caroline,” he whispered into my ear, “I have your picture on the wall of my cell. The one with you and Jun Aristorenas – from your film, “El Tigre.” I’m not the only one. Other guys in here have your photos too.”
I tried to compose myself. “Really? I’m flattered.” Truth was I felt more awkward than flattered. I wasn’t sure if the sexual vibes I thought I was sensing from Pancho were real or imagined. Were they the understandable act of a predatory male removed from the company of women for the past twelve years or the slightly masochistic fantasy of a young girl in an all-male environment? I decided it was in my mind. Pancho was probably just trying to be hospitable. He had obviously been given orders by Santos to look after me and he was simply carrying out his task. Nothing sinister intended.
I changed the subject. “So what was your sentence?”
“I’ve spent twelve years on Death Row just waiting for my execution.”
Thankfully Santos caught up with us at that point. “Pancho’s appeal will come up very soon and we’re hoping the Supreme Court will modify his conviction from robbery with homicide to simple robbery. Isn’t that right, Pancho?”
“Yes,” the actor grinned. “And Mr. Santos says once the Supreme Court reaches that decision I will be released immediately because of my good behaviour all these years. I’m a trustee, you see.”
He turned to face the Director. “So, not long to go now, Sir, and I’ll be leaving you!”
He laughed, removing his arm from my shoulder to once again grab hold of the trousers that had been threatening to fall down around his ankles. He shrugged his shoulders at me and winked. “No belts, pins or ropes allowed in here! Not even for a trustee! And look I’ve lost weight too!” He breathed in deeply, sucking in his large stomach and tugged at the over-generous waistband. It was true the trousers appeared to be several sizes too big.
“Mind you behave yourself in the meantime, Pancho.” Santos warned, “Don’t go ruining everything. Think of your family.”
Family? I guess I hadn’t thought of any of these men as having families. I dwelled for a moment on the notion of Pancho being a patriarchal figure. For some reason, despite the fact he had participated in a chilling, premeditated crime, I could somehow imagine him being a dependable father, perhaps even a caring one. I wondered if his crime had been a one-off, a momentary act of recklessness by a man desperately needing to provide for his children.
I turned my thoughts to the others I had met that day. How many of them, too, had come from a normal family life? Did Apolonio and Mariano have devoted wives, girlfriends or daughters waiting for them outside Bilibid? Did Jaime have an adoring mother praying everyday for his release? It was strange that when I now thought about them this way, as family men, I could no longer think of them as the ruthless, cold-blooded burglars, rapists or slayers I had read about in the newspapers. To see them and to talk to them was to be convinced they were incapable of harming anyone. But then perhaps they were considered so dangerous they were kept sedated inside these walls. Or perhaps, after all these years on Death Row, their spirits had been broken. Perhaps they were vastly different now from the men they had once been. I wondered aloud to Santos if I was just being naïve, seduced by their charm, their smiles, their sensitivity or their quiet demeanour, much as their many victims must have been.
Santos chuckled. “I’m taken in by them every day, Caroline. Killers can be very manipulative, very persuasive, very charming, you know.” Somewhat indulgently he added, “But I must agree with you – I wouldn’t want to believe they would do it again if they went free.”
“But, Sir,” Pancho interrupted, “why do people in favour of capital punishment always argue, if people kill once they’ll do it again – and again? How do they know?”
“You know all these men well enough by now, Pancho, do you think that’s true?” I asked him.
“Not true.” Pancho replied without hesitation. “The ones who are dangerous are those, still outside, in society, the ones who haven’t yet committed a murder. Isn’t that right, Sir?”
Santos smiled, “If you say so, Pancho.”
In one respect Death Row appeared pleasant. At least it was clean and each man was allowed his own bedding. In contrast to the place we were now entering – the admittance hall. The quarters housing the new remand prisoners where each man was forced to sleep, side by side, on the concrete floor of a metal cage waiting to be assigned their respective cells. In the last four weeks, Santos explained, the prison had received a further 1200 new prisoners and there was little he could do to alleviate their distressful living conditions.
“It’s madness,” Pancho sighed, “There’s just no place to put them all.”
I watched the new prisoners for a few moments, huddled together, unclassified, undignified and anonymous. Here they were expected to languish in herds until their papers had been processed and there was bed space available.
What the prison had always suffered from, Santos continued, was a severe lack of funds. Not only money was in short supply but food, clothing, kitchenware, bedding, medical and sanitary supplies too were all desperately needed. To save on the food budget the inmates were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. He led me towards the gardens.
I was surprised. Without exception, they appeared neat and well tended. And the atmosphere, for the most part, was not as bleak, oppressive or intimidating as I would have imagined. The prisoners were polite, mostly soft-spoken and respectful to their Director. As the three of us walked past them they immediately stood up to greet us. Being a figure of authority they may not have loved Santos but it appeared they certainly respected him.
Across from the vegetable gardens, in the center of the main block, Pancho pointed out the distorted, huddled silhouettes of men clinging to the iron bars of their windows.
“That’s the psychiatric ward,” he explained, “some of them used to be on Death Row.”
I remembered what Apolonio had told me. It was sad to imagine that some of these pathetic figures were possibly former cellmates of his on Death Row.
Their eyes stared vacantly out at us across the garden, probably unaware of their surroundings. Next door to the psychiatric ward, Pancho led me to the TB and leprosy wing. Santos confessed he would prefer me not to enter either. Pancho later whispered to me, “It’s bedlam in those places! It would scare you. It’s not a pretty sight!”
I didn’t admit it then but I was quite grateful both wings were deemed off-limits.
I simply peeked around the door of the psychiatric ward. Other than a few patients aimlessly milling about there was little to show that it was, in fact, a mental facility. The building was dilapidated, squalid and uninviting. From what little I could see there were no medical supplies in evidence, little equipment, very few drugs and sadly inadequate living space.
“As the Director probably told you, there are currently 9000 inmates in Bilibid,” Pancho told me, “our cramped conditions means we have a vital need of medicines and medical support. We live in such close proximity with each other germs and diseases spread swiftly and furiously.” Patting his stomach he continued, “We’ve all been ill here. Many times.”
I could imagine what he was referring to. And from a cursory inspection, the sanitary facilities looked less than hygienic.
“Without hospital equipment and drugs,” Santos shrugged, “there is little our doctors can do to prevent it, I’m afraid.”
I had done some homework on the history of Bilibid before this visit and I reminded Pancho and Santos of the notorious times in its shameful history where the inmates had been used in experimental medical trials. The first time, in 1906, Robert Strong Pearson, an American doctor from Chicago, received permission from the U.S. colonial government to inoculate 24 Filipino inmates. The randomly selected ones had been lined up, without being told the reason, and jabbed with cholera vaccinations that had been contaminated by the plague. The subsequent outbreak of the disease was furious and deadly. Thirteen men had died and many more became horribly ill. Six years later Pearson, who had, in the meantime, been exonerated of negligence by the authorities, was allowed to repeat his experiments on other inmates, this time with the beri-beri vaccine.
Not all the current inmates at Bilibid were guilty of committing a crime. A great many of them,
Pancho informed me, were fall guys, paid or hired by more affluent and powerful individuals to admit to a crime they did not commit. Others were imprisoned solely because they possessed neither the money nor the contacts to get decent legal representation. And still others were framed. Some of these men were condemned to spend most of their lives or, in many cases, ending their lives, inside a metal cage knowing that the men they were protecting, the men who actually committed “their” particular crime were living normal, possibly very privileged, lives outside.
“Can you begin to imagine how that must feel, Caroline?” Pancho asked.
It was a painful thought but it was easy for me to see that in the kind of society they were living – a society of drastic contrasts between the haves and the have-nots – there was almost nothing people like Pancho could do to put an end to such injustices. Money, contacts and a good lawyer were all necessary requirements for avoiding prison sentences. I realized sadly that if all of the inmates I had met that day had any one of those luxuries at their disposal there was no doubt they would never be inside Bilibid Prison. And I knew from talking to them at length that every man, in his own way, had learned to accept this fact, no matter how unpalatable.
But the reality was that 9000 men were incarcerated there, some guilty but very many innocent, who all deserved, at least, the right of a clean mat to sleep on and a bar of soap to wash with. For every man who escaped the death sentence, there would always be another, more unfortunate, individual who would be executed in the “death seat”. It made me both sad and angry to think what if these men were, as Pancho was insinuating, entirely innocent?
“Please try to help me and my friends. You know we’re tired of waiting.” Pancho whispered as he kissed me goodbye. Santos had already said his goodbyes and had returned to his office for more pressing administrative duties.
Engulfed by Pancho’s huge bear hug I was powerless to prevent his fingers from straying down to the very base of my spine. When he eventually released me he laughed his big, generous laugh. “Send me your photo, Caroline, please. A personal one, with a personal message. And wait for me. I’ll be out soon. OK?
“Sure,” I said. “And thanks for taking me round, Pancho. Good luck!” As I left, I turned my head. He was standing there watching me leave, his fingers gripping the waistband of his baggy trousers, his large head thrown back and a big grin on his face.