Editorial: Anatomy of impunity

·3 min read

THE death of Ruben Ecleo Jr. following cardiopulmonary arrest on May 13 is anticlimactic for the Filipinos who remember Alona Bacolod-Ecleo, Arbeth Sta. Ana-Yongco and the hapless Bacolod family.

Ecleo Jr. was the supreme master of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), a religious organization started by his father Ruben Sr. He was incarcerated at the New Bilibid Prison for a graft conviction passed by the Sandiganbayan in 2006.

Some broadsheets and news websites reported Ecleo Jr. as another prominent, even controversial public figure whose death occurred in the midst of the pandemic. The Bureau of Corrections disclosed that the week before, the former Dinagat Islands representative had recovered from coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

His death’s association with the Covid-19 does not efface the man’s longer and darker involvement with the equally virulent culture of impunity.

For showing no atonement for the crimes of which he was convicted and spending a longer time out of jail as a fugitive than as an inmate serving the sentences for two convictions meted out to him by the court, Ecleo Jr. proves that justice eludes the deserving while impunity shields the powerful and puts them beyond the so-called long but actually attenuated arm of law in this country.

Filipinos should remember what can be learned from the Ecleo story:

On Jan. 5, 2002, Alona Bacolod-Ecleo was strangled by her husband, Ecleo Jr, in their home in Sitio Banawa, Barangay Guadalupe. Three days later, the fourth-year medical student’s body was found inside a bag thrown down a ravine in Dalaguete, a southern town in Cebu.

In 2012, a Cebu City court convicted the PBMA head of parricide and sentenced him to at least 30 years in prison.

During the decade-long murder trial of Ecleo Jr., the following took place: the massacre on June 18, 2002 of Alona’s parents, her brother, and her sister by a PBMA member, later killed by the police in the ensuing chase and shoot-out; and the Oct. 11, 2004 murder of Arbeth Sta. Ana-Yongco, the private prosecutor handling the multiple-murder case filed against Ecleo Jr., by another PBMA member.

On the same day that Alona’s family, including a neighbor, were killed, the police launched an operation to arrest Ecleo Jr. in Dinagat Island. Armed PBMA members battled it out to prevent the police from extracting the PBMA head from his island home, where he had holed up since the January 2002 slaying of his wife. Nineteen persons died during the raid, including 16 PBMA members and one police officer.

Cebu media reported about the preferential treatment given by jail authorities to Ecleo Jr., who allegedly brought in illegal substances and a mistress and held parties in his cell.

On March 2, 2004, after the court granted Ecleo Jr. bail of P1 million for a non-bailable offense, he disappeared.

In 2006, the Sandiganbayan sentenced Ecleo Jr. to 31.5 years in prison after he was convicted of graft for anomalies committed during his term as the mayor of San Jose, Surigao del Norte (now known as Dinagat Island).

During the 2010 election, Ecleo Jr., still in hiding, was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives. He served for two years as a congressman.

The surviving family members of Alona were removed from the government’s witness protection program and ceased to receive financial aid in 2011.

On July 30, 2020, Ecleo Jr. was arrested in Pampanga. Until that day, he was considered the Most Wanted Person by the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

How could a much-photographed prominent fugitive evade for so long due punishment — 16 years spent as a “free” man, according to SunStar public and standards editor Pachico A. Seares in his July 31, 2020 “News Sense” column — and leave a long trail of abuses and tragedies barely covered in a shallow grave?

In the culture of impunity, there seems to be no point in exhuming justice.

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