MANILA, AUG. 7 -- .
Last November, when the mutilated body of prominent leftist labor leader Rolando Olalia was found along a suburban highway, a shocked President Corazon Aquino formed Task Force Olalia and promised to track his killers "whatever the costs in political terms." Now, nine months and numerous leads later, the government is no closer to solving the case or even pinpointing a suspect.
Olalia's killing became just another of the dozens of unsolved political crimes here that have made many Filipinos skeptical about a law enforcement system that appears to have broken down.
"It's general inefficiency, and it's a lack of resources," said Sen. Rene Saguisag, a lawyer. "We are trying to rebuild our institutions here, but we are working on too many things at the same time. But show me a country that is better off. You know how bad it is in Lebanon, or Spain, or France, or other places where bombs go off. At least we have survived."
Now as the search has bogged down for the killers of Cabinet secretary Jaime Ferrer, 70, the first assassination of a Cabinet member here, many doubt that the murder will ever be solved. Like every other political crime here, from the killings to kidnapings to the periodic waves of bombings in the capital, Ferrer's slaying on Sunday is being attributed to shadowy forces that operate on the political extremes.
Police and military officials investigating Ferrer's murder cannot decide which of the extremist groups to blame, in a country battling a myriad of insurgencies, right-wing antigovernment activists, private armies and political warlords. It is estimated there have been about 50 politically motivated killings so far this year.
"With Ferrer's murder, you just have too many suspects," said Maria Socorro Diokno, a human rights activist.
Initial suspicion centered on the urban death squads of the communist New People's Army, which had put Ferrer at the top of its hit list because of his anticommunist stand. Late today police detained for questioning a suspected communist hit man and his wife to see if they were linked to the slaying.
Earlier in the probe, police attention had shifted to Amelil Malaquiok, a right-wing former leader of Moslem insurgents who they thought might have killed Ferrer as part of a wider plot to bring back ousted president Ferdinand E. Marcos. But Malaquiok was released after police said he admitted being offered money from Marcos' supporters to undertake violent criminal activities in Manila, including assassinations, but denied any involvement in Ferrer's death.
Ferrer was also on the hit list of a little-known Moslem organization called Holy War of Allah, which vowed in May to open a campaign of urban warfare to aid the fight for Moslem self-rule in Mindanao. Also, Ferrer won many political enemies among powerful provincial governors and mayors, many with private armies, whose jobs were threatened by his campaign to purge corrupt local officials.
The prospect that the Ferrer assassination will join the long list of unsolved political crimes has produced some nasty exchanges between politicians, who have started arming themselves in the face of the rising lawlessness, and law enforcement officials charged with cracking seemingly unsolvable cases.
Members of the new congress were so concerned that the Ferrer killing may never be solved that the House passed a resolution Monday saying the country's top law enforcement officials should resign their posts if they cannot find the killers within a "reasonable time."
Yesterday, armed forces chief of staff Gen. Fidel Ramos, obviously stung by the criticism, replied: "Part of the basic doctrine that we believe in is command responsibility." That statement was widely interpreted to mean that Aquino, as commander-in-chief, should also be held responsible for the failures of the armed forces and the police, who are under military control.
Aquino, in a eulogy to Ferrer today, said his murder "states the most serious challenge that faces us today: Can we have order without tyranny and peace without oppression?" She vowed to "continue to fight anarchy with law and murder with justice."
Early last month, in a closed-door meeting with the country's top generals, Aquino decried the string of unsolved political crimes, describing the situation as embarrassing, according to her press spokesman. Her concern led her to shake up the country's top intelligence agency, replacing its aging director with the retiring Army commander, Gen. Rodolfo Canieso, known as a tough disciplinarian.
Aquino knows first hand about the sense of frustration from unsolved political crimes. It was four years ago this month that her husband, former senator Benigno S. (Ninoy) Aquino Jr., was assassinated at Manila International Airport. After lengthy trials and hearings, the country still appears to be no closer to finding out who pulled the trigger. Once a national obsession, the case has all but disappeared from the pages of Manila's daily newspapers.
"Most Filipinos will probably say they're never going to find Ferrer's killer," said Diokno, a member of the Free Legal Assistance Group. "After all, they've expended millions on trying to find out who killed Ninoy, and they've got videotapes, they've got suspects, they've had numerous hearings."
Even in cases where the perpetrators are known and in custody, justice here grinds excruciatingly slowly, particularly in cases involving military personnel, who must be tried in military courts.
For example, Juan Ponce Enrile was fired as defense minister last November amid reports that officers loyal to him were plotting to overthrow Aquino's government. Presidential spokesman Teodoro Benigno told reporters then that the plotters were well known, and the new defense minister, Rafael Ileto, said he was investigating the affair. But not a single soldier or officer was charged or disciplined for involvement in the November coup plot, and the matter was quiety dropped.
In January, when hundreds of renegade soldiers attacked key military installations and took over a suburban television station, Aquino promised "swift and speedy" justice and ordered courts-martial for the mutineers. They were all well known and even appeared in a televised press conference after the incident, but seven months later not a single charge has been filed.
Also in January, at least a dozen leftist demonstrators were killed when police and marines opened fire during a protest march on Mendiola Bridge near the presidential palace. Aquino formed a top-level Citizens' Mendiola Commission, chaired by a former Supreme Court justice, which after a three-week inquiry recommended that charges be filed against the protest leader for instigating the violence and against police and military officials for negligence. But nothing was ever done.
Even when major criminal suspects are arrested, like right-wing Col. Rolando Abadilla, who was arrested late last month in connection with plotting several coup attempts, they can use the slow machinery of the judicial system to drag out their cases indefinitely.
Brig. Gen. Alexander Aguirre, who is in charge of security for the Manila capital region, bristled at suggestions that crimes are rarely solved and criminals, particularly when they are members of the military, are rarely prosecuted. He said the cases involving coup plotters and mutineers were in various phases of investigation. "There is no absolute dictatorship in this country," Aguirre said.