At a quarter to 8 on a recent morning, Simeon Marcelo leaned back in his silver van. One escort van drove ahead of his vehicle, another behind; the whole entourage included eight plainclothes bodyguards. A bulletproof vest sat unused next to Marcelo. It was, he said, too cumbersome to wear.

"If it's your time to go, it's your time," the country's top graft-buster said.

A mild-mannered former seminarian and corporate lawyer who is now the Philippines' ombudsman, Marcelo is taking on the most powerful vested and entrenched interests in a country that perennially ranks among the world's most corrupt. This is the place where two decades ago longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos amassed a fortune in public money while his wife, Imelda, famously filled her closet with thousands of pairs of shoes.

Quietly, methodically, Marcelo is targeting the most corrupt agencies, daring to prosecute even members of the historically untouchable military.

Marcelo is confronting a highly skeptical public and an officialdom steeped in the culture of bribes, gifts and extortion. He has one field investigator for every 17,000 public employees. And he receives weekly death threats, some of which are ominously precise about his whereabouts.

"He faces an enormous battle, probably a lot more than what we were facing in Hong Kong in the 1970s," said Tony Kwok, the former deputy commissioner of the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption, who helped curb official dishonesty in the territory and is advising Marcelo. Without greater political will in the legislature and judicial reform, Kwok said, Marcelo's efforts will be for naught.

But analysts say Marcelo is already making a difference, hiring young, idealistic lawyers and banning the favor-seekers who once milled around the office of the ombudsman. Since taking office in October 2002, he has doubled the prosecutorial staff, more than doubled the investigative staff and raised the conviction rate from 15 percent in 2001 to 42 percent in the first quarter of 2005.

"He has restored credibility to that organization," said Marites Vitug, editor in chief of Newsbreak magazine here.

A Highflying General

"Eyes on the Ball. Focus! Focus! Focus!" screams a reminder Marcelo wrote in marker on a white board in his office.

The ombudsman leaned toward Arthur Carandang, who directs his field investigation team, at a round table in Carandang's office. The two men are seeking bank records in one of the country's most prominent corruption cases: Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia, a former military comptroller, is accused of plundering at least $5.6 million and using it to buy a string of properties across the Philippines and in the United States, as well as eight cars, trucks and SUVs.

But bank officials, claiming they need the general's permission to produce the records, have been stalling.

"Should we subpoena them, Art?" Marcelo asked.

Carandang, a 16-year agency veteran, nodded. "We should also get them cited for contempt," he said of the bank officials.

Until Marcelo took office, no one had ever prosecuted a high-ranking active-duty military official for graft. Now, the ombudsman is investigating at least 10 senior officers. In Garcia's case, the general's wife eased his way.

In December 2003, Garcia's son Juan Paolo was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport carrying $100,000 in undeclared cash. To try to recover the money, Garcia's wife, Clarita Garcia, wrote a sworn statement for U.S. customs officials, explaining that her family was used to carrying copious amounts of cash and that in this case the money was intended as a down payment on a New York City condominium.

"As the comptroller, my husband handles all budgets for the armed forces," she wrote. "He also receives gifts and gratitude money from Philippine companies that are awarded military contracts to build roads, bridges and military housing."

On a salary of $600 a month, the two-star general was able to pay $700,000 cash for a condo in the Trump Tower, Marcelo said. "I thought they would have at least a modicum of decency to hide it, but here they were, living it up, flying to the United States on first-class tickets," he said.

Last September, U.S. officials passed the Garcia file to Marcelo's office. Marcelo had the general suspended and launched an investigation. In October, he filed a forfeiture case, seeking to recover $2.6 million worth of property. In November, Garcia resigned. He is in a civilian jail awaiting trial and faces a court-martial on related charges.

The Big One

Marcelo is weary. At 51, he has ulcers and high blood pressure, not helped by an 80-hour workweek. He has put away the Ferragamo neckties he used to wear as a corporate lawyer and favors simple white shirts befitting a public servant on an $8,400 annual salary. He jokes that his wife, a vice president at a cement manufacturing firm, supports him. He doubts that he'll serve out his seven-year term as ombudsman. But before he leaves, he said, he wants to win the big one: the case against former president Joseph Estrada, ousted in January 2001 in the midst of impeachment proceedings for alleged corruption.

Marcelo is arguing that Estrada has amassed $74 million in illegal gambling kickbacks and tobacco tax diversions. He knows the case well. A volunteer prosecutor during the House impeachment hearings, he examined a key prosecution witness who charged that Estrada received $12.5 million in gambling protection money and tax skimming. Before the Senate trial was completed, massive protests and the withdrawal of military support forced Estrada out.

Estrada, 68, maintains his innocence.

Marcelo began his anti-corruption drive in 2001 when, as solicitor general, he revived a long-dormant case against Marcos, who had been forced out in 1986, and his wife. Resisting unofficial offers from the Marcos camp to settle the case, he forced the return of $680 million that the couple had stashed in a Swiss bank account. It was the largest repatriation of ill-gotten wealth in history.

When Marcelo first took office, skeptics questioned his independence. He hailed from the law office of Carpio, Villaraza and Cruz, known simply as "the firm" because of its links to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who succeeded Estrada. The firm had served as the Arroyo family's private counsel before Arroyo became president.

Since taking office, Marcelo has shunned social affairs where he might run into his legal buddies or administration officials. He has asked his former firm not to handle cases tried by his agency. In 2003, he filed corruption charges against 26 Arroyo appointees accused of grossly inflating the cost of a highway, and he is investigating charges of illegal gambling against Arroyo's son, a congressman.

"People trust him a lot more now than they did when he first came in," said Guillermo Luz, executive director of the influential Makati Business Club.

Boosting the Agency

After lunch, with the sky darkening and thunder rumbling, Marcelo popped in a CD. Strains from the music of "Les Miserables" -- "Take my hand and lead me to salvation" -- filled the room. At 3 p.m., he picked up a pen and signed suspension orders against two sisters who work at the Customs Bureau. So-called lifestyle checks showed the sisters had acquired luxury cars, SUVs and properties while earning $4,000 to $4,600 a year in salary. Tax records showed no other income.

Though the cost of corruption is difficult to gauge, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has estimated that as much as $4 billion is lost to fraud in the Customs Bureau alone. Another survey found that businesses add as much as 20 percent on average to transaction costs to account for government bribes. Transparency International measures the public perception of corruption, ranking countries in descending order, with 1 being the least corrupt. Last year, the Philippines ranked 102nd out of 146 nations surveyed.

Marcelo's biggest challenge, he said, is strengthening the agency. "How can you win the battles if the institution is weak?" he asked. He is hiring 50 more prosecutors and 200 more investigators and has begun intensive staff training with aid from the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development. He has pushed for legislation to triple to 45 the number of members on the corruption court, which is slogging through 1,800 cases, each of which takes on average of seven years to complete.

At a quarter to 7 in the evening, the ombudsman strode out of his office and hustled down four flights of stairs, flanked by his eight bodyguards. No matter the caseload, he has dinner with his wife. Then it's back to work at home. He was preparing another graft case. Its target: an air force general.

Simeon Marcelo, the Philippines' ombudsman, gets many death threats.