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Gambling on Politics

By CHAY FLORENTINO-HOFILEÑA

Pineda, unlike his tamer predecessors, has exhibited greater audacity by directly influencing and meddling in politics, even at the national level

“Bobong is back,” whispers a middle-aged woman as she runs her hand over her hair. The summer heat is scorching, and with elections fast approaching, talk about the alleged jueteng lord of Pampanga is starting to sizzle.

From the United States, he flew to the international airport in Cebu, then took a boat to Subic, just a few hours away by land to Pampanga. He slipped in quietly some time between February 9 and 11, the woman volunteers, and one evening the other week, was spotted playing basketball in the gym behind the Lubao municipal hall.

The reported lord of jueteng gained nationwide notoriety because his alleged operations had corrupted and harmed no less than the institution of the presidency. Almost legend, Rodolfo Quijano Pineda was implicated by Ilocos Sur Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson in his testimony before the Senate last year about jueteng collections channeled to deposed President Joseph Estrada.

Pineda, “Bobong” to his townmates, was ordered by the former President to stop delivering collections to his (Estrada’s) Polk Street residence. The Pinedas also maintain a house in nearby Northeast Greenhills. According to Singson, the deliveries were getting far too obvious, and perhaps embarrassing, for Estrada.

Because he ate into Pineda’s collections, Estrada, according to one resident familiar with political goings-on in the town, ended up competing with the locals. Pineda was unable to shower as much money on them because of the former President’s demands—and the people felt it, too.

Pineda, unlike his tamer predecessors, has exhibited greater audacity by directly influencing and meddling in politics, not just at the local but also at the national level. Not content with the anonymity offered by small-time operations, he has ventured into jueteng big time.

This May, as in the past, he is expected to influence voting in President Arroyo’s province, in much the same way that the Catholic Church or Mike Velarde is able to exercise their clout over their flock during the election season. But Bobong Pineda has his own style.

Abrasive, boorish, and foulmouthed, Pineda evaded a subpoena issued by the Senate impeachment court in October last year, and had his wife, Lubao Mayor Lilia “Baby” Pineda, do all the explaining instead.

In her Oct. 11, 2000 testimony, Lilia said that her husband left in the evening of October 5 for a hair-transplant operation and a medical checkup that he had supposedly set previously for July. In the morning of October 5, then Sen. Teofisto Guingona, in a privilege speech, accused Estrada of entering into an arrangement with Pineda, Charlie “Atong” Ang, and Singson regarding jueteng collections. Lilia valiantly resisted efforts by senators to link her husband’s departure with Guingona’s exposé.

Slippery Pineda is a survivor. In 1996, he was named by Potenciano “Chito” Roque, former head of the defunct Task Force on Anti-Gambling from 1986 to1989 under former President Aquino, as among the jueteng operators who gave him protection money. Along with four other suspected jueteng operators, he was charged with “corruption of public officials” but was acquitted in 1998.

Efforts to link him with ranking officials, including President Arroyo, have produced nothing beyond loose and persistent talk. Why, he has even outlasted Joseph Estrada.

The residents of Lubao, hometown of the President’s father, Diosdado, think there’s nothing wrong with jueteng. An illegal numbers game of chance, it has become a form of recreation, if not a cottage industry that has employed a considerable number of people and offered scholarships to countless youth.

A former campaign manager of a resident who once aspired for public office estimates that, in the whole of Central Luzon, at least “P4 million a day” is collected from bettors, many of them belonging to the poor or the unemployed. In Angeles City alone, locals say, they collect as much as P1 million a day. And as in any place else controlled by Pineda, 14 percent is automatically remitted by each station to the auditor, who, in turn, remits the money directly to a bank. “Thirty percent” of gross collection is earmarked for protection money.

Indicative of the high stakes involved, Singson told the Senate that he delivered to Estrada an average of P10 million in monthly bet collections from November 1998 to August 2000. Ang, also according to Singson, met with jueteng operators in 1998 and instructed them to pay protection money “corresponding to three percent of the total collection” for their respective provinces.

For Lubao residents who have no steady sources of income, however, jueteng offers them a precious commodity that their one peso bet could buy: hope. “Ang mahirap, tinutulungan talaga (He really helps the poor), ” lawyer Dante David says of Pineda. David ran for Congress in 1998.

During the Christmas season, Pineda provides families with tickets they use to collect their Noche Buena packages—two dressed chickens, keso de bola, ham, beef, pechay, potatoes. During calamities, he provides them with GI sheets, lumber, and cement to help them rebuild their houses. During times of severe illness requiring hospitalization, he provides them with an ambulance. For the sick who don’t require hospitalization, he gives medicine. And when there are deaths in the family, he provides caskets.

Through the years, Pineda has built a strong psychological dependence on him by helping the poor. One time, he even provided Lubao’s barangay captains, all 45 of them, with brand-new handguns. It is said that he and his mayor-wife have chosen not to build hospitals because, once they do so, people will stop lining up to ask for their help. The Catholic hierarchy has also been the object of his generosity. Pineda gave priests who once concelebrated a Mass for his birthday envelopes that each contained P15,000. Not all accepted the envelopes, however.

At another time, when his house was raided by National Bureau of Investigation agents then under Alfredo Lim, Pineda hid in the basement of one church and brought with him at least two vehicles, a Mercedes Benz and a van, stuffed with so much cash. The church was his own refuge.

More than the Church, however, he had a direct link to NBI officials, too. Pineda was overheard on the radio asking an official to order the NBI team to back off, a resident confirms.

He has also managed to nurture the loyalty of the youth. Besides scholarships, he keeps a team of basketball players who, because they are “on call,” are each paid by him P7,000 a month. All they need to do is be available whenever he wants to play a round of basketball.

Pineda knows the operative words: patronage and utang na loob.

When he speaks with ordinary townsfolk he has no airs. “Di siya naninigaw. Pag ini-introduce siya sa mga programa, ayaw niya. Napakakimi, di humaharap sa tao (He doesn’t shout at people. He shuns speaking during programs. He’s very quiet and shy, he does not want to socialize),” Lubao-born Benilda Camba explains.

Pineda offers various services with neither fanfare nor publicity, but he makes it difficult for his townmates to be on their own and exacts payment in a different form. He expects them to give back what he has given them by way of votes for the candidate he chooses to support.

This May, his 28-year old son, Dennis, who is currently a councilor, is running for mayor, while his wife, who is winding up a consecutive three-year term as mayor, now wants to be a member of the provincial board. It is payback time.

Through the years, Pineda has built his own jueteng network of cabos and cobradores, so extensive and so efficient it can rival any politician’s machinery.

Cabos and cobradores in his employ know only too well the code of loyalty. If the anointed candidate loses in their area, they also lose their jobs. It is to their mutual benefit then that Pineda’s candidates win. They will do whatever it takes to deliver the winning votes.

A few days before elections in 1998, for instance, Pineda’s campaigners approached the electric company to ask who among the subscribers had arrears. Those who did, even if they owed the company small amounts, suddenly found themselves without electricity. Campaigners then did the rounds again and asked those who had disconnected services to sign a sheet of paper that made them feel bound to vote for the Pinedas’ chosen candidate. In exchange, their unpaid bills were taken care of.

Signs that money was really pouring were the high visibility of barangay patrols and the vehicles that were used to bus voters. Lavish parties were thrown for local leaders down to the barangay level and some officials were taken to Cebu and Baguio supposedly for seminars sponsored by the local government department.

Of all schemes, the “cadena de amor” was perhaps among the most efficient, if not the most novel of ways to guarantee that Pineda’s anointed candidate got the votes. How does it work? One campaign manager explains that during the first voting hour, a trusted person of Pineda, with a hidden sample ballot, goes to the precinct to get a real ballot. He or she goes to a voting booth and writes on the sample ballot, then drops it in the ballot box. The real and clean ballot is pocketed then brought to the Pineda compound along the Gapan- Olongapo road. Here, voters who are being dined and entertained are waiting.

In exchange for P500, the ballot is surrendered and Pineda people on top of the operation write on the clean ballot the name of the candidate they are supporting. This way they are absolutely sure that the P500 does not go to waste.

The next person in line then brings the ballot to the voting precinct and then returns with another clean ballot in exchange again for P500. There can be as many as five to 10 people doing this simultaneously, the campaign manager says.

Disfranchisement and exclusion are old tricks that still produce the desired results. Voters, say local residents, are invited by barangay captains to the Pineda compound on election day. Some of them have indelible ink put on their fingers so that they are unable to vote. In exchange, they can partake of the food, flowing Fundador, money, and even live-band entertainment.

More traditional and commonplace is jumbling up the voters’ list. “Ang taong di kanila nawawala sa master list of voters (the names of people whose loyalty is not for them disappear from the master list of voters). The voter is asked to move from one precinct to another hanggang tamarin na at uuwi na lang (until he loses interest and decides to go home),” says one resident.

Another resident who was active in the 1998 election says Pineda’s men are also able to get election paraphernalia directly so that three years ago the high-walled compound practically served as an alternative voting precinct.

The counting of the votes itself is not left to chance. The last time, delays were common because of numerous electric service interruptions. Even the municipal hall was closed down on some days. Candidates who were put at a disadvantage did not complain because in some cases, Pineda also financed their campaigns anyway.

Easily, says the campaign manager, Pineda spent from “P60 million to P65 million” in 1998. The political clout was buttressed by the presence of guards supposedly from the Presidential Security Group, who also provided Pineda security for some time.

Jueteng has distorted the residents’ very concept of leadership and made them content with “problem coping” rather than “problem solving,” says Angelita Gregorio-Medel of the Ateneo Center for Community Services. Medel completed a study on gambling and poverty only last January, focusing on a Central Luzon town where jueteng is prevalent.

People want a benevolent leader, a “benevolent authoritarian,” she says, to whom unquestioning loyalty will be offered so long as they are taken care of. And the jueteng operator who takes care of them assumes a bigger than everyday-life image that they are almost ready to worship.

Beyond politicians, Pineda’s influence extends to military officials, including commanders, and the courts as well, from fiscals to prosecutors. Even before Estrada’s ouster, there were persistent reports linking Pineda to incumbent President Arroyo.

For one, Lilia Pineda and Arroyo are townmates. But because the President did not live in Lubao all her life, the ties may not be that strong.

It is also known that Arroyo stood as sponsor at the wedding of one of the Pineda children. In one interview with a broadcaster, Arroyo reportedly said she even consulted Cardinal Sin about the Pinedas’ request that she stand as wedding sponsor.

“I was just honoring tradition. I asked Cardinal Sin what I should do if somebody of ill-repute asks me to stand as sponsor at his child’s wedding. The Cardinal told me I should accept the responsibility because I’d be doing that not for the parents but for the child,” one report quoted Arroyo as saying.

Since she sat as President this year, those in the know say there has been no communication whatsoever between her and the Pinedas. This is to be expected since after the Singson exposés about Estrada and Bong Pineda’s alleged jueteng collections, it would be the prudent thing to do.

These days, says a Metro Manila-based illegal gambling operator, Pineda is following instructions reportedly issued “by the top” to lie low so as not to give the Philippine National Police reason to go after him and provide the opposition fodder for attacks on the administration.

When Mayor Pineda appeared before the Senate and was grilled by Santiago over her husband’s links with Arroyo, she very carefully evaded the questions. All she said was Bong knew Arroyo but that they were not friends. “Hindi po siya pulitikong tao at hindi po siya nakikipagusap doon sa mga pulitiko (He is not a politician and he does not speak with politicians),” Lilia told Santiago.

Even before the Senate impeachment trial reached a feverish pace, there were attempts to resurrect the links amid resurfacing rumors that Pineda financed Arroyo’s 1995 senatorial campaign. One campaign operator says that the Pinedas “may have helped” in the past because knowing how Bong operates, they would look for and take advantage of every opportunity to infiltrate Arroyo’s campaign or her camp.

For instance, in 1994, Pineda paid tribute to the late President Diosdado Macapagal. Among townmates, how can this be refused?

“Di humingi si Gloria. Binigyan siya (Gloria did not ask. She was given),” say residents who understand the nuances of the prevailing political culture in Pampanga.

Although Lilia Pineda has been mayor for three consecutive terms, her husband is widely recognized as the de facto mayor.

Pretty in her youth, she attracted men from prominent Kapampangan families like the Tayags and the Lingads. She also attracted Bong Pineda. “Baby” to her townmates, she started out selling fresh coconut in the town of Sta. Cruz, locals say. Today, she is president of the Municipal Mayors League of Pampanga, vice president of the National Mayors League, and has for a godchild the president of the league, Jinggoy Estrada.

Nearing the end of her term, she initially contemplated running for governor, but survey results showed that incumbent Gov. Lito Lapid was ahead of her. She decided to slide down to vice governor, but presidential son Mikey Arroyo blocked her bid when he changed his mind and decided to run. She could have given Congress a shot but the incumbent representative of the second district, Zenaida Ducut, did not give way.

Ducut herself is said to owe part of her political success to the Pinedas, and residents took notice when she refused to step aside for Lilia Pineda. It only meant Ducut had become confident about the network she had built, they say.

Finding all choice posts taken, Lilia is now running for a seat in the board. If she does not win—which is unlikely—it will be the end of her political career. Looking ahead, Bong Pineda has asked his son, Dennis, to run for mayor, to keep their hold on politics.

A late riser and notorious for his temperament, Dennis, say residents, will have a difficult time attending to his responsibilities should he win as mayor. In the past, the Pinedas did not bother to organize political rallies. House-to-house visits were considered sufficient since their people could be depended upon anyway.

Perhaps realizing that he cannot forever remain in the jueteng business, Bong Pineda is gradually moving to legalize his activities. Much like the mafia’s Godfather, he has begun to invest in legal businesses such as franchises in Chowking and McDonald’s. He now owns warehouses, even resorts, such as the one across the street from his residence, and has ventured into construction, Lubao residents say. He has also ventured beyond Pampanga to nearby provinces like Tarlac and Bataan.

Once Bong leaves jueteng, “there will be a mad scramble,” at least three residents say. Neither Lilia nor Dennis will take over the jueteng operations. It will be someone else, perhaps one of Bong’s brothers.

Their stranglehold on politics can be broken only by the Macapagals, say old-timers, because of the legacy of Diosdado Macapagal.

President Arroyo must directly intervene in the political affairs of her town. She should clean up her own town, says lawyer Dante David, so it could serve as a model of the new politics that she supposedly espouses.

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