Editor’s note: Former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was shot dead on Aug. 21, 1983, upon arriving from exile in the United States at the airport now named after him. Fourteen months later, a fact-finding board assigned by President Ferdinand Marcos to look into the assassination submitted two reports—one by its chair and the other by its four members.
The following report was written by Rosario A. Garcellano for the now-defunct fortnightly magazine Celebrity (Rodolfo T. Reyes, publisher and editor, since deceased) and was run in its issue of Oct. 31, 1984. By then, protest actions were occurring all over the country, coming to a head in the February 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship.
CoverStory is republishing Ms. Garcellano’s report to mark Aquino’s assassination and to encourage earnest discussion and research among young Filipinos on its aftermath.
The country was on the second day of a nationwide transport strike called by the 90,000-strong Acto (Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations) … but clearly the event that made headlines and gripped the public mind was the submission of two reports by the Agrava Fact-Finding Board, whose members were sworn into office on Oct. 22, 1983, as a result of Presidential Decree 1886 which mandated the formation of a commission to investigate the murder of former senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
Days before the actual submission of the reports, however — Oct. 23, 1984, for chairperson Corazon Juliano Agrava, and the next day, Oct. 24, for members Amado Dizon, Ernesto Herrera, Luciano Salazar and Dante Santos — the public had been informed through “news leaks” that the report(s) would debunk the theory proferred by the military that Rolando Galman, supposedly a gun for hire, killed Aquino on orders of the top echelons of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and would instead point to the military as having conspired to execute the killing. The “leaks” also told of a crucial division between Agrava on one hand and the board members on the other, as to how high up the conspiracy went.
On Oct. 23, Agrava went to Malacanang to submit her report to President Marcos. She was immediately granted an audience and in fact spent 15 minutes conversing privately with him. Then, attended by live television coverage, she formally presented her report to Mr. Marcos at the Ceremonial Hall of the Palace.
Later, Agrava proceeded to the Magsaysay Hall of the SSS Building to present her report to the public. Her speech, which she delivered on her feet so, she said, the people in the last rows could see her, was brief. When she said she had not yet seen the report of her colleagues, she was reduced to near-tears by a booing gallery. “Because I can face myself and in all conscience say that whatever I have placed in my report is what I believe in,” she said with a composure that threatened to break, “I could hardly care whether you people who are booing out there should pelt me with tomatoes… If my best does not satisfy you, I am sorry—for you and for myself… “
On Oct. 24, amid loud rumors of an impending coup d’etat, Dizon, Herrera, Salazar and Santos went to Malacañang to submit their report. They were kept waiting for an hour and later received by an unsmiling President long enough for them to present their report and be given a receipt for it. “I hope you can live with your conscience with what you have done,” Mr. Marcos told them.
The four men were greeted with cheers and wild applause at the SSS Building by a full-packed gallery that included the likes of Bea Zobel. It was 11.30 in the morning, and most of them had been waiting since 8.00, cheering the dapper, playing-to-the-gallery Lupino Lazaro, counsel for the Galman and Lazaro families, and booing Rodolfo Jimenez, counsel for the Aviation Security Command.
Agrava was again booed when she made her entrance, a public response that turned into an indignant roar when, after presenting copies of the second report to various sectors and announcing that copies for the media were available at the board’s 12th-floor office, she declared the proceedings adjourned. “Findings, findings!” the crowd shouted.
Minutes later, in “informal proceedings,” Public Coordinator Bienvenido Tan began to read aloud the report’s findings, with joyous clapping greeting each name he read on the “indictable” list. At the end of the reading, members of the audience raised their fists and burst into an emotional Bayan Ko, followed by chants of “Mar-cos resign! Mar-cos resign!”
Surrounded by her family, besieged by a horde of photographers, Saturnina Galman, the mother of Rolando Galman, wept.
Custodio et al.
Agrava’s 121-page report implicated Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, who was in charge of the security force assigned to protect Aquino at the Manila International Airport, and the six men on the plane’s service stairs with Aquino: Sergeants Arnulfo de Mesa, Claro Lat, Filomeno Miranda and Armando dela Cruz, and Constables Mario Lazaga and Rogelio Moreno.
The four members’ 457-page report, which was supported by a 479-page memorandum prepared by the board’s legal staff headed by general counsel Andres Narvasa, found “indictable” not only Custodio and the six other men but also Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver, Metropolitan Command head Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas, 16 other military men — Colonels Arturo Custodio and Vicente Tigas, Captains Felipe Valerio, Llewelyn Kavinta and Romeo Bautista, 2nd Lt. Jesus Castro, Sergeants Pablo Martinez, Tomas Fernandez, Rolando de Guzman, Ernesto Mateo, Rodolfo Desolong, Leonardo Mojica, Pepito Torio, Prospero Bona, Cordova Estero, and Aniceto Acupido, and one civilian, Hermilo Gosuico, a businessman from Nueva Ecija.
Among other findings from the majority report: that there was no evidence to link the New People’s Army-Communist Party of the Philippines to the killing and that Galman had “no subversive affiliations”; that Olivas sought to “mislead the board”; that the murder weapon was not a .357 magnum revolver but a .38 or .45 cal pistol; that Aquino was shot on the staircase and not on the tarmac; that the gunman could either be Moreno or Miranda; that Galman was killed to silence him on the conspiracy…
Meanwhile, President Marcos immediately turned over Agrava’s report to the Ministry of Justice, declared the work of the board accomplished, and announced that the seven men Agrava implicated had been confined to quarters. The next day, he also turned over the majority report to the Ministry of Justice and accepted letters from Ver and Olivas asking for a “leave of absence.” In their letters, [they] also insisted on their innocence, charging that the four board members had been used as tools by the enemies of the state.
Observers have expressed surprise at how the President so swiftly turned over Agrava’s report to the justice ministry “as though it were the full report of the board,” and wondered why Ver and Olivas were “only” on a leave of absence.
Amid a still growing clamor against the move, the President said the cases would be sent to the Tanodbayan, a panel that tries cases against government officials, and the Sandiganbayan.
Why was he killed?
In a press conference at the National Press Club an hour after the submission of the majority report, Aquino’s widow Cory Aquino said the Agrava reports “confirmed what we knew all along … but did not answer the question as to why Ninoy was assassinated.” Accompanied by two of her children and a sister-in-law, Maur Aquino Lichauco, Mrs. Aquino said the assassination was “a political decision of the gravest import, so that no military man … would think of making that decision on his own.”
To questions raised in a subsequent open forum that would have her categorically naming who she thought was responsible for her husband’s murder beyond the implicated generals, Mrs. Aquino retorted: “I am sorry I cannot be any clearer.”
At one point during the press conference, Agapito “Butz” Aquino, younger brother of the slain former senator, rose from one of the back seats to inform the gathering that he had received an unconfirmed report that Dante Santos and Luciano Salazar and their families were being held at the airport and being prevented from flying to the United States. The report was confirmed a few minutes later. (Early in the evening, it was reported that the President had lifted the hold order on the two board members.)
As the days wore on, … protest actions were mounted by groups such as the Nationalist Alliance for Justice, Freedom and Democracy and the Coalition of Organizations for the Realization of Democracy, demanding that President Marcos be implicated in the military conspiracy. As of this writing, even as various publications are making a killing in printing the two reports, at least one protest action was marked with violence, with anti-riot troops forcibly dispersing a march headed by Butz Aquino along Ayala Avenue for lack of a permit.
Former senator Lorenzo Tanada said that the forthcoming trial of Ver and others indicted would result in either a “whitewash” or an “acquittal” because the judges of the Sandiganbayan “are all appointees of President Marcos,” and that “as long as he remains president, there can be no fair hearing.”
The acting AFP chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the West Point graduate widely respected as “a professional soldier,” said in a press conference: “In some sectors of our communities, the [AFP] is mistakenly perceived to be, not the protector of the people, but their oppressor. If our people’s confidence in the soldier has, in the past, somehow been shaken, let this be restored by a high degree of personal discipline, fairness in our dealings, and respect for the law.”
The sharp blade of irony marks the case of the four board members who, while they performed “beyond expectations” in the face of the crushing pressure of public opinion and threat to personal security, imagined or otherwise, now have to bear the judgment that what they gave was not enough.
The very process of legalism is in fact under heavy criticism from some quarters who insist that empirical evidence cannot be the be-all and end-all of the dispensation of justice. Not that, they add, empirical evidence to point to the hand beyond the smoking gun is lost forever. Keen followers of the inquiry into the Aquino assassination are quick to issue the reminder that certain important witnesses are still missing, but that history will inevitably unearth that one vital clue, that most crucial of evidence.
And Corazon Agrava? Observers point out that the members of the board were nowhere around when she turned over its voluminous papers to the Tanodbayan. In an April 1984 interview with Celebrity (run in its issue of May15, 1984), Agrava said she finds the winding-up of their mission “scary.” She enumerated her two biggest problems: one, “that even if the board had given her its full support in the months past, she cannot be sure that, when faced with the truth, the members ‘will still be with me,’” and two, “if the evidence will have them ‘step on important toes, these will endanger our personal security.’”
Whatever, an observer said wryly, given that she had nothing and everything to lose, she has passed up a significant place in Philippine history.