Miracles of Quiapo - urban blight

Chapter 3: Yago

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Orphaned at five, Yago’s relatives sell him a couple of years later to Mr. Ty, a Manila trader. Yago copes well as a slave. He feeds himself with the food that he serves the family dogs. One day, in a quarrel with Mr. Ty, his wife suspects that Yago brings back luck to the household, Mr. Ty’s wife orders Nardong Sablay, a house help, to get rid of Yago. Nardong Sablay tows Yago away to a distant bustling street in Caloocan City, a few kilometers north of Manila, and leaves him to fend for himself. A decade later Yago re-appears as chief thief, among other underworld titles, and becomes an affiliate of a network of criminal gangs run by rogue cops. Later, while on his way to conversion and leaving his criminal ways behind, the rogue cops suspect that he is double-crossing them. The rogue cops set him up as one of the fall guys in a kidnap-for-ransom rescue operation. Yago survives the staged operation but gets jailed for no reason and without a case being filed against him. He then looks forward to the day when the jail warden sends him outside of prison for community service as it offers him chances to see his wife Katalina and son Junie. However, his last taste of freedom becomes tragic when one of the jail guards escorting him, who thinks he was trying to escape in the middle of a commotion inside the Castro Underpass, shoots him (which eventually caused Yago’s death). This happened on the same day Franco—later named Boy Deo—gets to slip past his handlers and tossed into the hands of Teresa.

The Bodabil they were referring to was Yago to his friends and acquaintances in the Sta. Cruz area. In the hierarchy of the underworld, he was the thief among all thieves. Specializing in snatching and pickpocketing, he could have easily won grand slam titles if awards were given to sleight-of-hand artists. He was so good at his craft that he once stole a 24-carat gold necklace from the pool of stolen items being kept at the safehouse maintained by Police Officer Domingo “Madis-ogon” de Sabado, one of Sir Dikomo’s sidekicks. Madis-ogon had a three-day window within which to determine if claimants (victims of theft) that came forward were known to him, or known to his relations, friends, or fellow policemen. If after three days no one came forward to complain with the police, Madis-ogon would proceed to sell the stolen goods through his network of fence buyers. Pawning these hot items was also common practice, especially when the need for cash was urgent. Proceeds were divided among the team, with Madis-ogon and the thief who brought in the stolen item getting the lion’s share. Madis-ogon in turn shared the loot with some of his accomplices at the police station.

The standard procedure at the police station was to reassure complainants of theft that the police would let them know in the event the thief was apprehended and the stolen item was recovered. Complainants were then requested to leave their addresses or contact numbers at the help desk.

When a victim came forward to complain with the police and the latter was able to determine later within the three-day window period that he or she was fair game, the item stolen from him/her went to the selling or pawning block. Otherwise, Madis-ogon would come out to produce the stolen item and return it to the victim, who then would normally show his or her appreciation to the policeman by offering thank-you gifts. Testimonials praising Madis-ogon were told and retold in the neighborhood. In a hypothetically morbid event that Madis-ogon passed away today, mourners praising his good deeds would far outnumber those cheering the end of his worldly existence.  

Yago used to be a freelancer in the Tepeyac area, a few blocks northeast of Quiapo, victimizing mostly students. Aside from pickpocketing, he also mastered the evil trick of shortchanging customers when he moonlighted as a sidewalk vendor. The modus worked when a customer paid a large bill. He counted the change (consisting of smaller bills) before the victims’ eyes. Then he rolled with one of his concealed fingers more than half of the bills toward his palm just as he pushed, which he used as distraction, the remaining wads of bills to the waiting open palm of a victim.

While he got his “earnings” all to himself, he flirted with near-fatal mishaps in at least three instances. The first—after he snatched a necklace—was when he tripped over a boulder while fleeing from a mob. He broke one of his right ribs. This happened in 1974 when he was barely fifteen.

The second happened a year later. His pickpocket attempt went awry when he fumbled the wallet of the victim inside a passenger jeepney. The victim happened to have several companions inside the jeepney, and he got lynched. Perhaps the only reason his attackers left him alive was because of his being a minor. 

And the third—as the cheating vendor—happened when he tried to cheat a customer of the latter’s change. The would-be victim saw through his deception and, after a commotion, Yago got himself stabbed, with no clear identification of who the suspect was. The policemen who attended to the crime scene sent him to a public hospital. He was confined for three weeks.

At the hospital, the attending physician remarked that Yago was lucky the hostile weapon missed his heart by no more than an inch.

The police in the Sta. Cruz, Quiapo, and even Iztapalapa areas had a general profile of most of the people who got involved in petty crimes, either as suspect or victim, or both. The ones that brought Yago to the hospital knew that he had been a suspect more times than he had been a victim. They sent an emissary from the underground network to talk him into joining their team, supposedly the elite band of gangsters in the area.     

Aside from the fact that Yago had felt indebted to the police and their cohorts for bringing him to the hospital (and therefore helping save his life), and for settling his hospital bills (an amount that was relatively big for an itinerant gangster like him), it had become clear to him that he needed some kind of mob help: a sort of insurance or protection cover.

While returns for him were high as a freelancer, risks to his life and limb were also high. He needed alliances with whom to share his expertise. Back in the street a month later, Yago was in as a member of Madis-ogon’s elite rogue team.

At nineteen, Yago was the top producer for Madis-ogon’s gang. Within that team was his own unit—called “Bodabil,” a code name for their cover which referred to “My Way,” a cabaret house in Sta. Cruz that earned a reputation for their vaudeville shows. However, a big portion of My Way’s income came from an integrated prostitution ring it operated, which counted among its patrons the rich and famous, particularly politicians.

Aside from Yago, Bodabil consisted of veterans, namely: Ricardo “Tirador” Tacastacas, Ferdinando “El Kupitan” Biglang-awa, and Paquito “Kamao” Sarabosing—the one who “stabbed the friend of a friend.” They dabbled as on-call bouncers and referral agents for My Way. As referral agent, the team earned commissions from every amount spent by customers they sent to the establishment, including “bar fines” for the dancers, entertainers—even receptionists and waitresses—who also moonlighted as prostitutes.

Yago reinvented himself under Madis-ogon’s wings. Where before he pounced on every opportunity to steal—victimizing students, commuters, professionals, and paupers alike, even fellow thieves—he now targeted mostly patrons of other establishments that competed with My Way, especially those who showed signs of being drunk. Where before—being untrained and finding that making a living from honest labor was too complicated for him—he stole for survival, now he stole for business strategy.

Too often he heard tipsy customers—like big-time contractors and the politicians they brought along—brag about how easy it was to steal and make money from government projects. In more ways than one, Yago found meaning to and justification for his own meandering ways.

HIS REAL NAME was Gerundio Justicador. Friends and family called him “Golek.” He was five, almost six, when he lost his parents to guns for hire. He had no idea what happened them. But as he grew older, he somehow learned that his father worked, out of debt of gratitude, for a politician in a barrio of a town in Nueva Vizcaya. The politician his father worked for was popular, some kind of legend in the wild-wild-west imagery, having dueled in actual gun battle with the close-in security of one of his opponents. To scare his father’s boss away from further contending for any political position, the hired guns first trimmed the low-lying fruit, as it were. Golek’s father was one of the early casualties.

The death of his mother was in itself a drama-filled story of unguarded love and selflessness. It was about noontime on a hot, humid day when two would-be assassins on board a motorcycle showed up at the makeshift gate that led to their decrepit home. She was drying grains in the front yard when she saw the intruders. A glance at the pistol-packing hooded goons and she knew that their intent was to harm. She also knew they were looking for her husband. She rushed to block them, unmindful of the firearms they did not bother to hide, while yelling for him to flee through the back door. One of the two hoodlums swept her aside with such violence that she landed like a heap some ten feet away.  

Golek’s father, roused from the middle of a nap, did not flee. Instead, he leaped out of bed to check on his wife, from whose cry he knew something terrible was happening. He was about to step outside of their house when gunfire greeted him. He slumped awkwardly back, his arms clutching at the edge of the half-shut door. Soon he fell completely to the ground, lifeless.

The assassins turned to Golek’s mother. Only in exceptional cases would hired guns spare any possible witness. The one who whacked her was not done. He aimed his .45 pistol at her and was about to shoot her when his companion waved his hand. It was an order to let her go. The killers were about to leave when Golek, who was with his three younger brothers at the neighbor’s house playing with cousins, suddenly appeared.

His mother tried to grab Golek when another gunfire rang, this time a bullet hitting her. Then the two unknown men hurriedly fled.

Golek was too young to understand the terrible loss that hit his family in those horrific moments. His mother survived the assault but eventually died from sepsis at the hospital.

In the days that followed, Golek and his siblings had to be separated; none of their kin adopted them as a bundle. An uncle named Porferio Justicador Denada—a rice farmer who rented farmlands—took him under his care. Life for the surrogate family was fine until the uncle got heavily indebted due partly to the hospitalization of his wife and partly to excessive gambling. He was in dire need of cash, so he was forced to sell Golek, now eight, to a rice trader in Manila.

Feeling alone in a crowded place, Golek’s slow descent to a life in hell began. His owner, a Filipino-Chinese businessman in Cerrito, Manila, tasked him with the simple chore of feeding the family dog—a male Doberdor (a cross between a Doberman Pinscher and Labrador Retriever) named “Survo”—twice a day.

Aside from rice trading, the businessman who went by the name of Leopoldo Ty (Mr. Ty), also traded Virginia tobacco from Pangasinan and Ilocos Sur. For rice trading, he partnered with grocery owners in Caloocan, Manila, and Pasay. The three-story Ty house occupied almost a fourth of a block in the bustling Pritil district. The ground floor housed the Ty wholesale and retail grocery store, which was managed by Madam Awie, his wife. Up to seven attendants at any given time helped the wife operate the store. About one-fourth of the inventory traded by Mr. Ty went through this store. There were also five house helpers, each one assigned to separate tasks.

For tobacco trading, he affiliated himself with cigarette producers. Both the rice- and tobacco-trading business kept him away most of the time from his family’s Cerrito home.

Apart from the main building, there were annexes, made of concrete, one of which served as a garage, and another one at the back, which served as a dirty kitchen. In the garage were the dog cages, and in the dirty kitchen there was a makeshift room, also with a makeshift toilet and bath. The dirty kitchen served as Golek’s palace, sort of.

Only in exceptional cases, such as when provision for his and the dogs’ food needed to be replenished, was he allowed to enter the main building. All house help was discouraged from interacting with him. This was not a punishment for anyone. Rather, the intent was to keep everyone busy, away from unproductive chatter.

Golek had no access to the gate that led to the street and the neighborhood outside. But even if he were to develop some desire to escape, the noise and strange environment he imagined outside did not beckon to him.

Except for the pariah-like treatment, Golek looked fine. Although his food was rationed (very much like that of a prisoner who was serving time), it was of his own choosing whenever he starved, because he could always set aside something for himself from the meals of the dog.

What was killing him was the deep longing for his family. He was not yet nine years old, and yet it seemed he no longer had a tear to shed. Perhaps the shock from separation and the hidden pain he endured for three years at his uncle’s house had prepared him well for the torture he went through every time he tried to sleep at night, which was always a struggle.

Survo also helped him keep his sanity. Mr. Ty told him their son was fond of dogs. It was the son who bought the puppies. There used to be three of them: the other two—another Labrador and a German Shepherd—had died, apparently due to neglect. That was how the dog got its name, for being a survivor. When Golek came over, Survo was already five months old.

After six months, Survo was already almost half as heavy as him. By this time, it looked like both Golek and Survo had developed trust and rapport for each other. Madam Awie initially prohibited Golek from bringing Survo out of his cage. But when she saw Survo responding to Golek’s commands, either with whistles or clapping of hands, she relented and allowed the two to kind of frolic for a couple of hours after each feeding. Every time Golek engaged Survo in anything that looked like a game, the latter expressed his appreciation by pinning his master down to the ground.

Mr. Ty and his wife had two grown-up children. One day, Joey, the older kid, came home from the military academy in Northern Luzon. He was on semestral break as a freshman cadet. Pleased to see Survo in fine form, he wrestled Golek down to the ground. Probably he learned how Survo played games with Golek and was trying to celebrate with the caretaker for a job well done. But Survo saw it differently. The dog snarled at Joey, and was about to bite him, except that Golek was quick to step in, stopping the dog in time.

Joey liked Golek’s overall mien. He convinced his mother to give Golek a bigger role in the household, and to compensate him for what he had done to Survo. The compensation would come in many forms. For example, he could now eat his meals inside the house. Also, an exclusive room was refurbished for him. This room used to belong to Nardong Sablay, who was the most senior—tenure wise—among the house domestic help. For reasons Nardong Sablay did not understand, then until now, Madam Awie transferred him to another room which he had to share with three other house help.

However, the rich Ty household still got Golek’s services for free. He remained a slave, perhaps a slave with perks. That he could not freely go outside, assuming he wanted to, added to the inequity. But to some house help, he was a pampered slave. Maybe it took one slave to become envious of another.

One day, Mr. Ty arrived from a weeklong travel. He wasn’t supposed to be back this soon. It seemed he had a spat with his wife, the latter suspecting he was having one extramarital affair too many. The quarrel ended with him smashing expensive Qinaware and leaving their house in a huff.

Madam Awie bristled. In her estimation, the spike in the withdrawals from one bank account was suspicious. She inquired about it when he called her from somewhere in Macaw. He said he was negotiating a contract in Hongcau and was hosting a party for his would-be partners in the gambling and entertainment hub dubbed as Las Vegas of Asia. She had been married to him long enough to know that reacting the way he did when confronted with questions meant he was hiding something. He would show receipts, he said, when he got home.

“You brought along a mistress to Macaw,” she angrily accosted him. It was a bluff. When he flared up, she pressed him even more. That was enough for him to inflict violence on nonliving, but treasured, possessions.

An hour passed, and Madam Awie was still looking for who to blame—outside of what she determined to be a hopelessly incorrigible philandering husband—for the destruction of her wedding gifts from the Mayor of Manila. That he could be suggesting, by breaking those gifts into pieces, to break their marriage bond as well could only enrage her even more.

She saw Golek, who showed up to offer help in cleaning up the mess, and directed her ire at him. All the house help knew it was not the time to be within the range of her sight. It turned out Nardong Sablay—the one who was most jealous of Golek’s ascent in social standing—had tricked him to go see and offer some help to the boss lady.

“You insect! Disappear from here!” she yelled at the boy. “How could you bring such bad luck to this house?” Anything associated with the husband was now a suspect. Mr. Ty had told her a trading partner in North Luzon recommended to him the son of a tenant farmer who could be hired as a house boy, but because he was too young to know anything, Golek ended up being sold like a scrap with unknown recyclable value. Except for that, Madam Awie knew nothing about Golek.

Nardong Sablay offered himself when Madam Awie asked for volunteers to ship Golek away. More than anything, the impulsive judgement to get rid of Golek was aimed to spite her husband. The heat of the hour made her forget about Joey, who could resent her later. 

Nardong Sablay roamed around the city, looking for clusters of street dwellers. The farther it was from Cerrito, the less likely Golek would find his way back to the only place he knew in Manila. It did not take Nardong Sablay long to find one in Caloocan. As he explained to Golek not to venture away from the sidewalk where he would leave him like a dog about to go astray, assuring him falsely that he would be back, Nardong Sablay felt pity at the boy. Golek had eyes that told Nardong Sablay he would be okay. Nardong Sablay felt he did not know what to do, but the thought of reclaiming his room made it easier for him to move away and leave Golek all by his lonesome.

Just as no one checked on how stray dogs were doing, nobody tracked Golek after that. Probably it was during these times when somebody up there—called God or something—took control of lost souls everyone else saw as nothing more than castoffs.

Five years later, Golek resurfaced in Sta. Cruz. He looked deranged, so wretched that people in the area had to call him “Yagit,” Tagalog slang for “les miserables” in French. Nobody knew him. Golek himself could not recall where he came from or what his name was.    

Golek seemingly managed to survive by randomly picking up food put on display by sidewalk vendors. There were times when he ended up being beaten for his mischief. But often people would just let him go, thinking he was insane.

In reality, though, Golek seemed sure of himself not being out of his wits. He developed the wretched appearance, aside from the fact that he had no means whatsoever by which to look better, as a cover to help himself get by.   

During the whole time that he had been in Sta. Cruz (and most likely in Caloocan earlier), he converted deserted alleys and sidewalks into his home. And he stayed there for as long as nobody shooed him away. Strange as it seemed, despite life’s miseries, he had an authentic outward friendly disposition. He called family all kinds of street dwellers—beggars, persons with disabilities, the mentally sick, etc.

One night, there was a heavy downpour. The inundation lasted until the next day. The massive flooding that followed made it impossible for him and his kind, along with rats and other ground creatures, to have accommodation in their usual habitat.

No establishments or stores were open that day. The water was waist-deep in most parts of Sta. Cruz.

Fortunately for the street dwellers, they were rescued by the parish disaster response team. But out of fifty-four stranded homeless individuals, only twenty-five could be accommodated inside the elevated portion of the church. He was one of the twenty-five, along with children, women, elders, and disabled persons. The rest were sent to the city government’s evacuation center, which was even more crowded.

During his two-day stay inside the church, Golek got acquainted with a girl named Katalina. He was almost fourteen now; she was thirteen years old. Along with at least three more families, her family lived under the Sta. Cruz bridge, some hundred meters away from the church. When her family returned from the evacuation center, he joined them at what can be called their home under the bridge. People did not mind the smell around here, especially if one had been around the place for some time. Also, except for what could be attributed as equity of the incumbent, nobody could claim ownership over any of the “livable” spaces under the foot of the bridge. Anybody could just spend a day or night with them, and nobody minded, especially if the visitor brought food to share along with him or her. And Golek shared whatever food he had scavenged for the day.

It was among the wretched that Golek felt he was a human being. He found rapport among the homeless. He enjoyed their jokes and banter. In time, he would tell his friends snippets of his past. “People called me Golek,” he mentioned in passing while his dump mates were sorting scraps, getting ready to cash in at the junk shop.

“I think ‘Yago’ would suit you better,” somebody suggested. “It combines ‘Yagit’ and ‘Golek.’”   

“Yagit na, gago pa,” somebody joked, which in English meant “so wretched, and a fool too.”

A law had been erected, and since that day Golek became Yago.

From scavenging, Yago—Golek to himself but Yagit to his dump mates—evolved to become a thief. And at seventeen, he was at the top of his game. At twenty, he had been jailed for petty crimes at least three times. However, he had evaded a couple of more arrests since he joined Madis-ogon’s underworld team.

At My Way, hearing the rich and powerful privately admit to stealing people’s money, Yago felt justified in going about with his criminal ways. He thought people were the same, except that he earned loose change while others made millions. But just the same, as he grew older, he became discriminating in the targeting of his victims. He stole from those who looked, in his estimation, affluent. He spared the students, the ordinary churchgoers and, most especially, fellow beggars.

A confluence of experiences led to Yago’s transformation. When he was too young to know anything about making a living and his survival depended mostly on begging and on being a parasite, he used to prepare what could pass as his overnight accommodation beside the Sta. Cruz church. One early evening while a mass was going on, he could hear what the priest was saying in his homily.

“The time you believe you are free is the time you can do many things. A passion, an obsession, a spark of wisdom, or a stroke of art can change a nation or a person’s life. And when you are young, you take certain risks that not many among the old would take.

“Not to go far as an example, I see young people coming to church in loose and scanty attire. That is unthinkable during our time. But young people probably think they need to test their freedom. And when it happens like now, they can prove to themselves that things can be done even if everyone else has not done it before, anywhere. They feel liberated.

“And they will move on to other experiments. Sometimes they can test their freedom to the limit, at which point they may come in conflict with others who may also assert their freedom. They may find, for example, that stealing—yes even stealing a kiss—can be costly.”

He remembered how he got in conflict with the law and his snatching victims. He could have paid for his transgressions with his own life. What a waste that could have been, he thought. What a tragedy not being able to live long enough and keep coming back to the house of dreams he so far has built with Katalina.     

At twenty-four, he and Katalina lived as a couple, renting a modest space in Sta. Cruz. A year later, Katalina gave Yago a son, named Junie. As a social being, it had been Yago’s best years in life since then. He ventured into sidewalk vending again, without the sleight-of-hand tricks. He stopped being a pest. He earned a living for his young family honestly. He and Katalina put in long hours to their fledgling business. They usually got up at two a.m. and were on their way to Divisoria an hour later to buy goods—toys, kitchen wares, undergarments, snack foods, etc.—at bargain prices which they then resold at Quiapo. With nothing but a pushcart with which to transport their merchandise, they walked the entire distance of six kilometers (three km each way going to and from Divisoria) daily. They called it a day at nine or ten in the evening.  

All the Bodabil guys—Tirador, Kupitan, and Kamao—followed Yago’s lead. They gradually dropped their criminal ways. The three took legitimate jobs at My Way. They themselves had built families they could call their own. They were barely getting by, but somehow, they managed to cope with the needs of their crime-free living. It helped that a mutual support system had minted their bond. During Quiapo days, Yago asked them to help. Sales were brisk at these times of the week. They earned thrice more than on ordinary days.

In March of 1984, a high-profile kidnapping case involving the twelve-year-old Lala “Pearlie” Tan, daughter of Lee Tan, a Binondo-based Filipino Chinese billionaire businessman, altered the fate of the Bodabil band and their families. Tan had been a campaign contributor not only for whoever sat as Manila mayor, but also for whoever sat as president of the Philippines. In fact, even before one became president, he would have spent millions already for previous campaigns if that president had established popularity among the voters in his or her earlier bids for either mayor, governor, congressman, or senator.

Pearlie had been betrothed to the scion of the country’s wealthiest family, and that prospective union had already bumped up the value of the shares of stocks of their publicly listed companies.

Meanwhile, the campaign for the regional legislative assembly in Muslim Mindesaba was in full swing, and some handlers of candidates needed money. They teamed up with KFRG, a notorious organized transnational crime syndicate. They agreed on a high-risk operation from which they would split what they figured was a sizable monetary reward. KFRG, as a matter of tactic and strategy, always operated with local partners, especially where information gathering and connections with state enforcers were concerned. The Mindesaba operatives had access to surveillance information on pricey targets through rogue Manila cops. The agreement went for KFRP doing much of the dirty work, while the Mindesaba Group would provide intel, including names of kidnapping suspects that were either at large or dead but unaccounted for. Negotiation for and collection of payment would be a joint operation.   

Tan demanded the safe return of his daughter from her abductors’ captivity. He offered 3 million pesos for anyone who could provide information that would lead to his daughter’s safe return. The unprecedented amount of money being offered dominated media—print, broadcast, and TV—headlines for several days.

Practically the entire military and police organization were roused to scramble for leads. But three days had already passed, and the case was still nowhere near resolution. Pressed by the president for results, the hierarchy decided that an overall take-charge guy should handle the case. It was time for the do-something general to get going.

Army General Rosendo Dimas Uy, who had headed many a task force on kidnapping cases, including kidnapping for ransom by rebel and terrorist forces, was summoned to look at this one. He was months away from retirement, and pride made it unthinkable for him to leave a debatable legacy. He needed this one out of the way convincingly.

As was his wont when dealing with Metro Manila cases, Uy called on college buddy Colonel Reg Makatigbas, who had been expecting to see him. Makatigbas was four years Uy’s junior, but their association was reinforced by their common taste for pretty girls and the fascination for the game of golf.

Makatigbas called on Sir Dikomo, who likewise had been expecting his superior to see him.

“Have the abductors contacted Tan?” Sir Dikomo checked what information Makatigbas had.

“Yes. They are asking for ten million pesos.”

“Who is Tan talking to?” poker-faced Sir Dikomo asked.

“Uy got the info on the kidnappers’ demands from the president himself. Tan briefed the president. Everyone is extra careful because it seems Tan cannot accept any result where his daughter might be harmed.”

“That means ten million is not a problem?” Sir Dikomo did not sound like he asked a question.

“Not only that. He has a pot of at least the same amount for the law enforcer who gets the job done.”

“That’s fine, sir,” Sir Dikomo assured Makatigbas. “We will get this operation moving ASAP. Just update me on the kidnappers’ demands so we can plot the counteroperation accordingly.”

“Just don’t forget that the life of the daughter is nonnegotiable. Also, take note that the longer it takes for this case to get resolved, the more panicky the president becomes. No one knows what can happen to our careers if Tan does not stop pressing the president.”

Truth was Sir Dikomo, in collaboration with Madis-ogon, was on top of the situation. They had already mapped everything out. 

IT WAS QUIAPO DAY—the 23rd of March 1984; the Bodabil guys were hard at work in the sidewalk, attending to Yago’s customers. Then suddenly somebody pointed at them with an accusing forefinger. The Bodabil guys recognized him; Yago even tried to greet him as if he had some good news to say to his erstwhile rival. Both Bodabil and Gidaben’s group were once under Madis-ogon’s wings. Nobody knew what Gidaben’s real name was; gangsters mockingly called Gidaben for his 4’11” height, no doubt in reference to a towering professional basketball player in the Philippines named Gualberto Gidaben. In a show of the Napoleonic syndrome, Gidaben compensated for his lack of physical resources with the mindset of a lion—aggressive, fearless, and calculating.


From nowhere, patrolmen swooped on them, whisking away the four Bodabil guys. Nobody noticed a patrol car had been parked just a few meters away, and the now-reformed Bodabil guys were dumped into it. They were subsequently subjected to physical torture that left them sagging like yesterday’s leafy vegetables, but otherwise alive.

LEE TAN TOOK ANOTHER call through a public phone from the kidnappers. The latter demanded that the amount—all in 100-peso bills—be divided into two equal parts, all cash, and each part would be stuffed inside a black plastic bag. KFRG wanted to make sure that all parties would be on the lookout not only for each other’s security but also to guarantee that everyone got paid equitably. Of the ransom amount, half would go to the KFRG and the Mindesaba Operatives, while recipients of the other half were largely undetermined; most likely they would be among Sir Dikomo’s group. The latter two (Mindesaba Group and Sir Dikomo’s group) had contributed information that only each one of them had possession of.

The extraction site would be to the north side of the open parking lot fronting the Morelos Grandstand at Santiago de Compostela Park, near the historically famous Borbon Hotel. Tan would bring the money himself, aboard a passenger jeepney. No one else was on board except the driver. The same jeepney would be used to fetch Pearlie.

For emphasis, KFRG had to warn Tan at least three times that any sign of the police or military snooping in could lead to a tragic ending for Pearlie.

“I can send somebody to deliver the money,” Tan countered. “I will be in another vehicle to fetch my daughter.”

“Listen, Skunk!” the KFRG guy barked at him. “You do not set the rules! In thirty minutes, at eleven a.m. sharp, you need to be at the designated place, or your daughter will die.”

Tan also considered warning the kidnappers that they had no escape in the event his daughter was harmed. But at this instance he did not trust his bluffing instincts.

Even at his rattled state, Tan wondered to his pyrrhic satisfaction why the kidnappers would choose a place where there were only three escape routes. Uy assured him that a battalion could be deployed at a distance to make sure that nobody got any chance of escape, in the event Tan wished to explore the option of bringing the criminals to justice. Tan advised Uy that he preferred a simple exchange of ransom for his daughter, if only to emphasize how important ensuring the safety of Pearlie was. Sarcastically, Tan further told Uy that it was the government’s duty to arrest criminals anywhere. The police could do whatever they wanted to do with the kidnappers, but only after Pearlie’s safety had been secured.

At the appointed time, Tan was ready with his two bulging bags of money. He looked around and saw a sprinkling of parked cars at the far end of either side of the Morelos Grandstand. He doubted if there was any human being apart from him at the time. This place had been familiar to him in his youth, being once a regular morning jogger along with his friends around Santiago de Compostela. But joggers usually dispersed by nine a.m., unless it was cloudy, and they could bear the heat much longer. The sun was now above him, and the combined effect of his uneasy nerves and the searing heat made him sweat.

He also saw a public telephone booth at either end of the sprawling grandstand. He mused that the phone, aside from the fact that the parking lot was practically deserted at this time of the day, must have been the reason why the kidnappers chose the place for the exchange of ransom money with his daughter.

After a quarter of an hour, a heavily tinted white Ford Fiera minivan rolled in. It had markings that looked like the vehicle was owned by a courier or delivery logistics company. It stopped beside Tan’s jeepney.

The minivan’s windows to Tan’s side rolled down, and he saw his daughter inside. Pearlie’s mouth was covered with masking tape; she was alive but seemingly nervous. He also saw two men inside the minivan with his daughter. By his count, there were at least four kidnappers inside the van. Two in the front seat and another pair at the back. One of the two men inside was a Mindesaba operative, and the other, who looked after the kidnap victim, was a KFRG operative. The pair at the front were also KFRG operatives.   

The man beside the van’s driver, who looked like the guy in charge, instructed Tan to move the two bags from the jeep to the Ford Fiera. Tan had to exert a herculean effort to pull out the bags from the jeepney, and an even bigger effort to deposit them inside the Ford Fiera. Nonetheless, he looked reinvigorated. That must have been the result of seeing his daughter at close range.

As his associates at the back inspected the contents of the bags, the man in charge angrily confronted Tan. “There are snipers at the top of the hotel, and patrol cars are parked at the US embassy and at the UN-Cupertino intersection. More troopers are stationed at the foot of Quiapo, Sta. Cruz, and Binondo bridges. You understand the gravity of this breach and the risk you put yourself on the life of your daughter?”

Tan looked genuinely confused.

“You have coins for the phone?”

Still looking confused, then irritated, Tan nodded.

“Go! Call your errand boys in government to clear all routes of all obstructions. You have five minutes to get them all out of the way!”

As a visibly shocked, dumbfounded, and irritated Tan dialed from a public phone across the street, at one end of the Grandstand, the man in charge barked at his walkie-talkie. He was instructing subordinates to check movements in the streets.

Then he turned to his men at the back. “Are they good?”


“Not mixed with counterfeit bills?”


“Weigh it.”

“Twenty-two kilos for each bag, around nineteen to twenty million pesos in all.”

The boss man nodded to the driver. “Get yourself ready.”

From the phone booth, Tan looked relieved as he approached the boss man’s van. Earlier on the phone, he talked to Uy, who ordered the immediate clear out of troopers within the vicinity. Now profusely sweating, he greeted the boss man.

“Please check. The streets should be clean now.” 

The boss man heard somebody talking to the boss man’s gadget. Tan was now within hearing distance.

“K91, this is KP3. Clear at the top, over.”

“K91, this is KP1. Clear at the R1, over.”

“K91, this is KP5. Clear at the R5, over.”

“K91, this is KP2. Clear at the R2, over.”

“K91, this is KP4. Clear at the R4, over.”

The boss man waited for R3’s report. “R3, this is K91. How is your location now? Over.”

“K91, this is R3. Two patrol cars have moved. Looks clean, over.”

“K91 to all R units. No need to call unless an unforeseen event crops up. We are moving out in three to five minutes.”

Turning to Tan, K91 gave the billionaire a mini lecture. “Now you understand why no bag man can substitute for you. Only you have that kind of street-sweeping power.”

His parting words were “A tiny, custom-made device is strapped inside your daughter’s underwear. It was programmed to explode within ninety minutes. The clock ticked from the time we arrived here. No one except me—let me repeat that: no one except me—knows how to deactivate and untangle it from her body. When it explodes, the destruction it will bring may not kill her, but it will be enough to deprive her of the capacity to bear a child. Now, listen very carefully so that nothing bad will happen to any of us. If something happens to me, that device will explode in… sixty-five minutes. If nothing happens to me and I am one hundred percent sure my team and I are out of danger, I will call you by phone and give you instructions on how to deactivate and untangle that device.”

Looking at his daughter, so young and innocent, and raging inside at finding how these kidnappers could be so cruel, red-faced Tan could not remember a word by which to condemn himself for exposing his daughter to these barbaric criminals in the first place.

Like a waiter staring at the blank face of a customer in a restaurant, K91 roused Tan. “Have I made myself clear?”


K91 nodded. “We will release your daughter in three minutes.” He felt he needed to finish his lecture on the etiquette of rich-and-rascal relationships. “We are not here to harm anyone. We are here to collect money from the rich so we can give it to the poor. We are professionals. We get paid for our work. We keep our word. But we do have weapons. We deal with whatever is asked of us under any given situation to get our job done. You do your end of the bargain, and we are all fine.”

The van’s rear door opened, and K91 nodded at Pearlie and her escort. It was her cue to alight from the vehicle.

Once she was out of the van and free from captivity, Tan briefly gathered Pearlie in his arms before both boarded the jeepney. 

As the Ford Fiera slithered away, Tan got out of the jeepney. He stormed the phone booth again. He felt he needed to talk to Uy once more to repeat his stern reminder that the kidnappers be left unharmed. Just to make sure that Uy and his troops would have no other way of interpreting his request, understood by everyone else as a directive, Tan told Uy that his daughter carried a self-exploding device. He also assured the general that an amount matching the ransom money had been set aside as reward for the latter’s team, just for ensuring the safety of his daughter.

The Ford Fiera stopped a few meters after it turned left, toward Peron Avenue. At that precise moment, another Ford Fiera with color, markings, and plate number identical to that of the first emerged at the opposite lane. The replica van had earlier turned right from Allende Boulevard, apparently after having cruised along the highway from its north end, as far as Bonifacio Drive.

On board the replica van were the four drugged Bodabil guys. Behind the wheel was Gidaben.

An hour or so ago, Madis-ogon’s team had fired muted guns using the captives’ fingers to pull the triggers. They also briefed Gidaben thoroughly on what he needed to do. His mission, on top of the testimony against the Bodabil guys, was to drive the replica van from a safehouse in Guadalupe to the Peron Avenue–Allende Boulevard intersection, and to park the vehicle facing toward the east side of Peron Avenue. Somebody else, Gidaben was assured to keep him from asking further questions, would drive the van from there.

Gidaben was also tasked to pick up an unspecified number of black plastic bags before he could bring the van to the designated delivery site. He would be responsible for his own safety, and he understood he needed to move away as soon as he got the vehicle to the designated spot. In transit, he was given a code name from whom he would take orders.

Gidaben was under duress. The successful completion of his mission would be his passport to freedom. Beside him was Yago, who slumped awkwardly, held to his seat by a belt. His three companions were in an equally morbid state, good as dead.

Gidaben could not refuse Madis-ogon’s offer. He had cheated death several times already, so what was there to dread in this one? Madis-ogon himself told Gidaben that his police records would be archived for good. He could also look forward to compensation that would be enough to feed his family for years, away from Manila’s madding crowd and, if he so chose, lead a reformed life, much like that of those whom he just condemned with false testimony.

There was something more between the two of them that neither one could forget. When Gidaben was about eleven years old, he had an encounter with a policeman. He was hungry and tried to help himself by buying a fried fish ball—a favorite street food in Manila—but was evidently unsatiated, as he could only afford to pay for one piece (everyone else bought at least five pieces, which were strung together with a bamboo stick). The policeman saw this and, moved with pity, bought for the boy four more pieces of fish ball. Gidaben could not hide his joy—he had to search for something of value in one of the pockets of his dilapidated short pant with which to repay the policeman.

It was a prayer booklet—a novena for the Black Nazarene—which the policeman at first hesitated to accept. Written on the cover of the booklet was “Para kan Abeto, pirmi pag ampo kan Nazareno para han imo kalamragan” (For Abeto, always pray to the Nazarene for your illumination). It was given to him by an aunt who was sick from tuberculosis, and who died barely a week after he received the gift. Gidaben could neither read nor write but kept the booklet in his pocket anyway. When he made the policeman smile as he offered it to him, he was doubly glad because he thought that not only was he able to reciprocate the uniformed policeman’s kindness, but he also felt some kind of relief for unloading an unnecessary baggage.

About twenty years later, when Gidaben came of age as a thug under Madis-ogon’s wings, he saw the booklet at the altar in the safehouse where Madis-ogon kept a pool of items stolen by his gangs. When asked about it, Madis-ogon explained that he inherited it from his father, who had retired from the police. Gidaben would later learn that Madis-ogon, whose full name was Domingo de Sabado, Jr., was the namesake of his father.

SO FAR, EVERYTHING HAD PERFECTLY PLAYED out in accord with Sir Dikomo’s plans. Nobody had been harmed, and their reward money—never mind their share of the ransom money—appeared in the bag. There was only one operational detail that needed to be attended to and get done. The massing of troops in downtown Manila was enough to get the media aroused, as it were, and on its toes. But he alerted radio networks anyway, disclosing that pursuit operations against the kidnappers would be underway in minutes at the parking grounds of Borbon Hotel.

Among all escape routes, R3—along Allende Boulevard—was the first option for K91 and his team. Except for R1—the southbound route along Cupertino Avenue—all other options were prone to traffic congestion, and being caught in one of them was always a possibility, and therefore risky. R1, however, had, within its proximity, the headquarters of the Manila Western Police District.

Following instructions, Gidaben turned his van around toward the opposite lane, close to K91’s van, who signaled to Gidaben to park his car in front of his own. K91 directed one of his associates to transfer one black bag to the other van. He also instructed the assistant to bring along with him an empty black plastic bag. The team had earlier prepared to carry empty black plastic bags, hidden under the seat. The assistant hauled the bag to the other van. He was also instructed to divide the money into two, and to put half of it into the empty bag.

“Be quick,” K91 told the assistant. “No need to count or weigh anything. You just need to make the two bags look more or less of equal weight.”

When the assistant was done working on the bags, K91 got off and approached Gidaben.

“I am K91. Watch the traffic light ahead. Move straight toward the intersection a few seconds after it turns green. You will be at the designated spot when the traffic light turns red. Clear?”

Gidaben nodded. K91 acknowledged the reply, then added, “As you apply the hand brake, bolt yourself out and run away as fast as you can.” 

K91 took out his handheld radio.

“R7… R7… R7… this is K91, over.”

“K91, this is R7, over!”

“Get Exodus ready! Over and out!”

“Copy K91, over and out!”

K91 was back at his seat when Gidaben started to roll toward his destination.

Print and broadcast media people had just converged at the Borbon Hotel grounds when they heard bursts of gunfire from afar. They were about a kilometer away from all of it, but they arrived at the crime scene in less than three, perhaps two, minutes. Within that short span of time, K91 and his team were able to maneuver their vehicle toward the back of the Morelos Grandstand. K91 and his assistant who carried the remaining black plastic bag, along with the Mindesaba Operative, proceeded to the shallow portion of the shore, where a speedboat awaited. They boarded the boat and sped away toward Cagwait, Kabite.

The driver remained in the van. He took out tools and supplies, then proceeded to spray-paint the Ford Fiera black. Its heavy tint concealed the bleed of the splattered paint. In 15 minutes, the driver drove off, heading toward the safehouse in Guadalupe.

Madis-ogon’s men coming from the vicinity of the US embassy fired at the van as soon as they saw it coming to a halt at the intersection. With both long and short weapons, they fired randomly at the side of the van. Its heavily tinted windows were torn to shreds.  

Madis-ogon was the first high-ranking officer to arrive at the crime scene. He directed his men to stop firing and to cordon off the crime scene. When he peeked on the now-open windows to check the fall guys, he could not believe it when he saw Yago crawling on the ground, away from the van. He must have been jolted by the gunfire that induced him to come to. His fellow Bodabil guys, however, had been barraged by bullets to the point of leaving their faces unrecognizable.

Madis-ogon thought of finishing Yago off right on the spot, but he saw media people had started taking pictures from a safe distance. On Yago’s fate, it seemed Sir Dikomo and Madis-ogon were on the same page only on his anticipated death; they did not consider any other possibility. Later on, Madis-ogon could be seen handcuffing Yago and dragging him to a police car.

In minutes, more patrol cars arrived.

Media people moved closer to the bullet-riddled van to take more pictures. Some of them could be seen interviewing witnesses.

When a police officer opened the rear door of the Ford Fiera, media took more photos and footages of the horribly defiled state of three dead bodies. Arms were randomly scattered; brain and blood oozing out of skulls. More blood inundated the floor; black plastic bags turned crimson, their contents of peso bills wiggling out of slits punched by bullets.

Gale winds from Manila Bay stirred up the bags. Soon hundreds, then thousands, of peso bills flew into the air. Policemen tried to impose order, but they were too late. A mass of bystanders had joined the scramble for free money.

A chaotic crime scene was part of Sir Dikomo’s design. He had anticipated media interviews where he would be asked for details. The police being unable to impose order due to an unruly crowd would be a convenient excuse for dodging those probing questions.

LEE TAN AND HIS daughter had barely warmed their seats at their now-secured Binondo home when news broke out from Peron Avenue. They could hear the trembling voices of reporters on the radio; they also watched lives footages on TV.

He had been glued next to their phone, waiting for K91’s call. His anxiety turned to rage on hearing Sir Dikomo being interviewed on live radio and TV, saying there was a shooting encounter between his troops and the kidnappers at the Allende Boulevard–Peron Avenue intersection, but details of which the police officer could not ascertain yet.

“Let us wait for an investigation to be completed so we can share with you more details on this unfortunate and reprehensible incident,” Sir Dikomo assured the public. “Offhand, however, the police can declare that this kidnapping case has been solved in a record three and a half days.”

A highly disturbed Tan dialed Gen. Dimas Uy to say the kidnappers were dead. “Who now can guarantee the safety of my daughter?”

The venerable military man assured Tan, after saying he was also getting ready to call him, that there was no need to panic over Pearlie’s sneaky time bomb. Pressed to explain what sounded to Lee as good news, Uy said one suspect was captured alive, who was forced—understood elsewhere to mean as tortured—to disclose what was inside Pearlie’s underwear. Uy said Perlie’s bomb was a bum and was merely intended to buy time for the escape of the kidnappers. On hearing this, Tan thanked Uy and asked to be excused.

Next up, father and daughter had a private talk.

“Is it true you have something there?”

“They asked me to stuff it in and not to remove it, lest it explodes.”

This sparked confusion on the part of the father. “They asked you to stuff it in? Asked? No yelling? Commands? No guns pointed at you? No one else planted it except you?”

“None of that, Dad. I swear. I even suspect there is nothing in that feminine pad. But they told me to wait for instructions on how to disassemble it, so I did not touch it even until now.”

“The police said it might be a hoax. Can you go and check it? Do be very careful, though.”

At once Pearlie slid into a room. When she re-emerged, the glow in her face was enough to bring an untold relief to his father. 

“Just like I thought, there was nothing there. The small object that I could feel slightly pressing my genitals was nothing but a miniature sex toy. Here, see it, Dad. Small but cute, I like it.”

Tan felt like slapping his daughter. “Yes, you naughty girl. I will tell your mother about it when she comes back from abroad.” Then he turned pensive. “That damn toy just cost us twenty million, likely twice more.”

The Tan family and all house domestics watched the evening TV news from beginning to end. They saw horror inside the van, the mutilated faces and extremities, firearms beside the dead bodies, two plastic bags bursting with money and the fiesta-like commotion it generated among onlookers, the near-escape of a suspect who survived the shootout. The gory details in full display were enough for ordinary mortals to believe it was a shootout—with paraffin test results confirming the casualties had fired guns—like how the news was being reported.

In the accompanying press conference, Sir Dikomo commended the police force for excellent surveillance work that led to the timely response by his officers. He also mentioned that the initial investigation conducted by a joint task force revealed the identities of the dead suspects. He then rattled off Muslim-sounding names, not revealing of course the truth that he got them from the Mindesaba operatives. The names were once associated with unaccounted casualties of the Moro separatist war, victims of a war most likely dumped in mass graves no one knew about.

Sir Dikomo also paraded Yago, who still looked dazed. He said Yago agreed to testify against the syndicate behind the kidnapping. From the reporters’ narration of what they saw, Tan could assume that Yago was the driver of the Ford Fiera.

Tan’s interview by reporters also reiterated his promise to give rewards to those who could help bring her daughter to safety, this time to anyone who could help the police dismantle whatever remnants of the kidnapping syndicate might have still existed, apart from the reward to the law enforcers led by General Uy which he offered in private. Tan’s praise of Sir Dikomo and General Uy did not stop at media interviews; he lobbied among his super-wealthy friends for help in building both men up for positions of political power in the future.

Yago’s community in Quiapo mixed well with Muslim vendors. But while they knew that the Bodabil guys were once involved in all sorts of street crimes, they could not believe that their reformed ways were cover for something bigger—kidnapping!

The bigger puzzle was that while kidnapping suspects normally deserved incarceration in maximum-security prison facilities, Madis-ogon sent Yago to Manila City jail instead. Yago had been in jail for two years on rigged testimony and without the benefit of a trial. There just was no one to raise the law in his defense.

Yago always jostled for the opportunity to do community service in Sta. Cruz and Quiapo areas. He relished the prospect of seeing Katalina and Junie outside of prison, and to enjoy some semblance of freedom, even for just a couple of hours.