The Manila Times (Philippines), June 18, 2003
By Ric R. Puod, Reporter
They were promised immortality by the man they called the “Divine Master.” And on that night of June 18, 2002, the promise was brought to the test on Dinagat Island off Surigao del Norte–16 members of the Philippine Benevolent Missionary Association (PBMA) lay dead for the cult leader Ruben Ecleo Jr., whose family holds awesome religious and political power on the island.
Ecleo faces parricide charges before the Cebu City Regional Trial Court Branch 23 for allegedly murdering his third wife, Alona Bacolod, on January 6 last year.
Much may be puzzling about Alona’s death, but accusations by her family point to Ecleo as the suspect. Alona’s constant nagging about Ecleo’s addiction to methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, had reportedly led him to murder her.
That incident tested even more the faith of PBMA members on Dinagat when Ecleo’s armed men fought authorities in a fierce battle to prevent their “Divine Master” and “Supreme President” from being arrested.
“This only shows that nobody is above the law. We cannot hide from the law,” said Sen. Robert Barbers, recalling the event that revealed the ugly side of Dinagat Island, where the Ecleos have virtual control. Barbers, seeking ways to press for Ecleo’s surrender, has been the family’s political ally in the province since he entered politics. Efforts to make Ecleo surrender took more than five months because of the authorities’ indifference to crimes involving powerful politicians. Ruben Ecleo Jr. himself had been a mayor of San Jose town. Ruben’s brother, Allan II, succeeded him. Allan I, a twin brother, is also a mayor of Dinagat municipality. The family’s political influence extends from that island to the House of Representatives, where their mother–Congresswoman Glenda Ecleo–is a member of the Committee on Appropriation.
But as the Bacolod murder case shook the PBMA’s foundation, Barbers and a number of congressmen again raised the issue of private armed groups on Dinagat Island, a clamor that has never led to a congressional inquiry into the failure of the law banning private armed groups. “No, the law is not toothless on this,” Barbers said, noting that the Philippine National Police hesitates to disarm Ecleo’s followers.
The Crusade Against Violence, looking for ways to question the government’s policy on private armies, wrote to then Rep. Antonio Abaya sometime last year. The group asked the House to inquire into Alona’s murder, and initiated the filing of charges of obstruction of justice, illegal possession of firearms and abuse of power of authority against Rep. Glenda Ecleo. “Abaya never acted on that,” Thelma Chiong, the Crusade’s vice president for the Visayas, told The Times. “The incident could have been avoided because she has virtual control of all the people and police on Dinagat,” an island inhabited by more than 100,000 people. Ninety percent of them are believed to be members of the PBMA.
For several years since the Marcos regime, armed groups had been outlawed. Yet they continue to exist and pose security threats to the people. And when violence like this erupts, says Carina Agarao, president of the Crusade, “it is always very difficult to win in a case against a politician.” The Crusade helped the Bacolod family bring the case to court. Ecleo, besides being charged with murdering his wife, is also suspected of committing separate crimes on the side–that of ordering the serial killings of Alona’s brother, Ben; father Elpidio; mother Rosalia; and sister Evelyn. Alona’s younger brother, Ricky, though seriously injured, survived the attack. He is in the custody of the Central Intelligence and Detection Group, according to Chiong.
Ben was said to be the vital witness to the parricide case against Ecleo, and to the killing of 11 “White Guerreros” years ago on Dinagat, which he said he did on Ecleo’s orders.
Nobody has owned responsibility for the Cebu killings. The Bacolods’ assailant was shot dead by pursuing policemen near the Subangdaku police station in Mandaue City. Chiong said not even the brains behind the serial killings has owned up to them. “The police have never filed a case against Ecleo for the Cebu killings,” Chiong said.
Representative Ecleo offered an out-of-court settlement to the victim’s family, which Agarao says is a clear admission of guilt that only the country’s justice system could prove, however snail-paced the process may take, because “that’s how the system for the powerful politicians works.”
Now the 48-year-old Ecleo, spreading his spiritual charisma inside the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center in Cebu, hopes that his lawyer could bail him out, at least in a parricide case that has been filed in court. Orlando Salatandre, Ecleo’s legal counsel, says the authorities committed “fatal mistakes” in handling vital evidence. He intends to reveal this through a witness at the resumption of a cross-examination for the petition to bail next week.
Owing to accusations leveled against the “Supreme President,” scores of PBMA members have slipped in droves out of Dinagat to nearby provinces. The number of PMBA members significantly declined even in other areas of the country and abroad. “Maybe they are ashamed of what happened to our “Divine Master,” admits Antonio Ancajas, PBMA president for Metro Manila. “But they are not loyal to the PBMA, and we anticipated their move.” No exact figure, however, has been given on the number of members who have broken away from the cult.
The loyalists regard Ecleo as Christ, a living god that only an Ecleotic charisma could drive people into such a brink of delusion, retired Bishop Miguel Cinches, SVD, hinted in a media interview last year.
Ancajas believes Ecleo was used by the Holy Spirit to heal and drive away evil forces. “Can anybody fault us if we regard him as our living god? If Christ can perform miracles, so does Ecleo,” he told The Times.
In that tragic incident last year, Ecleo had been found positive for shabu. He is a musician, a rocker who would not hesitate to use drugs, said Ancajas. And a man who had three women in the past, including Alona, whose murder cries out for justice.