Murder and mayhem: Joe Almonte reveals some sordid coup plot secrets

By Raissa Robles

Posted at Mar 12 2015 10:46 PM | Updated as of Mar 13 2015 06:46 AM

Special to ABS-CBNnews.com (Last of Three Parts)

Did you know that at the height of the 1989 bloody coup attempt, then Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos told Jose Almonte to meet rebel leader Gregorio Honasan at the military camp gate because government did not have the fresh troops to defend it?

Did you know that during Martial Law, Honasan proposed to kill Ferdinand Marcos, his family and one of the dictator’s key military officials?

Did you know that when ex-Senator Joker Arroyo was executive secretary of President Corazon Aquino he showed contempt for both his boss and the military?

These are some of the assertions retired major general and former national security adviser Jose Almonte makes in his memoir Endless Journey, and it’s what makes the book different from the typical non-controversial books authored by Philippine politicians. Almonte is candid and pushes the tell-all envelope when he dissects the bone and marrow of politics.

Twenty-six years after the last bloody and murderous coup attempt against President Cory, we still don’t know the entire story about the series of violent military power grabs that marked her administration.

Some of the key coup players are now senior public officials. Reports are again rife that certain political personalities are trying to woo military officers into staging a coup.

It is in this context that Almonte’s memoir becomes a valuable tool for understanding the military mindset and why military coups happen. We were this close to descending into chaos, much like Egypt and Libya today.

THREE CONTENDERS

He confirms our suspicions that post-1986, there were actually three contenders for leadership: Corazon Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile (now a senator) and Fidel Ramos.

Cory won, of course, but that didn’t stop the other two from harboring ambitions. The difference is that whereas Ramos was willing to do it constitutionally, Enrile had other means in mind.

Almonte bares for the first time that “if (Fidel) Ramos wanted to take over power, he had a wide window from 1986 to 1989, during the series of coups. During many of these failed adventures, Ramos asked me to be with him...Ramos would ask for my advice and I was always ready to to give that, by his side.”

In the book, Almonte reveals that a group of Cory cabinet officials that included the late newsman-turned-press secretary Teodoro Benigno actually proposed that Ramos unseat Mrs Aquino and “assume power.” However, “he (Ramos) resisted the temptation.”

Almonte’s reading then - which he shared with old army buddy Ramos - was that the people remained behind President Cory. Anyone who opposed her would end up politically dead.

Not so Enrile, whom Almonte quotes as once saying: “Joe, you tell Cory that I want to be president. This is a legitimate ambition of any Filipino. Tell her that I know my politics and there is only one way I can be president of this country and that is by serving her faithfully so she will help me become president.

“However,” Enrile reportedly warned, "if they do not want my help and harass me, I will defend my honor. Tell them that I know how to fight back.”

AIMING FOR COBRA'S HEAD

Enrile’s chief aide then was Colonel Honasan and Almonte has some interesting bloodthirsty revelations to make about him.

According to Almonte, during the waning days of the Marcos dictatorship, Honasan was among those in the Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM who plotted to kill then Brigadier General Roland Pattugalan, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division.

The reason: Marcos was eying Pattugalan to replace General Fabian Ver, who was forced to take a leave of absence as Armed
Forces Chief-of-Staff after the airport assassination of Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.

Almonte claims: “The idea of Gringo was to ambush Pattugalan in such a manner that the trail would lead to (Major General Josephus) Ramas, that he masterminded the operation. Ramas was perceived as closer to Ver than the rest of the generals.”

In other words, Honasan wanted to frame Ramas for the murder. After which RAM would exploit the ensuing situation.

But Almonte dissuaded them saying, “Look, this thing will not work. It is very uncertain. You do not play a game with a cobra. You hit the cobra anywhere outside the head, you will be bitten by it….we have to aim at the head of the cobra.”

Almonte said that was how “the plan transformed into a palace coup. From then on, we planned to attack Malacanang.”

According to Almonte, “In the end, Gringo said that to attack and kill Marcos would require a smaller force than having to capture him and his family. ‘We do not have that big a force,’ Gringo allegedly pointed out.”

“The plan of Gringo was to kill Marcos and his family. He would lead the attacking force. Red (Kapunan) would lead the attack outside the Palace, in the park against the Presidential Security Group.”

But Almonte maintains he (Almonte) insisted on no bloodshed. Hence, “after an extended discussion, they finally agreed that we were going to capture the (Marcos) family.”

GRINGO REACTS

Reacting to Almonte’s memoir, Senator Honasan has called Almonte’s revelations about his proposed murder sprees “a lie”. He told reporters, "You do not distort the truth or history just to sell a book."

Honasan also said he had denied the plot to his Senate colleague Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. because "I wanted to clear the air and move forward. Can you imagine the breach of good faith? We are colleagues in the Senate."

Honasan went the extra mile to refute the revelation by recently writing in a newspaper - together with retired Navy Commodore Rex Robles and ex-Navy Captain Felix “Boy” Turingan - a two-part piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer to denounce Almonte’s “concoctions.”

The three RAM co-founders also denied that Almonte was the fourth co-founder. They accused him of credit-grabbing.

A close reading of Almonte’s book shows, however, that Almonte never said he was a RAM co-founder. In fact, he said that after Ninoy Aquino died, ”my decision to join the RAM became more urgent.”

I suspect what happened was that Almonte insinuated himself into the confidences of the RAM boys, in much the same way that he previously infiltrated the Viet Cong in Vietnam. He served as the unofficial eyes and ears of Ramos, who was then the Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the Armed Forces and who later became its OIC chief when military chief Fabian Ver was forced to go on leave following the Ninoy Aquino assassination.

The RAM trio also claimed Almonte had “invented accounts”. They insisted that Almonte only joined RAM in the third quarter of 1985, “when almost all preparations were already completed and the plans for the move against the Palace had been finalized.”

But they made no mention of the Pattugalan murder plot which Almonte said was hatched shortly after Ninoy Aquino’s August 1983 assassination.

CLUES FROM SANDRA BURTON

It is hard to discern who is fudging the truth because both rival parties did not secretly record their conversations. However, Sandra Burton’s book Impossible Dream, which came out in 1989, may provide clues.

The late TIME magazine reporter wrote, quoting then Colonel Jake Malajacan, commander of the 16th Infantry Battalion of the Second Infantry Division in Metro Manila, that RAM was in fact weighing several options at that time. One of them was to kill Ramas: “We thought of a way to get rid of him, conducting a smear campaign against him or even getting rid of him physically. That’s how naughty we were at the time.”

At least, this verifies that there was initially a first assassination plot being considered. But against Gen. Ramas, not Gen. Pattugalan. However, this does not discount the possibility that murdering Pattugalan may have been Plan B. But Jake Malajacan would have thumbed this down since he told Sandra Burton he “revered” Pattugalan.

I’m eager to learn more of Almonte’s other “concoctions” from the viewpoint of Honasan, Robles and Turingan. [Just to clarify, I am not related to Rex Robles but I have interviewed him many times.]

In his memoir, Almonte clears Ramos of any involvement in the coup plots against dictator Marcos . But he does say that when he told Ramos about the plots, Ramos told him Marcos was his cousin. Then Ramos added, “Joe, whatever you’re planning, just don’t make it too bloody.”

In her 1989 book, Sandra Burton also quoted Almonte telling her the very same thing of Ramos.

GRINGO AND US CONGRESSMAN

As for Honasan, Almonte initially thought kindly of him because of what Honasan said when he met with US Congressman Jack Kemp in 1985. Kemp had told Gringo: “I’m the representative of President (Ronald) Reagan. He asked me to tell you that the US government is ready to help you, from bootstraps to combat planes.”

But Gringo replied, “Sir, thank you very much. All the support we need is moral support.” This shocked Kemp, who was apparently used to have having other revolutionary groups in Latin America and the Middle East ask for much more.

Almonte said, “that struck me as a quiet reflection of Gringo’s character. Somehow, this has stayed with me through the years. Perhaps I cling to this sliver of memory so that I will remember Gringo in his best light.”

The three RAM founders said Almonte’s Jack Kemp anecdote was a lie. They described Honasan's alleged reply “artificial and asinine.”

They wrote: Honasan definitely does not remember the occasion described by Almonte and, at any rate, he was not in the habit of asking for ‘moral support’ from anyone for the RAM intentions.”

But apparently, Jack Kemp did visit Manila in 1985 because the Philippine Sunday Express reported his visit in the August 18, 1985 issue. But did Honasan secretly meet Kemp?

It isn’t hard to imagine Kemp, a key member of Reagan’s Republican Party, meeting Honasan because RAM was then viewed as the poster boy of reform. The meeting would have been easy to arrange since Honasan was chief aide of then Defense Minister Enrile, who had the habit of bringing his aides when he met others, including the media.

In his book, Almonte says he lost respect for Honasan when RAM began trying to unseat Mrs. Aquino - “my hope for Gringo was short-lived, like foam on the water.”

HARSH WORDS FOR JOKER

He also has harsh words for Joker Arroyo. “I did not realize how vengeful Joker Arroyo, the executive secretary, and his group could be to the military, to Enrile, Ramos, and the RAM. Joker did not hide his contempt for us.”

He claims Joker Arroyo also disrespected President Cory. He narrated that after the Operation Big Bird fiasco - the covert operation to get back Marcos’ stolen wealth from Swiss banks - Mrs Aquino called him to Malacanang.

Inside the Premier Guest House where the President held office on the second floor, Joker Arroyo waylaid Almonte and occupied him for an hour. The President’s appointments secretary Ching Escaler went looking for Almonte, found him with Arroyo and said: “Joker, pinapaakyat na si Joe at si Mike (de Guzman) ni presidente at
ma-le-late siya sa appointment niya.” (Joker, the president is asking Joe and Mike to come up because she will be late for her next appointment.)”

Joker told Escaler they were still discussing something.

Thirty minutes later, Escaler came down again and said, “Joker, pinapasabi sa iyo na ang nag-appointment dito hindi si Joe at Mike. It’s the president. Kaya kung puwede, paakyatin mo na at late na siya sa appointment niya. (Joker, the President wants you to know it was she who sought the appointment, not Joe and Mike. So
please, let them come up now because she will be very late for her other appointment.)”

Almonte said Joker Arroyo told Escaler off: “Sabihin mo sa presidente na hindi niya maintindihan ito!”

Hearing that, Almonte said he got so mad at Joker Arroyo that he yelled, “Damn you!”, and left.

Joker Arroyo lasted only one and a half years in the Cory cabinet. Almonte, despite so many controversies, lasted her six-year term plus another six years of the Ramos presidency.

SHORTCOMINGS

I remember that Almonte was the reporters’ favorite for political analysis. But Almonte claims in his memoir that despite having served as the late dictator Marcos’ chief risk analyst, he had failed to anticipate the series of increasingly murderous Honasan-led coup attempts against Cory Aquino. “I did not foresee that there would be serious coup attempts against the administration, fueled by deep-seated grievances of some officers.”

He claims one of the reasons for the coups was the hatred that some members of the Cory administration manifested towards the military. “The military was made to feel that they were not part of the newly-won democracy. They felt persecuted. This saddened me,” Almonte says. Again he singled out Joke Arroyo as the source of that hate.

Personally, I was struck that Almonte appears to have no insight or understanding why the Cory cabinet – sprinkled with ex-political detainees and human rights lawyers like Joke Arroyo and spokesman Rene Saguisag - was very wary of the military.

Almonte also has a colossal blind spot in his memoir regarding the massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Marcos-led military and police. In fact Almonte’s memoir doesn’t adequately explain how he himself morphed from a dictator’s propagandist to a supposed champion of civil liberties.

What Almonte does explain, is how the military was nearly torn apart by the Honasan-led coup attempts against Mrs Aquino.

And how Ramos, when he was President Cory’s Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff, had refused to obey a direct order from her, the Commander-in-Chief, to bomb television station Channel 7 in January 1987 in order to flush out Col. Oscar Canlas and 100 Marcos loyalist forces.

So it seems, the recent refusal of Major General Edmundo Pangilinan, 6th Infantry Division Commander, to fire artillery in order to support the besieged Special Action Force (SAF) commanders in the Mamasapano clash is nothing new.

In Ramos’ case in 1987, “Ramos refused to bomb (the TV station), but Joker was adamant,” Almonte said.

“Similarly, when the RAM elements were detected in Camp Aguinaldo during the August 1987 coup, President Cory’s spokesman, Teddy Boy Locsin, appeared in Ramos’s office
urging him to bomb the rebel soldiers,” Almonte disclosed. Again, Ramos refused.

TAKING OUT RAM

The Cory years saw the Ramos and Enrile factions in the military fighting each other. Almonte reveals that in one secret meeting he had attended with Ramos, the Armed Forces Chief-of Staff Renato de Villa and Philippine National Police Director General Ramon Montano presented a plan to “take them (RAM key leaders) out.”

Almonte says Ramos wrestled with the thought but in the end gave the command.

After De Villa and Montano left, Almonte said he told Ramos – “Sir, balahibo mo sila, kaya ba natin yan?” [Roughly translated, “Sir, they’re as close to you as your body hair, are we capable of this?]

“What do you want me to do?” Ramos loudly replied.

Almonte shot back, “Can I do something about it?”

“What can you do?’ Ramos demanded to know.

“I can do something,” Almonte insisted.

“What do you need?” Ramos asked.

“I need Sonny Razon,” Almonte said.

“Go ahead,” Ramos said.

Just imagine how such an exchange would have sounded if it had been revealed in a Senate probe. The vagueness of Ramos’ order and Almonte’s promise would probably infuriate the public and the lawmakers as much as the text messages between President Benigno Aquino and disgraced police chief Alan Purisima.

At that time that Almonte was closely advising and acting in Ramos’ behalf, Almonte was a mere head of the Economic Intelligence and Investigation Bureau (EIIB) which had to do with smugglers and nothing to do with coups. This is why when politicians talk of the chain-of-command and how this was violated by the ex-PNP Director

General Alan Purisima I think of Joe Almonte. [Please read the first part of this series where I compare and contrast the two men.]

THE 1989 COUP

Almonte’s efforts didn’t seem to have succeeded because in 1989, RAM staged the bloodiest and deadliest coup. By Almonte’s account, the battle seemed to turn heavily in Honasan’s favor, so much so that Ramos - the defense secretary then - told Almonte to meet Honasan at the Camp Aguinaldo gate.

Almonte writes: “Ramos ordered me to meet them at Gate I (because) we don’t have any force here. Just meet Gringo at the gate.”

But Almonte does not clearly say why. Was it to give up the camp - and therefore the country - to the rebels? Or was it a desperate gambit for Almonte to trick Gringo into thinking he had lost the battle?

In any case, Gringo never showed up.

When Almonte asked him years later why, Gringo “said something to the effect that there was some miscommunication in his group.”

Interestingly, Almonte makes no mention of Rodolfo Biazon, whose defense of Camp Aguinaldo catapulted him to a Senate seat.

I can't wait to hear Honasan’s version of this event and why he failed to show up.

RAMOS AND RAM

It was Ramos' repeated defense of the Cory government that eventually earned him her endorsement for president.

When Ramos became president, all coup attempts magically stopped. The Ramos presidency is the only post-Marcos administration not beset with coup attempts.

Ramos got Congress to give the rebel soldiers full amnesty. But Ramos inexplicably did not order RAM disbanded.

Instead, Almonte apparently told the Singapore Business Times at that time that RAM still had a purpose for existing. Business Times quoted Almonte as saying, “my advice to the RAM was to ‘Stay where you are, then we will have a group who can threaten people who are resisting the administration's reforms.’”

His statement was met with a firestorm of protests.

In his memoir, Almonte tries to explain what he really meant by this: “Amid the backdrop of a politicized Armed Forces, only a prolonged period of stability would professionalize the officer corps. ‘Our only recourse is to conscienticize our young officers to encourage them to hang on to their idealism so that we can use that idealism as one counter force to the forces of domination and inequality in our country. That was what I meant in the interview. We, whose consciences are clear, should not be afraid of such idealism.’”

Elsewhere in his book, Almonte explains RAM’s continued relevance and role in Philippine society: “I said that our aim in the RAM was to establish a unique martial tradition which envisaged that, in the event that the Filipino soldier is compelled again by the deteriorating situation to intervene in the political life of the
nation, he must apply maximum force with minimum violence.”

In other words, Almonte envisioned a secret army within the army that would rise up whenever someone called for the need for armed intervention.

Almonte also explains that “RAM looked at the basic problems between our business elite and our political elite. The oligarchy, both the political and the economic oligarchy, had set us back and kept us in this highly inequitable society.”

Ironically, the oligarchy had a strong presence in Almonte’s by-invitation-only book launching.

Among those who came were President Benigno Aquino’s aunt Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, who recently demanded her nephew’s resignation. Also present was Carmen Pedrosa, whose group the National Transformation Council (NTC) is actively wooing soldiers to pressure President Benigno Aquino to resign. And Tony Tan Caktiong, founder of Jollibee and one of the world’s dollar billionaires.

Personally, I would be very interested to know what the current AFP Chief-of-Staff General Gregorio Catapang thinks of Almonte's book and the vision it propounds.

Catapang, who came to the book launch but opted to sit in the non-VIP row, away from TV cameras, was a member of RAM.

I also realize now that if not for President Cory, President Ramos and Almonte, the Philippines could have descended into violent chaos like the newly-won democracies of Egypt and Libya.

I remember that every time there was a coup attempt I would be glued to the radio, waiting to know whether Ramos had gone over to the rebel side; and breathing a sigh of relief whenever I heard his thick accent assuring the nation there was nothing to worry about and that the government had not fallen.

That was a close call for the nation and for that I'm grateful.

However, both men still have some explaining to do about the building of the Centennial Expo and the so-called “PEA-Amari land deal.” I noticed that Almonte doesn’t mention either in his book.

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[Raissa Robles is an investigative and political journalist behind the website, raissarobles.com: inside Philippine Politics and Beyond.]