Marcos’s alleged gold hoard exceeded PCGG estimate of his loot
MANILA—By the late industrialist Enrique Zobel’s recollections, former strongman Ferdinand Marcos left behind his widow, Imelda, and three children with a cache of gold bars that in 1989 was worth at least $35 billion.
Zobel disclosed the value of Marcos’s gold bars in a 14-page sworn statement issued before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee at the Philippine Consulate in Honolulu between October 27 and 29, 1999. Sen. Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel Jr., then Blue Ribbon Committee chair, and Sen. Juan Flavier flew to Hawaii in response to two resolutions filed separately by senators Serge Osmeña III and Franklin Drilon seeking to inquire about the gold bars.
Based on his deposition, Zobel said Marcos had $100 billion in his name and part of it was the $35 billion in gold bars.
Now that the Duterte administration and the Marcoses are said to be in talks over the Marcos wealth, Pimentel told ABS-CBN News in an interview last week that it is about time the government ascertained the true value of the family’s gold hoard.
Zobel’s disclosure reinforced a long-held view that the Marcoses had kept to themselves a huge treasure on top of the P170-billion Marcos wealth recovered as of 2015 by the government since the four-day peaceful revolt forcibly sent them to Hawaii in February 1986.
Zobel was a close Marcos confidante and supporter, who stood by him until the late strongman died at 72 in exile in Hawaii on September 28, 1989. The tycoon died 15 years later at the Asian Hospital in Muntinlupa. He was 77.
Zobel said Marcos, then weak and ailing, showed him original certificates of the gold bars worth $35 billion, then based on the prevailing price of $400 per ounce, after Marcos asked to borrow some $250 million several months after the Marcos family landed in Hawaii. Marcos signed a promissory note for the loan, with the certificates meant to prove he could pay him back. The promissory note was dated October 17, 1988, one day before was indicted in the United States.
Apart from the gold certificates, which came mostly from Germany, Zobel said Marcos had in possession two more tranches of gold from Suriname, a sovereign state in the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America.
In all, he estimated that Marcos had total wealth of some $100 billion. When Flavier asked him if he heard it right, Zobel replied: “Yes, $100 billion.” That was in 1989.
An investment adviser who once worked at UBS-Philippines where Marcos had maintained an account told ABS-CBN News that Marcos affixed not his signature, but his palm print to make a transaction while in Hawaii. At least two UBS officials — Gertrude Erismann-Peyer, spokesperson of the UBS in Switzerland, and its international watchdog Hans Peter Bauer — admitted Marcos had accounts in the bank.
Zobel, one of the country’s richest at that time, said he believed Marcos. He said the certificates looked real.
Pimentel, jailed by Marcos' military four times for opposing the dictatorship, said Zobel’s disclosure was worth pursuing.
“My view is that no matter how tall the tale sounds, within reason, it should be heard and placed on record where it may later on be analyzed more critically. It should not be dismissed outright,” he said in a speech titled “Still a Long Way to Go” on November 16, 1999 before the Manila Overseas Press Club.
“By receiving such testimonies under oath, the committee helps to document, hopefully, more systematically, people's stories on the Marcos wealth,” he said.
Pimentel told ABS-CBN News last week that Zobel’s testimony deserved a closer look then and now. “Such testimonies should have some value in law, if not in history,” he said.
Zobel knew wealth like no other, he said. Similarly, Zobel knew gold certificates like no other.
“It was a good thing that the president [Duterte] disclose to the public the Marcos family’s offer,” Pimentel said.
“Now, the negotiations should have complete transparency. How much are we really talking about here? And what do they want?”
The 1989 value of the gold bars was 10 times more than the $10-billion estimate the Cory Aquino government made of the entire Marcos loot throughout his 20-year rule. First made by former Sen. Jovito Salonga, founding chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, that estimate has not changed since March 1986. Salonga knew then it was a conservative estimate, but cited the difficulty of penetrating the international banking system to get more details.
Gold is power and throughout the centuries people have continued to hold and hoard gold if only because it has maintained its value and stature. People see gold as a way to pass on and preserve their wealth from one generation to the next, especially now that supply has become scarce.
Between 1998 and 2008, the price of gold nearly tripled, reaching the $1,000-an-ounce milestone in early 2008 and nearly doubling between 2008 and 2012, hitting around the $1,800-$1,900 mark, according to various records.
According to the UBS investment adviser, the prices of gold fluctuated once upon a time in the early 1990s, when Marcos’ son, Ferdinand Jr., was reportedly either unloading or transferring some of the family’s gold deposits from one account to another.
President Duterte announced last August 29 on national TV that the Marcos family was willing to return a few hidden gold bars.
If indeed anyone of the Marcos heirs made an offer to the president, it would be the first time for them to officially acknowledge that they indeed had a cache of gold bars, and that these have been in their possession for many years, giving credence to Zobel’s testimony.
In an interview on August 31, Rep. Lito Atienza of Buhay Party-list group quoted Marcos’s widow, Imelda, as telling him that she wanted to return part of her family's supposed 7,000-ton gold cache worth roughly P15 trillion.
It wasn’t Imelda’s first time to say so. According to former PCGG commissioner Ricardo Abcede, in various media interviews in 2010, Imelda had told him she had $1 trillion in an account in a New York bank.
Great gold rush
Where the gold bars came from is another story.
Reports on Marcos’ gold bars have all been conflicting and confusing and, when ranged against each other, they all made up a tall tale.
One report said that Marcos found the Yamashita treasure, including a golden Buddha, when he was still a guerilla commander during the Japanese occupation, and that he got them shipped to Hong Kong, Switzerland, among other places, under his account.
Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita had reportedly brought in the treasure, stolen by Japanese forces from various sources in Southeast Asia, and hid it in caves, tunnels, underground complexes or just underground in the Philippines before the arrival of American troops.
Man who found gold
Another report said that a treasure hunter named Roger Roxas found it somewhere in an underground chamber in Baguio City in 1971, with a permit given by Judge Pio Marcos, a Marcos relative.
Roxas said he and his team found a 3-foot-high golden Buddha from an enclosed chamber on state lands near Baguio, along with bayonets, samurai swords and crates packed with gold bullion, among other items.
A few days after, the story said two individuals came to him, introducing themselves as gold buyers. To his horror and sorrow, the two men, he learned later, were allegedly spies President Marcos sent to check on him. In no time, military men stormed the area, seized Roxas' gold find, grabbed him by the throat, beat him black and blue, and held him captive in a godforsaken land for weeks.
Then and now, nobody knows how much the treasure was worth.
Roxas escaped with the help of Osmeña’s father, former Sen. Sergio Osmena Jr. In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Osmeña III confirmed Roxas’ gold find and escape story, one of the many reasons Marcos reportedly hated the Osmeñas. “That story is true and Roxas went to the US to sue Marcos,” he said in an interview last week.
Freed, Roxas reportedly went to town spreading word of how he discovered the gold and how Marcos stole it from him. In March 1988, he sued Marcos and his family in a Hawaii court to recover the treasure and seek damages. He died on the eve of the trial.
In 1996, the court ruled in Roxas' favor, but the decision was unclear on the damages as it was uncertain as to the value of the treasure. It said Roxas found a treasure, but could not conclude if it was the one by Yamashita.
In his testimony, Zobel said Marcos recovered part of the Yamashita treasure before the liberation and another part when he was president.
The Yamashita treasure is not fiction, judging from well-researched accounts of book authors and publishers — "The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History and of Japan's Imperial Family" (2000), by Sterling Seragrave and Peggy Seagrave; "Gold Warriors: America's Secret Recovery of Yamashita's Gold" (2003), by Sterling Seragrave and Peggy Seagrave; and "The Great Gold Swindle: Yamashita Gold, 75 Years of Philippine Corruption," by Phoenix J. Powers. All these books detailed how General Yamashita discovered and hid the treasures in the Philippines.
Whether or not it was the Yamashita treasure that Roxas found, the treasure story so convinced President Corazon Aquino that her government gave full sanction and protection in February 1988 to American treasure hunter Charles McDougald to dig more than 20 feet under Manila's oldest structure, the 16th-century-built Fort Santiago. (Her maternal family was once the subject of another tall treasure tale before the turn of the 19th century.)
Central Bank vault
One professor from the University of the Philippines cast doubt about the existence of the Yamashita treasure.
One other treasure story is not about the seizure of the Yamashita treasure. It was about the raid of the Central Bank vault.
After Zobel’s deposition, the Senate committee received information from three potential witnesses — one in Honolulu and two in the Philippines — of the Central Bank raid, according to Pimentel.
It was widely believed that Marcos was running out of cash at the rate Imelda was shopping left and right abroad, and Marcos had to dip his fingers into the Central Bank.
In his book, "Incredible Destiny," author Nigel Blundell, famous for his investigative pieces put together in the book titled “The World’s Most Infamous Murders,” said Imelda continued with her shopping despite economic crisis in the Philippines. She bought designer shoes, dresses, art collections and properties — the Herald Center Shopping Complex, the Crown building, office complexes on Wall Street and Madison Avenue, houses in New Jersey and New York.
But during a trial in New York, Imelda declared that the Yamashita gold accounted for the bulk of her husband's wealth.
All that, Pimentel argued, only meant to reinforce the view that the Marcoses stole nothing.
Willing to share
In a letter to Aquino in February 1989, then vice-president Salvador Laurel said he met with Marcos on his deathbed in October 1997, and that Marcos told him he wanted to return 90% of his wealth to Filipinos through a foundation provided he is allowed to come home, die and be buried beside his mother in Batac, Ilocos Norte.
Aquino showed no interest, Laurel later wrote in his book, “Neither Trumpets nor Drums,” published in 1992.
Could the government have settled the issues surrounding Marcos’ stolen wealth had Aquino taken Marcos’s offer?
But neither Zobel nor Laurel carried a message that Marcos was sorry for the plunder of the economy and the death of those who opposed his dictatorial regime. That was probably what Aquino was looking for: Should she have allowed Marcos to get away with it in exchange for a fraction of his gold hoard?
History is full of loose ends left untied.