CIDG having difficulty arresting Dinagat’s fugitive congressman

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/14 Nov) – Who’s afraid of the fugitive congressman from Dinagat Islands?

Not the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), said its provincial agents in Surigao del Norte, amidst the flak the probe agency has been getting for its failure to arrest Ruben B. Ecleo Jr., who is now considered fugitive by authorities.

The “supreme master” of the Philippine Benevolent Missionary Association (PBMA) has two standing arrest warrants: one for the parricide case involving the killing of his wife, Alona, in 2002 in Cebu City; the other for conviction by the Sandiganbayan for the anomalous construction of projects when Ecleo was still mayor of San Jose from 1991 to 1994.

CIDG-Caraga was tasked to enforce both warrants. The arrest warrant for the parricide case remains unenforced since April, while that of the graft conviction became final late last month after the Supreme Court affirmed the Sandiganbayan decision on January 28.

Kit Enriquez, one of the prosecution lawyers handling the parricide case in Cebu, said CIDG’s failure to arrest Ecleo showed that “law enforcers might be afraid to implement” the court order.

CIDG-Surigao del Norte agents attempted to serve the arrest warrant for the parricide case late last month but returned empty handed when a barangay chairman in San Jose town greeted them with a certificate, supposedly attesting that Ecleo had not been living in the island for a year.

PO3 Jessie L. Rama, who led the team serving the warrant, said they simply headed back to their headquarters in Surigao City when handed the certificate by the village chairman of Brgy. Aurora, where the Ecleos reside.

Rama’s team found it impractical to scour the whole island because it was Ecleo’s “bailiwick.”

“It’s really not easy, knowing that he is being defended by his die-hard followers. And to consider he’s in his bailiwick,” said Rama, who heads the intelligence unit of CIDG-Surigao del Norte.

Rama said the “intelligence network” of PBMA was also “very effective.”

He said that the moment they arrive at the pier in Surigao City, Ecleo’s followers already know that authorities are headed for Dinagat. “If you’re a new face, you’ll be put under surveillance and sometimes, someone will ask questions of your purpose of going to the island. That’s how they work,” Rama added.

Senior Insp. Alfredo S. Lambot, CIDG-Surigao del Norte chief, said all they can do for now is to “conduct more monitoring” in Dinagat Province, particularly Ecleo’s bailiwick in San Jose.

The probe agency is also coordinating with the Dinagat Provincial Police Office to look for Ecleo, Lambot said.

He made it clear, however, that any serious effort to apprehend Ecleo must come from the Dinagat police because “the subject person is in their territory.”

Lambot admitted that the pressure to get Ecleo is intensifying, especially after last month’s decision of the Supreme Court not to entertain Ecleo’s motion for reconsideration, effectively removing any legal barrier for his arrest.

Another factor hampering the agency in arresting Ecleo is the lack of personnel and equipment, said Rama, the intelligence chief.

With these deficiencies, Rama said they would need the assistance of the military in enforcing court orders against Ecleo.

“Considering our personnel capability, I don’t think an arrest would be easy. We also don’t have enough logistics,” Rama admitted.

A police officer was killed while more than 20 of Ecleo’s defenders were killed during a raid in 2002 to effect his arrest.

For now, the police officer said all they can do is wait for Ecleo to surface.

“It’s like a catfish, you cannot catch one in turbid waters. You have to wait for the water to calm, and jump in when he (Ecleo) shows up,” Rama said in the dialect.

Ecleo remains the representative of the lone congressional district of Dinagat. The Lower House was set to drop the lawmaker from its rolls when it resumed session on May 9. House Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte had earlier said the basis of Ecleo’s expulsion from the House of Representatives will be the finality of the latter’s conviction by the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court.

However, Belmonte has not yet not made any formal announcement on the matter, including Ecleo’s replacement.

For humanitarian reasons, Ecleo was granted temporarily liberty from his jail at the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center (BBRC) in Cebu City on a P1-million bail. His lawyers argued then he was ill.

For failure to attend court hearings, Ecleo’s bail was canceled by Regional Trial Court Branch 10 Judge Soliver Peras on April this year.

Ecleo began to snub hearings for his parricide case when the Sandiganbayan issued a warrant for his arrest on January 28, 2011. (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)