A Robbery Tells the Story of Philippine Legal Ineffectiveness

In mid-November of last year, a small-time gangster got drunk in the Cavite Province city of Silang, a city of 250,000 about 45 km south of Manila, and shot up a motel, which got him arrested. Shortly after, he was visited by another member of the gang, who was overheard assuring him not to worry.

“Don’t worry,” the gang member said, according to a police source. Paraphrased in English, the visitor said: “We’ll bail you out. We’re going to hit a couple of places in Metrogate,” an upscale gated community just northeast of the city.

Why the police didn’t act on that information, or why Metrogate Silang Village Estate, as the subdivision is named, didn’t beef up its security is unknown. But on Dec. 14, the gang invaded the home of a retired logistics engineer named Jerome Cardano, threatening him and his family with violence and stealing cash and valuables.

The gang’s actions since say a great deal about what is wrong with the Philippines more than just President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, which has so far taken the lives of 400-odd drug users and a flock of people who had nothing to do with drugs but whose identity may have been mistaken, or who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when death squads – off-duty cops, probably – started shooting.

The gang may well be drug users. But they have evaded arrest and conviction in ways that say considerable about the country’s law enforcement and legal systems, which clearly don’t work. If the system guaranteed competent police work and an incorruptible and fast-acting judicial system, that would put paid to the need to murder small-time drug users on the streets.

From the time they hit Cardano’s home forward, the gang, known as the bahay pag-akyat or “climb house gang” – home invaders –has used Metrogate as a steady source of cash flow for its operations.

The gang, composed of an unknown number of gangsters, has hit the Metrogate complex at least four times since then and indeed tried twice in the last week before security guards drove them off, terrorizing families, ransacking homes, destroying property with apparent impunity that brings into question the commitment of the Silang police, in the face of a task force organized by the previous governor Juanito Victor Remulla, to bringing them to justice.

Nor has the gang limited their activities to Metrogate. They are believed to have killed a Korean couple in their home in Silang proper, to have raided at least one bank and carried on a reign of terror as far away as Bulacan north of Manila.

They have acted with experience and dispatch, patting down their victims with professional competence. A month after invading Cardano’s property, on Jan. 14, five members of the gang came over the six-foot cement block wall of a home on the periphery of the subdivision. Before their raid was over, they had killed Robert Lee Davies, a retired US Air Force veteran, pistol-whipped his elderly wife, and spent more than 20 minutes in the home, battering open a safe with a garden tool and making off with a lifetime collection of jewels plus Apple computers, cellphones, watches and wallets from the guests in the home. The gang went back over the wall at about 9 pm. Just five hours later, the iPhones and computers were being disposed of in Manila.

Metrogate security guards appear to have been paralyzed. Despite the sound of the shot and the clangor of battering the safe open, the security guards never appeared. When police and guards were called after the victims found a phone, it took half an hour for them to respond. Residents have also complained loudly, and to little avail, to actions or lack of it by the subdivision, a property of the Moldex Group real estate empire in making the property safe.

CCTV cameras caught most of the action, including Davies’ murder. Three of the five were clearly identifiable and the member of the gang who was in jail for shooting up the motel identified them when shown the film. They were said to be Sonny Boy Guinto and his brother Jonathan, who the stool pigeon identified as Davies’ killer. The third was identified only as “Thor,” who for reasons known only to the Silang police was never formally identified further although police officers told the victims they knew his identity and that he owns a farm in the area and a Mitsubishi Pajero.

After an intermediary for one of the victims got in touch with Jesus Crispin Remulla, who since has replaced his brother Juan Victor Remulla governor of Cavite, Remulla in turn got in touch with his brother, who demanded that the case be solved and quickly, resulting in the establishment of the three-level task force over the case.

But how much effort the local police were willing to put into the case is questionable. Police came to the home of one of the victims, appearing irritated, and said they had embarrassed the force by going over local heads to the governor to accuse them of laxity.

Nearly eight months after the killing of Robert Davies, nobody is in jail. Sonny Boy Guinto was arrested in a raid on the gang’s headquarters with a badly injured foot that matched a bloody sock he apparently lost going over spikes in the wall of the home where Davies was killed. Although the DNA matched, he was released for lack of evidence.

Eight months later, it seems odd that although three of the robbers had been identified by the stool pigeon, only Sonny Boy was arrested, then released.

Jay S. Ikawat, who only weeks before took over as chief inspector of the Cavite Criminal Investigation and Deterrence Group, made the case a top priority. He and his team of young investigators moved quickly to examine the facts including finding a picture of the entire gang on Facebook and presenting it to the Silang police.

But, although he doesn’t say it, he appears to have been stymied. A number of issues on the part of the police raise suspicions. Officers told one of the victims in the raid that killed Davies that a pawnshop receipt had been recovered from Sonny Boy’s home for an orange handbag that contained US$25,000 worth of gold and jewelry. However, the items have never been recovered. Nor were a MacBook Air computer and iPhones that were traced to a shop in Makati in metro Manila’s business district.

In the meantime, the show goes on. The victims, who were told no action would be taken until they filed a formal case, fear for their lives after having been publicly identified. Despite widespread television coverage of the killing of Robert Davies, and dissemination of the CCTV footage from the home in which he was killed – footage clear enough for the stool pigeon to identify three of the robbers – they have hardly been intimidated. A month after that robbery, they committed a third, then a fourth in Metrogate. With the attempts to get into the subdivision over the past week, it is clear that the show will indeed go on.