Mud Sticks to Aquino Government

Perception of graft by Aquino's underlings, and weak action against it, erode her popularity. PHILIPPINES: ANTI-CORRUPTION CRUSADE

AS chief of the anti-smuggling agency in the Philippines, Jose Almonte calls himself an ``economic warrior.'' His greatest challenge, however, is knowing if the enemy includes his own superiors.

Mr. Almonte, like many who supported Corazon Aquino's virtuous rise to power in 1986, is waging a war against corruption where battle lines are blurred.

Last year, for instance, he charged two Aquino-allied Congressmen with smuggling, only to see Congress retaliate by slashing his agency's budget to five cents.

Charges of official corruption are striking deeper and deeper into the once-mighty moral shield of President Aquino's government. Although she herself is seen as untainted, the perception of graft by her underlings - and her weak action against it - has eroded her popularity.

Almonte, a former Army officer, fights smuggling with the same moral zeal that he once fought communist guerrillas. In 1986, as a colonel, he helped plan a coup attempt against Ferdinand Marcos. When Mrs. Aquino took power, she made him the first officer promoted to the rank of general, and then later appointed him to the bureau that battles smuggling, a popular crime in this nation of more than 7,000 islands.

``Corruption under Marcos was a wholesale theft of dollars from foreign loans,'' he says. ``Now we see Filipinos stealing from each other.''

In a recent land-reform scandal, for instance, a group of people tried to cheat the government out of $2.5 million.

``That was the size of Imelda Marcos's kitty for flowers,'' says Almonte. Even within his own department, known as the Economic Intelligence and Investigation Bureau (EIIB), Almonte has a tough fight. The temptation to take bribes or make off with a confiscated container of imported goods is great among EIIB's low-paid workers. He has already fired 300 out of 1,000 employees.

But, he admits, until Aquino comes out more strongly in both action and words against corruption, his crusade is constrained. For the first couple of years of her six-year term, she pursued a policy of reconciliation among Filipinos rather than exercising tough leadership against wrongdoers.

Most observers say it is unclear whether there is any more or less corruption under Aquino than there was during Marcos's rule. What's certain is that corruption is more easily exposed even as Filipinos expect more from Aquino, whose anti-graft campaign against Marcos helped to bring him down. Aquino has slowly tried to reform the court system, but the effort remains limited because she does not want to appear to be hand-picking judges and thus gaining favors.

Three recent incidents, though, have forced Aquino to get tougher against corruption.

One was the land-reform scandal, known as the Garchitornena affair, that many observers say has set back a key Aquino program by six months. The president formed a special investigative body to clean up the affair last month, and appointed a new chief of the land-reform agency.

Another was the killing of an Army major during a holdup that revealed deep military and police involvement in financial crimes, sparking an Aquino-ordered crackdown in military ranks.

The third was political snipping by Aquino's nemesis, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, over her family's plan to ``reform'' their 14,000-acre sugar estate. The plan, using a legal loophole in the 1987 land-reform law, would leave two-thirds of the estate's ownership in family hands, while giving one-third of the corporation's shares to the 6,000 workers over the next three decades. Sen. Enrile's criticism of the plan angered Aquino. She launched a counterattack by bringing up Enrile's past deeds when he served as defense minister under Marcos.

But more than just sparking a Filipino political feud, the dispute caused Aquino to make some careful admissions. She shelved the family land-reform plan for the time being, and announced in a speech June 19 that ``corruption has returned, if not on the same scale [as under Marcos], certainly with equal shamelessness.''

She promised renewed anti-corruption efforts that would ``spare no one.'' She threw her support behind a new private group, called the National Coalition for Transparency (meaning clean government).

She tried to explain why no one from the Marcos era has been jailed for corruption, saying she feared being accused of waging a ``political vendetta.'' The military came in for an attack, too. She ordered Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos to remove ``scalawags and misfits'' from the armed forces.

Defense Chief Ramos quickly told commanders to draw up an ``order of battle'' against the corrupt in uniform, while claiming that the military justice system had already investigated or punished 1,195 service personnel.

How far such talk will go is unknown. The battles over corruption are often seen by observers here as just shadow-play for the 1992 presidential race or as a reflection of public disappointment after the high hopes of Aquino's overthrow of Marcos.

One irony of Aquino's past anti-corruption effort is that the biggest victim so far is the head of the land-reform agency, Philip Juico. He was forced to resign even though he was deemed not guilty. He blames the scandal on the failure of the Aquino government to steer clear of anyone who did not have clear anti-Marcos credentials. Mr. Juico says a centuries-old pattern of corruption in the Philippines shows a Filipino tendency for ``compromise, accommodation, and opportunism.''

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