MANILA, Philippines – Davao City Councilor Nilo "Small" Abellera Jr, a friend of Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, admitted that he met with customs broker and “fixer” Mark Ruben Taguba in January 2017.
The Davao City official made the statement in his first appearance at the Senate probe into the P6.4-billion shabu shipment from China on Thursday, August 31.
Responding to questions, Abellera said a certain "Jack" – alleged to be Paolo Duterte's handler – called him up to ask for a meeting. Since he was available, Abellera agreed to meet with him at Casa de Amigos restobar in Davao City. Jack brought Taguba with him.
“Isang araw, tumawag si Jack sa akin. Wala naman akong ginagawa. Tinanong kung puwede kami mag-meet (One day, Jack called me. I wasn't doing anything. He asked if we could meet.) So I met with him later that day,” the councilor said.
Abellera said during their brief discussion, Jack asked for help to set a meeting between Paolo Duterte and a “customs broker." In the middle of the meeting, Abellera said Jack introduced him to Taguba.
Abellera claimed he didn't grant the request and that this was his only interaction with Taguba.
“Bale, Sir, nagpapatulong 'yung isang kaibigan ni Jack na customs broker na ma-introduce kay Paolo Duterte. Puwede daw ba matulungan 'yung kaibigan niyang customs broker? Nagkausap kami, sinabi ko po hindi. Pinakilala sa akin bigla si Mark Taguba. But after 5 to 10 minutes, umalis na po ako,” Abellera said.
(Jack's friend, who is a customs broker, asked if I could help him get introduced to Paolo Duterte. Can I help his friend who's a customs broker? I told him no. Then he suddenly introduced Mark Taguba. But after 5 to 10 minutes, I left.)
Asked why he was the point person for such requests to access Paolo Duterte, Abellera admitted he is a known friend of the presidential son.
“Known po sa Davao na magkaibigan kami ni Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte (It's known in Davao that Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and I are friends),” he said.
Who is Jack?
Asked for details, Abellera said he did not know the real names of Jack and Tita Nanie, the person who reportedly introduced Taguba to the Davao Group. He said that since he was a politician, he knew a low of people and he might have met Jack in parties, political events, or in bars.
“Nameet ko po casually siguro...sa isang function. Di o maalala saan ko nameet si Jack....Politician po ako sa Davao. I know persons, Sir, casually nameet ko....I go to barangay affairs or parties or even sa mga bars, Sir, baka nameet ko siya [doon],” he added.
(I probably met him casually...in one function. I can't remember how I met Jack....I'm a politician in Davao. I know persons, Sir, whom I casually meet....I go to barangay affairs or parties or even in bars, Sir, maybe I met him [there].)
This prompted more questions on his testimony. Gordon asked Abellera why he would go out of his way to meet with someone whose surname he didn't even know.
“Is it your habit na pagka may tumawag, maski di mo alam family name pupunta ka sa restaurant? Is that your habit? Ano ka ba, influence peddler? Ba't ka pupunta di mo alam pangalan?” Gordon asked.
(Is it your habit that when someone calls, even if you don't know the family name of that person, you will meet him? Is that your habit? Are you an infuence peddler? Why will you go there if you don't even know his full name?)
When Abellera confirmed that he had Jack's phone number, Gordon asked the Davao official why he had it. “Baka nabigay ko sa isa naming [pagkikita]. I give calling cards din naman, Sir (I might have given it [in one meeting]. I also give calling cards, Sir),” Abellera said.
P5-million enrolment fee
Abellera again denied receiving P5 million from Taguba as the latter's "enrolment fee" to get the help of the so-called Davao Group at the Bureau of Customs (BOC). (READ: Customs broker: Paolo Duterte's 'friend, handler' got bribe money)
Abellera also said that he didn't know of any "Davao Group" and that he was not part it.
Responding to Gordon's questions, Taguba stood by his earlier claim that he personally paid Abellera P5 million. (READ: Here's what else was in Taguba's text messages on Customs)
Asked to narrate his meeting with Abellera in Davao City, Taguba said the meeting happened on January 16, and that he was billeted at the Marco Polo Hotel in Davao City. Jack fetched him to go to the meeting place.
Taguba said he and Jack were already in the restobar for 20 minutes and were already having a meal, when Abellera arrived. He said Jack introduced Abellera this way: "Mark, ito si Small. Barkada 'yan (Mark, this is small. He's a close friend)."
After they were introduced, Taguba asked Abellera if he can help him in the BOC. Abellera then supposedly told him that his group had a problem with their customs broker who did not remit money on time and in full.
"Ang sinabi, Mark, kung papasok ka sa amin, dapat maayos ka sa pagreremit. Ayaw naming masunog (If you want to join us, you should remit properly. We don't want to get burned)," Taguba recalled Abellera telling him.
“Kung tatanggapin ka namin, dapat maayos ka. Kasi may isa daw silang broker na [di nakakapag-remit nang maayos], sabi nila napapagalitan daw sila (If we let you in, you have do well. They said they had one broker who did not remit properly, and they got scolded),” he added.
After meeting for almost an hour, Taguba said Abellera said he would call him later that day. He said he went with Abellera to the latter's car and handed him P5 million packed in a blue Lacoste bag. Abellera reportedly checked the money, and they parted ways.
Taguba said Jack then escorted him back to his hotel. He never met Paolo Duterte but the "Davao Group" delivered on helping him with the BOC, he said.
In the weeks that followed, Taguba said Jack would fly weekly to Manila to get money from him, depending on the amount of containers involved, or an average of P1 million.
During the hearing, Gordon and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV got into a brief scuffle after the latter accused Gordon of badgering Taguba and protecting Paolo Duterte and presidential son-in-law Manases Carpio, whom Trillanes wanted the Senate panel to summon to the next hearing. – Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org