The troubled times of Angie Reyes

Glenda M. Gloria
The troubled times of Angie Reyes
He led the military’s withdrawal from Estrada but also helped cause a mutiny two years later. In 2011, the Army general committed suicide at his mother's grave.

Editor’s Note: This story was first published by Newsbreak magazine in February 2011. We are republishing this piece for the 5th death anniversary of former defense secretary Angelo T. Reyes, who killed himself on Feb. 8, 2011 in the wake of corruption allegations. 

MANILA, Philippines  After Oakwood, it was somehow downhill for him within the institution he served for most of his life. 

On the second week of July 2003, then Armed Forces chief of staff Angelo T. Reyes got wind of initial intelligence reports about the plan of young military officers to mount a mutiny. Reyes was lukewarm about it. Thus when the group of then Navy LtSg. Antonio Trillanes IV seized the Oakwood hotel in Makati on July 27, the general was in Mindanao meeting with local disaster councils, though he returned late afternoon that day and went straight to Malacañang.

One of the senior intelligence officers that Newsbreak interviewed then said, “He was not on top of it. He also misread the soldiers. He said that their morale was highest after Camp Abubakar fell [in 2000].” Reyes was chief of staff when military troops seized the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after days of warfare with the rebels. It was a shining moment for the AFP since the camp symbolized MILF power and stature in the Islamic world.

Proud and oozing with confidence, Reyes had a fast rise to the top after a short lull in his career. He went to the best schools aside from the Philippine Military Academy, finishing 2 masters degrees: a business administration diploma from the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) and a public administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Until his death, he was president of the Harvard Club, an association of Harvard alumni in Manila. Just a week before his death, he presided over their meeting at AIM in Makati and showed no signs of despondence, according to fellow Harvard alumnus and PMA graduate, Victor Corpus.

Reyes spent several years in the intelligence community and commanded an Army battalion, brigade, division, major service and eventually the entire Armed Forces. He loved singing, yes, but he also loved debating. “He looked intimidating, but I think that was just a put-on. In truth he was soft-hearted, always cracking jokes,” says Corpus.

Reyes was not one who gave reporters easy answers, and he would reply to a question with another question. In his heyday, Reyes grew sensitive to media criticism and saw motive behind certain negative stories about him.

Reyes’ first brush with political power was under the Marcos years, when he served as military aide of then Prime Minister Cesar Virata. It was during those years that he got acquainted with former military comptroller Jacinto Ligot, who is also one of the subjects of an ongoing probe into military corruption. Ligot was then with the Presidential Security Command.

Reyes’ wife, Teresita, and Ligot’s wife, Erlinda, would end up as close friends when Reyes became chief of staff. This friendship, in fact, was discussed at a Senate hearing last Monday following immigration records shown by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada about the two wives’ frequent foreign trips together.

Angie’s Coup

Reyes’ stars were brightest under former president Joseph Estrada.

In a span of 3 years, from 1998 to 2001, he served as commanding general of the Southern Command, then the Philippine Army (for only 3 months in 1999) and eventually as chief of staff. Like Estrada, Reyes lived in San Juan; their mothers reportedly knew each other from way back. Reyes enjoyed Estrada’s confidence so much that when one of the general’s sons got married, he asked the former president to stand as godfather.

This is why it took a while for him to be persuaded to join the anti-Estrada movement that by end-2000 had already snowballed.

During Estrada’s impeachment trial in 2000, at least 3 factions in the Armed Forces debated the options on how best to deal with their commander-in-chief: should they oust him by force, or should they simply withdraw support from him?

In the end, Reyes, who espoused the most passive, least confrontational approach, prevailed.

In “Angie’s Coup,” Newsbreak’s inside story on the military withdrawal of support from Estrada in January 2001, we said that hours after Reyes declared the military’s break from Estrada, 4 generals raised to him a sensitive point: since the military was making a crucial move, why couldn’t it go a step further and dictate the terms for the transition? Reyes would hear none of it.

CHANGE. Then AFP Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes throws his support behind Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in January 2001.

We reported then that just 3 days after the jueteng scandal broke out in October 2000, Reyes received a letter from an Army colonel who noted that many of his fellow officers “feel outrage deep within – outrage for having a ‘lord of all gambling lords’ as their commander in chief.”

The colonel told Reyes: “You are about to make the most important decision of our life – a decision that can either lead this nation back to recovery and progress, or plunge it further down the road to perdition.”

In Newsbreak’s first issue in January 2001, we wrote then: “It took Reyes 3 months, after consultations with civilian groups and fellow officers, to make his decision. Up to the last minute, some leaders of the anti-Estrada mass movement had serious doubts about Reyes.”

“Word spread that there were officers and field commanders who were more prepared to strike. The bloc of former Tarlac Representative Jose ‘Peping’ Cojuangco Jr and Pastor ‘Boy’ Saycon openly talked about the supposed commitment made by 14 brigade commanders to join the Estrada Resign movement. The target date was November 25. The plot flopped.”

Our story added: “Yet unknown to most, Reyes did agree to an aide’s suggestion to try to persuade the President to quit first week of November (2000)…But Reyes was stopped in his tracks, according to a source close to the general. In a meeting in Malacañang on Nov. 4, 2000, the day of a massive rally at Edsa, the President told him straight that he had received reports that he, Reyes, was being invited by the opposition to a meeting.”

In contrast to his agitated peers, Reyes was a cautious man. For months, he spurned all appeals for him to abandon Estrada. Former Army chief Fortunato Abat met with him to ask him to advise Estrada to quit. “Well, since Angie (Reyes) is a champion debater and Abat also loved to talk, they ended up debating,” our source recalled then.

Reyes denied it, but he probably felt then that the die was cast. For Estrada’s spooks got it right: Reyes was to meet with the Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo the following morning. The meeting had to be cancelled. Still, Reyes’s trusted officers continued to touch base with some anti-Estrada leaders and the Arroyo camp. And the chief of staff did his homework, projecting a neutral image while meeting with officers from different PMA batches to get their sense of the situation.

In his conversations with PMAyers during those difficult days, he told them, “Think of the repercussions of what we do 50 to 100 years from now. We do not want a tradition of the AFP going against the leadership.” But when the people massed up at Edsa for the second time, Reyes moved and spelled the end of Estrada’s term.

Bad luck

Under President Arroyo, Reyes soon got dragged into all sorts of controversies.

As chief of staff and later defense secretary, Reyes kept a tight group of young officers doggedly loyal to him. They got plum positions and lorded it over in Camp Aguinaldo. Among them was then Lt. Col. George Rabusa, who was very close to Reyes and his wife; Rabusa first served as Reyes’s budget officer when the latter worked at J2 (AFP deputy chief of staff for intelligence) under the Ramos government.

The entire comptroller family – Rabusa, Carlos Garcia, Jacinto Ligot, and Antonio Lim – enjoyed the confidence, and protection, of Reyes.

In August 2003, when he was forced to resign as defense chief following the Oakwood mutiny, Reyes refused to talk about the reasons for his leaving.

Instead, he cited his two major “achievements:” the fall of Camp Abubakar and his role in the peaceful transition of power from Estrada to Mrs Arroyo. He told Newsbreak then: “I want to be remembered as an officer who spent 30 years in the service, as one who tried to do his best. I always maintain a standard of excellence that I impose on myself before I impose it on others.”

The public image that he built over the years, however, was tarnished by serious allegations of compromises and graft.

CZAR. Reyes was anti-kidnapping czar under Arroyo. EPA file photo

After leaving the defense department, Reyes was named by Mrs Arroyo to various positions: anti-kidnapping czar, head of an anti-smuggling task force, Interior and Local Government Secretary, and Environment and Natural Resources Secretary. His last Cabinet position was Energy Secretary before he ran under the 1-UTAK party-list group in the last elections. Reyes was criticized for joining this transport group because he was obviously not part of this sector.

Initially, he toyed with the idea of running for the Senate. But his own survey numbers discouraged him from it.

The energy department proved to be too technical and complicated for him. At one time, he attributed the increasing cost of fuel to rising water waves. At another, he said there would be blackouts on election day (May 10, 2010) and gave an exact number of households who will have no power. Energy and power supply experts wondered where he got the figure since there was still no available simulation model to compute for that.

In February 2010, a month before he stepped down as energy boss, Reyes approved the conversion of a mining exploration contract with a UK-based oil and gas exploration company into a full-fledged service contract, which allowed it to drill. He defended his move: “The area [covered]…is within the Exclusive Economic Zone, and the government has the authority to engage in the exploration, development and utilization of resources and enter into an arrangement and that authority is within the DOE (Department of Energy).”

When he ran under 1-UTAK, militant groups sought his disqualification. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) upheld his nomination, but 1-UTAK later withdrew his name from their list, a move that Reyes questioned before the Comelec. In September 2010, the Comelec ruled to disqualify Reyes. He died without seeing Supreme Court’s ruling on his petition.

But it was the damning testimony of his longtime aide Rabusa that truly got Reyes depressed.

In 2003, when Newsbreak asked him about his plans after he resigned as defense chief, Reyes had this to say: “What the future holds, only time will tell. I have lived a full and fulfilled life. I have no complaints, no regrets. If I were to live again, I would take the same route.”

At his mother’s grave 5 years ago, could he have uttered the same words? – with reports from Lala Rimando/

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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.