Finding Acierto

Glenda M. Gloria
Finding Acierto
EXCLUSIVE: Veteran anti-drug operator Eduardo 'Jojo' Acierto hides from a government that's out to get him. What drives him?

MANILA, Philippines – Eduardo “Jojo” Acierto had simple dreams and simple wants. He wanted to go to college without paying for it, wanted to fight drugs, wanted to stay as a cop.

Today he’s the most wanted cop, hunted by his peers for what he said was the biggest blunder he’s committed in his life: believing that President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs is real. 

“I made a mistake in voting for him,” he said.

We were blindfolded to an interview with the former police colonel somewhere in Manila on April 13, two weeks before a court issued an arrest warrant against him over a justice department charge that he helped facilitate, in July 2018, the entry into the country’s ports of machines containing shabu worth billions of pesos. (READ: Timeline: The search for P11-B shabu ‘smuggled’ into PH)

And on April 29, the Duterte administration announced a P10-million bounty for his arrest.

Acierto previously met with select reporters in a clandestine interview on March 24, where he dropped a bombshell: that President Duterte and the highest echelons of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) repeatedly ignored information he had gathered that a Chinese friend of the President’s and his former adviser on economic affairs, Michael Yang, once helped drug syndicates ship chemicals to shabu laboratories in Davao. (READ: Acierto says Duterte, PNP ignored intel on Michael Yang’s drug links)

Informed of this report in late 2018, Duterte blasted Acierto and accused him of being the one in bed with drug syndicates. 

The President was so enraged by how Acierto managed to meet with reporters last March, that he castigated the police and military in a speech – asking them, why is the son of a bitch still alive?

PMA network

Just who is 55-year-old Acierto? (READ: Who is Eduardo Acierto?)

It was through his classmates at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) that we first got to know about Acierto. He belonged to two batches at the PMA, classes 1988 and 1989, because while he was originally scheduled to graduate in 1988, he was “turned back” for not passing some subjects. 

In November 2018, some of his classmates met to talk about his predicament. Jojo, as he is commonly called, had by then grown scarce. The veteran anti-drug operator had been accused by President Duterte of being a protector of drug syndicates, putting him in a Malacañang-issued matrix with top drug suspects. 

Aside from that, he was then at the center of a scandal that was being investigated by the Senate: the entry of shabu-filled magnetic lifters to Manila ports. 

Many of his classmates trusted Jojo enough to know that if ever he was involved in the shipment of those lifters, it was because he was deep in his usual cloak-and-dagger operations against drugs. 

In the past, they had seen how his doggedness cost him a promotion or the good graces of their commanders. 

But there was some complication this time around. 

Another PMA classmate and Acierto’s longtime buddy in the anti-crime network, police general Bert Ferro, was caught in between Acierto and the powers-that-be. 

Identified with the so-called Davao group in the administration, Ferro, PMA 1989, is currently the chief of the PNP Drug Enforcement Group (DEG). Duterte listens to him, having been assigned in Davao for many years. 

Surely, their classmates said, Ferro could and would ensure Acierto’s safety? 

We asked Ferro in November if he knew where Acierto was. He told us that Acierto had cut off all contact with him.

PAOCTF days

Both men go a long way. They were among the young turks assigned to the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF), which Joseph Estrada headed as vice president and which turned into a power center at Camp Crame after he won as president in 1998. They were the so-called Lacson boys; their task force commander then was police colonel Panfilo Lacson, now senator.

For its spectacular operations, PAOCTF grew notorious. Lacson and his senior deputies were dragged into two huge scandals that pushed them to protracted court battles: the Kuratong Baleleng rubout in 1995 and the killing of Estrada’s former public relations man, Bubby Dacer, in 2000. 

Acierto admitted that he’s guilty of adding his own share of notoriety to the task force.

In January 1999, Acierto led a bungled buy-bust operation in Commonwealth, Quezon City, where his men fired at a car that they thought belonged to a drug syndicate they had been tailing. 

The vehicle, parked in front of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) main headquarters, was carrying 3 members of the INC, who, already wounded from the shooting, ran to the nearby INC-owned Nueva Era hospital and were chased by Acierto’s men with their high-powered firearms. 

“It was a clear case of mistaken identity,” Acierto said. 

Lacson fumed, especially as Acierto’s men continued to harass the INC members in the hospital. “Nasugatan na nga, sinundan niyo pa sa ospital,” Acierto recalled Lacson telling him.

Acierto conceded he didn’t know they were in INC territory, didn’t know that their mistaken quarry entered an INC-owned hospital.

INC had backed Estrada’s presidential bid, so this made the nightmare worse. Estrada had to apologize to the INC, and the police eventually charged Acierto and his men, leaving them without any assignments for sometime.

Two years after, Estrada was ousted in a civilian-backed military revolt. 

The once-mighty PAOCTF fell from power.

Para kaming may ketong noon,” Acierto recalled. (It’s like we had leprosy). He and the other PAOCTF boys were put on “floating” status or reassigned to obscure posts. “Tinapon kami kung saan-saan.”

Returning to mainstream

Slowly, and through various posts in Central and Northern Luzon with the criminal investigation units of the PNP, Acierto made his way back to the PNP. 

Under then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he was considered for a prime post, but was eventually bypassed due to his PAOCTF past. The other, he failed to get because he was chosen right before the escape from a Camp Crame jail of terrorist Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi in July 2003. 

A few months later, though, police general Edgardo Aglipay recruited him to the newly-formed PNP Anti-Illegal Drug Special Operations Task Force (AIDSOTF), and this began Acierto’s sustained immersion in operations against drug syndicates. (Aglipay would later become PNP chief.)

One intelligence official who had worked with Acierto described him as a true-blue operations guy – compartmentalized in his ways, focused on his targets, and sometimes unmindful of consequences or context.

For his track record, said the intelligence official, Acierto gained the trust of “counterparts,” referring to anti-drug operatives from other countries, notably the United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). They often shared information with Acierto, who would do the legwork and finish the job, said the source.

To Acierto, the only effective way to end the drug menace is to attack its source and for skilled anti-drug operators to focus on high-value targets. “I don’t believe in station-level approaches,” Acierto said in Filipino, referring to the government’s drug campaign against street users and pushers that has claimed the lives of at least 20,000 Filipinos.

“Protection money is already paid at the highest levels, so by the time drugs reach the users, the drug lords and their protectors had already earned money. Why would any government not focus on those who pay protection money?”

Acierto’s obsession with high-value targets led to big yields that triggered both intrigue against, and professional envy towards, him.

It’s an issue that then-PNP chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa raised with Acierto in a meeting in late 2017, when Dela Rosa said he was considering him to head the PNP’s Drug Enforcement Group (DEG).

Kaya mo ba? Maraming reports sa ‘yo, maraming tsismis lalo na from the Davao Group,” Acierto quoted Dela Rosa as telling him.

Acierto said he told the boss: “Whatever I have now, I did not steal from government. Hindi ako nagbenta ng droga, hindi ako nag-recyle, wala akong ibinenta na kaso.” (I never sold drugs, never recycled them, never sold a case.)

At this point, Acierto paused. Look, he said in Filipino, I’m not perfect. “If my men seize cash from a raid of a Chinese drug lord, for example, do we report them? I have to admit to you (as he shakes his head). I’m just being practical.”

Acierto did not get the top DEG post. Dela Rosa called him to say, “Natalo ako.” (I lost in my endorsement of you).

Ferro, his PMA classmate and former PAOCTF buddy, got the job. 

Vote for Duterte

Could something else have worked against Acierto’s stars?

It was in April 2016, a month before the presidential elections that Duterte won, when one of Acierto’s intelligence assets in Davao alerted him about a certain Chinese businessman named Michael Yang, who was rumored to have links with drug syndicates operating in Northern and Central Mindanao.

The businessman was often seen with then-presidential candidate Duterte and he was boasting of his friendship with the Davao mayor, Acierto was told. 

Acierto parked the information; after all, it would not be a priority if Duterte did not win.

But Duterte did. 

Acierto was ecstatic over Duterte’s victory. He recalled shelling out about P15,000 to Duterte’s volunteers in Davao, who were printing campaign T-shirts for their candidate. He said that he, in fact, registered precisely to vote for Duterte.

Sabi ko, kakampi ko ito dahil anti-droga,” Acierto said. (I said, he’s on my side, since he is anti-drugs.)

When Duterte took his oath, Acierto was assigned to the PNP’s now-defunct Anti-Illegal Drugs Group, the precursor to the DEG.

Here was Acierto’s chance to do good by his candidate – and what better way than to protect him from dubious friends?

Acierto took it upon himself to quietly work on the information he received about Yang, in hopes he could one day expose him to the President.

INTEL. The first page of the undated report of Eduardo Acierto which he submitted to his bosses. He gave a copy to select reporters on March 24, 2019.

Two Michaels

Acierto reconnected with old contacts in the anti-drug sectors to check out Yang, including his most trusted PMA classmate, former PAOCTF officer Michael Ray Aquino, who is at present security chief of Solaire Hotel and Casino in Pasay City. In his position and having been an anti-crime operator for years, Aquino keeps an eye on suspicious personalities who play at Solaire.

Acierto said he trusted Aquino completely, which is why he first went to him for help in checking Yang’s background. Aquino would later be identified in Acierto’s report on Yang as the one who told Dela Rosa in December 2016 about some companions of Yang who appear to be suspicious personalities.

Dela Rosa, according to Acierto’s report, supposedly told Aquino that because Yang is known to be friends with the President, the information needs to stand on solid ground, beyond hearsay.

Acierto took that as a go-signal to dig deeper.

By August 2017, he decided to go to Davao to meet with another informant – this time an insider from the drug network called “Panther.”

“Panther” identified Yang  – from pictures presented to him – as the Chinese businessman named “Dragon” who, in 2004, helped facilitate the entry of two container vans of shabu chemicals from North Cotabato to Davao City, where they separated the declared goods from the chemicals, for use by drug labs in the city.

“Panther” also claimed that “Dragon” was a business associate of two other alleged drug lords operating in and out of Mindanao.

Acierto said “Panther” at that point did not know of Yang’s ties with Duterte, and Acierto did not also volunteer the information. Weeks later, he got a call from “Panther,” who said, “Sir, we got a problem because it appears that ‘Dragon’ is friends with the President.” 

That’s when Acierto finally sat down to do the report on Yang.

WAITED FOR GUIDANCE. Dismissed police colonel Eduardo 'Jojo' Acierto says all he wanted was to get guidance from President Duterte on how to proceed with his report.

Waiting for guidance

What exactly did Acierto claim in his report, complete with photos and a drawing of the links that connect Yang to other suspected drug personalities?

The report could be best described as a first pass – putting out initial intelligence that needed guidance or action from superiors. 

Essentially, what Acierto was trying to say is this: I have information from my two usually reliable informants that Michael Yang is the same Chinese businessman who once helped with the “shipping requirements” of drug lords operating in Mindanao and who has links to at least two alleged members of criminal syndicates – Johnson Chua and Allan Lim – who have been under police monitoring for years.

The report does not even mention Yang’s ties with the President. Acierto was simply flagging his commanders about the need to monitor the man – given his unwritten ties to the country’s top leader – and see if indeed he has links to drug syndicates. (READ: Malacañang contracts show Michael Yang is economic adviser)

“I wanted to inform the President and wait for his guidance,” Acierto said in Filipino. 

Confident he’d get presidential attention for what he deemed was a significant find, he struggled with various scenarios in his head.

Actually iniisip ko na lang…ipapatay si ano [Yang] eh kung iutos niya na ipapatay, di ba? Paano ko papatayin ito… eh di hahanapin ito ng Chinese ambassador?” (I thought… what if I am ordered to kill him? How can you kill him…what if the Chinese ambassador looks for him?)

“Those were my concerns at that point, the implications if I get orders from the President to act on my report,” Acierto added in Filipino.

After August 2017, the veteran operator said he gave the first copy of his report to his PMA classmate, then-police colonel Graciano Mijares, who was then head of DEG and who committed to hand-deliver it to Dela Rosa. 

But the PNP leadership was preoccupied with the aftermath of the Marawi siege, and Mijares apologized to Acierto for failing to give the report to Dela Rosa.

It was then that Acierto tried to send the report to all official channels in the PNP and PDEA and, like burning coal that was too hot to handle, it was passed from one general to another.

By February 2018, Acierto said he was assured by PDEA chief Aaron Aquino that his report had reached Malacañang and had been discussed with Bong Go, who promised to look into it. Aquino later confirmed that he indeed gave this assurance to Acierto, but clarified he could no longer remember which Palace official he discussed the report with. 

Those magnetic lifters

Soon enough, things began to turn bleak for Acierto.

In August 2018, he and other officers were sacked via an Ombudsman order over their alleged involvement in the loss of AK-47s that were later found in the hands of communist guerrillas from 2011 to 2013. He was charged in his capacity as a previous member of the PNP’s firearms unit.

Acierto was thus already on “floating” status when news broke that month about the entry to Manila ports of magnetic lifters containing shabu worth P4.3 billion. 

True to form, Acierto took part – although unofficially – in the intelligence buildup on those lifters. He said he had been informed by a longtime asset in Taiwan about the impending arrival of the lifters. He informed his colleagues in Customs and PDEA about it, passing on bits and pieces of information to them.

In the dark corners of intelligence and with the goal of entrapment, Acierto said he was made aware of the call to let the initial batch of lifters in. There were concerns about not burning his asset along the way. He was bridging between his informants and the officials authorized to act on the intelligence. 

Customs officials he dealt with said otherwise, saying Acierto fooled them into allowing the billion-peso shabu shipments in, specifically the magnetic lifters which arrived at the Manila International Container Port on July 11, 2018, then released and brought to a warehouse in Cavite, where it was discovered by authorities on August 2, 2018. 

A Senate probe in September and October implicated Acierto. He attended two Senate hearings on the matter, and in between, two things happened that somehow doomed his fate.

Preemptive strike?

Barely a week after his first Senate appearance on September 26, Acierto was shocked to hear President Duterte’s speech, where, from out of the blue, he cleared Yang of allegations contained in a supposed “dossier” that he’s a drug addict and a pusher.

Duterte said it’s “nonsense” to link Yang to drug syndicates, noting how close he is to the Chinese ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua. (READ: Duterte clears wealthy ‘drug pusher,’ cites close ties to Chinese envoy)

Until that day, the information on Yang was not yet public knowledge.

Acierto was certain that the President was referring to his own report, and was flabbergasted that Duterte referred to Yang merely as a suspected pusher and addict.

Why would the President suddenly mention Yang in public, Acierto thought, when his report was at that point still classified? 

Acierto has his theory: it was meant to preempt Acierto for whatever he was intending to spill at the Senate hearing on the magnetic lifters.

Before he attended the hearing, Acierto said he received a call from PDEA chief Aquino, who asked him about what he was going to say. Acierto said he simply told Aquino that he’d tell the truth about his involvement in the entrapment operation to bring the lifters in, saying the government should stop pinning him down – or he might be forced to talk about his report on Yang.

After all, by this time, Acierto already had done forum shopping as far as his report was concerned. He had already given it to at least 6 top PNP and PDEA officials; had given copies to other influential people whom he would not name; and had even sought a private meeting with the head of the Senate committee investigating the shabu scandal, Senator Richard Gordon – all with one goal: for the President to read it and give him guidance.

The senator refused to believe him, Acierto said, linking him instead to reports that he’s involved with drug syndicates. 

Goal is to stay alive

Five days after Duterte’s outburst on Yang on October 4, Duterte “declassified” a supposed intelligence report linking Acierto and others to drug syndicates. Never mind that up until 2017, Acierto was considered by no less than Dela Rosa to head the PNP’s anti-drug group.

The PNP too cleared Yang of any drug links. After Acierto’s March press conference, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte’s confidence and trust in Yang remained, reiterating the businessman’s close ties to the Chinese government.

“The fact alone that you are ambassador to China and your government is against [the] illegal drug industry, how can you be associating yourself with somebody you know to be involved in drugs? Obviously, talagang hindi siya involved (Yang isn’t really involved),” said Panelo.

Acierto insisted he was on the right path to pinning down the businessman.

 

“They’re saying I was out to extort [from Yang],” he said. If he wanted to, he said, why would he bother navigating through various official channels?

“If I’m part of a drug syndicate, why am I still here, in hiding and begging for help from people? The syndicates could have easily whisked me off,” Acierto said in Filipino.  

By the time he appeared on October 30 for the second Senate hearing, Acierto was no longer given the chance to speak.

He knew what that meant. Concerned fellow police officers starting warning him that he would be killed.

This triggered his decision to go underground starting in November 2018.

Did he even entertain the possibility that he got it wrong with Yang? 

Acierto said that the government’s actions against him validated his report. 

“The PNP, PDEA, the entire government is after me. Why would they do that if they’re not protecting Yang? That I am being hunted strengthens my report against him.”

Where would he go then?

Any place where he would be safe, even if that means leaving the Philippines, Acierto said.

“I will have to keep myself alive…so I could fight another day.” – Rappler.com

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .