The high life: Illegal drugs and the New Bilibid Prison

Bea Cupin

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The high life: Illegal drugs and the New Bilibid Prison


Rappler traces the events preceding the supposed September 28 prison riot and identifies the personalities said to be involved in illegal drugs operations inside Bilibid

MANILA, Philippines – The New Bilibid Prison’s Maximum Security Compound in Muntinlupa, where several high-profile convicts are detained, can be the stuff of legend. Or blockbuster movies.

In 2014, following intelligence reports that the drug trade in the country traced its operations to the high-security prison, the Department of Justice under then secretary Leila de Lima led a raid that exposed the luxurious conditions inside.

Nineteen high-profile inmates, later dubbed the “Bilibid 19,” were taken out of Muntinlupa and moved to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters in Manila. De Lima said then that they were singled out for their supposed links to illegal drugs. 

On Wednesday, September 28, Tony Co, among the “Bilibid 19,” was killed following a supposed riot inside Building 14 where they are detained. Three other inmates – Vicente Sy, Peter Co, and Jaybee Sebastian – were injured as a result of the prison violence.

Sebastian and many other Bilibid inmates have been making headlines recently, following allegations that De Lima raised electoral funds through illegal drugs operations inside and outside the prison.

Rappler traces the events preceding the supposed prison riot and maps out the personalities involved:

December 2014. De Lima leads a raid on the Maximum Security Compound, where high-profile detainees stay. Government agents are working on information that illegal drugs operations still continue from inside, even if digital communication is banned.

BILIBID RAID. NBI operatives inside the Maximum Security Compound during the December 2014 raid. Sourced photo

Authorities discover lofty “kubols” (quarters) and other contraband items inside.

The following inmates were transferred from the high-security compound to the NBI:

  1. Vicente Sy
  2. Eugene Chua
  3. Sam Li Chua
  4. George Sy
  5. Joal Capones
  6. Tony Co
  7. Herbert Colangco
  8. Peter Co
  9. Amin Buratong
  10. Clarence Dongail
  11. Tom Chua
  12. Rommel Capones
  13. Jojo Baligad
  14. Willie Chua
  15. Michael Ong
  16. Jacky King
  17. Willy Sy
  18. Noel Martinez
  19. German Agojo

The December 15, 2014 raid was followed by at least another operation also inside the maximum security prison.


July 2015. Renovations on “Building 14” are completed and the “Bilibid 19” is returned to the prison compound. De Lima says the new building – built at the cost of P30 million – has security measures to make sure its residents don’t continue their illegal activities.

July 2015. Rodrigo Duterte, who at this point is still being encouraged to run for president, accuses De Lima of doing nothing to stop drug lords from continuing their illegal activities inside the prison. It’s the first of many tirades that the former Davao mayor would launch against De Lima.


July 2016. An entire battalion of Special Action Force (SAF) troopers take over the high-security prison as part of the Duterte administration’s efforts to curb illegal drug operations inside. During his visit to Bilibid, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa goes to Building 14 following a surprise raid by the SAF.

CHANGE IN BILIBID. Dela Rosa outside the high-security prison. File photo Francis Malasig/EPA

During the visit, Dela Rosa confronts Peter Co, Jaybee Sebastian, and Herbert Colanggo.

The July 20 SAF-led raid would be the first of almost weekly police searches inside Bilibid under the Duterte administration.

August 2016. The animosity between Duterte and De Lima escalates when, during a speech in Camp Crame, President Duterte hits the now-senator for “politicking and posturing” when she herself had a “very sordid personal and official life.”

The President accused De Lima of having a “driver and lover” who collected remittances from “Muntinlupa,” referring to the New Bilibid Prison. In different speeches and interviews, Duterte accuses De Lima of coddling drug lords and benefitting financially from their trade.

This happens as the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, then chaired by De Lima, prepares to probe the rising of killings in Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

The same month, Duterte’s allies in the House of Representatives file resolutions to investigate the spread of illegal drugs inside Bilibid. De Lima would be the focus on this probe.

De Lima cries foul over the probe.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II says at least 6 witnesses, Bilibid inmates among them, will link De Lima to illegal drugs. One of them, it turns out, is Herbert Colanggo, one of the Bilibid 19

September 2016. The House hearing into the spread of drugs inside Bilibid begins. Former NBI officials and Bilibid inmates all claim that De Lima collected money from inmates through the same of illegal drugs both inside and outside prison.

One of De Lima’s facilitators behind bars was supposedly Sebastian, whom witnesses claim was a feared figure inside Bilibid.

But Sebastian was not among the detainees presented by Aguirre before Congress. The justice secretary said the Sigue Sigue Commando Group leader was invited to be a witness. But Sebastian was not willing to testify on the illegal drugs trade, only on other alleged instances of corruption behind bars, Aguirre said.

WITNESS. Maximum security inmate Herbert Colanggo, among the key witnesses implicating De Lima to the illegal drugs trade. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

In response to allegations that Sebastian received preferential treatment, De Lima said that he was actually a government “asset.”

Aguirre was supposed to present Sebastian before Congress but he eventually changed his mind. At the same time, Aguirre said in a media interview that he does not expect Sebastian to testify against De Lima.

September 28, 2016. On Wednesday morning, news breaks that at least one inmate dies during a riot at the tightly-guarded Building 14 in Bilibid.

Aguirre, citing “sketchy, initial reports,” says Tony Co, Peter Co, and Vicente Sy were supposedly using shabu inside Peter Co’s cell in the building guarded by elite cops from the SAF. Another inmate, Edgar Cinco saw them and reported them to Clarence Dongail, a former police chief inspector.

Dongail supposedly chastised the 3 then went to the cell of Sebastian. Tony Co then supposedly chased Dongail, attempting to attack him. The riot then began, said Aguirre.

Tony Co died while Peter Co, Sy, and Sebastian were brought to the hospital.

Administration allies and officials – House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez among them – say they are suspicious of the riot because it supposedly “derails” the legislative probe into the prison. None of the witnesses presented during the House of Representatives’ hearing are detained are currently Bilibid, however.

De Lima, however, is suspicious for a different reason. She claims the riot appeared to be Malacañang’s way of threatening prisoners who refuse to testify against her.

De Lima and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV are calling for a Senate probe into the alleged riot. 

The Bureau of Corrections and the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group are the lead investigators of the incident. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.