Oct 232014

Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
2005-01-18 09:39
2011-08-30 01:44
Embassy Manila

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANILA 000271



E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/18/2015

REF: 04 MANILA 5959

Classified By: Political Officer Andrew McClearn for Reasons
1.4 (b) and (d)

¶1. (C) Summary: Former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada
returned to Manila on January 15 after undergoing knee
surgery in Hong Kong. Despite concerns that there could be a
confrontation between his supporters and authorities,
Estrada’s return was uneventful, with police whisking him off
via helicopter to a suburb outside of Manila where he is
being held under house arrest. His trial on corruption
charges continued while he was in Hong Kong. Estrada called
for opposition unity in comments made upon his return.
President Arroyo and her administration continue to appear
highly anxious about the opposition, though there is little
sign that Estrada and his allies pose a serious threat at
this point. End Summary.

Erap Returns

¶2. (U) Former president Joseph Estrada has returned to the
Philippines after undergoing (apparently successful) knee
surgery in Hong Kong. He arrived at Manila’s international
airport mid-day on January 15 (he had departed for Hong Kong
on December 27 after receiving the approval of the anti-graft
court in which he is being tried). Despite reports that a
huge crowd would turn out, fewer than 1,000 Estrada
supporters had gathered near the airport to greet the former

¶3. (U) The size of the pro-Estrada crowd was probably
diminished somewhat by the huge police presence put in place
in the area of the airport to monitor Erap’s arrival.
According to reports, the Philippine National Police (PNP)
deployed nearly 2,000 personnel to help prevent any problems.
The PNP took many other precautions to deal with
contingencies. GRP officials denied Estrada’s request to
hold a press conference after his arrival at the airport for
“security” reasons. In addition, PNP Director General Edgar
Aglipay personally met the former president on the tarmac and
police then whisked him off via helicopter to a suburb
outside Manila (Tanay, in nearby Rizal Province) where he is
being held under house arrest. There, Estrada was greeted by
about 500 supporters who held a rally outside of his home.
There were no incidents at the airport or in Tanay.

Trial Continues

¶4. (U) Estrada’s trial on corruption charges continued while
he was in Hong Kong. The trial began shortly after his April
2001 arrest and is taking place in the Sandiganbayan, the
GRP’s anti-graft court. Estrada has been charged with
plunder, perjury, and document falsification. After being
held in prison initially, he has been under house arrest
since July 2004. The trial continues to hit severe
procedural hurdles. On January 17, for example, the
presiding justice suspended the case for one week following a
defense motion that one of the justice’s hearing the case be
recused for alleged anti-Estrada bias. The defense has
placed other motions on the table that will almost certainly
delay the case’s progress further.

¶5. (C) The Special Prosecutor for the Estrada case, Dennis
Villa-Ignacio, provided additional details on the trial
during a January 13 meeting with poloff. Villa-Ignacaio said
Estrada’s lawyers had presented 18 witnesses so far and more
were expected. Villa-Ignacio remarked thatthe case was a
“must-win” for Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and the GRP. He said
his office was under strict orders to press Estrada’s case
forward in order to reach a verdict by the end of the year.
To keep to this schedule, he hoped that the defense team
would conclude its arguments by the second quarter of 2005.
This would allow for concluding arguments to take place by
October 2005, followed by 30-60 days for the three justices
hearing the case to reach a decision. Given the consistent
pattern of defense motions, however, Villa-Ignacaio admitted
that his schedule might be optimistic.

Opposition Activities
¶6. (C) Estrada — following up on comments he had made in
Hong Kong — continued to call for opposition unity in
remarks made upon his return. Shortly after his arrival in
Manila, he released a press statement through advisers that
railed against President Arroyo, asserting, in part, that her
“corrupt administration…remains suspect in the eyes of a
great majority of our people.” After 19 days of relative
freedom in Hong Kong — meeting with members of his former
cabinet, other opposition leaders, conducting frequent press
interviews, etc. — Estrada seemed upbeat and promised to
coordinate the opposition’s efforts, saying, “I am not
interested in leading them; what is important to me is to
unite them.”

¶7. (C) Pro-Estrada elements appeared buoyed by Estrada’s
seeming political reemergence after the December death of
presidential runner-up and former actor Fernando Poe Jr. (see
Reftel). House Minority leader Francis Escudero announced to
the press on January 16 that Estrada loyalists planned to
form a “Committee of Five” that would “represent the
collective leadership of the opposition.” The committee
would include Escudero, Estrada, former Agrarian Reform
Secretary Horacio “Boy” Morales, Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay,

and former Senator Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, who recently
took over as head of the RAM grouping again. (Note: RAM,
“Reform the Armed Forces Movement,” is a group of retired PNP
officers, which was behind several coup attempts in the late
1980s. RAM claims to support reform in the GRP’s security
forces.) When queried about opposition activities, Ramon
“Eki” Cardenas, a close adviser to Estrada, told Dep Polcouns
on January 14 that Estrada had met with 2004 presidential
candidates Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and Brother Eddie
Villanueva while in Hong Kong. Cardenas said the meetings
had gone well. Edgardo Angara, an important opposition
senator, remained out of the talks, however. Cardenas added
that Estrada hoped to increase the pace of opposition
activities (rallies, demonstrations, etc.) in coming months.


¶8. (C) President Arroyo and her administration continue to
be highly anxious about the opposition. The funeral of
Fernando Poe Jr. on December 22 deeply concerned the
administration, for example, and Malacanang battened down the
hatches that day. Similarly, the administration wanted to
ensure that Estrada’s return went smoothly and it deployed
the police in large numbers to prevent any incidents. That
said, despite their best efforts and a recent uptick in their
confidence level, there is little sign that Estrada and the
rest of the opposition pose a serious threat to the
administration’s stability at this point. More than anything
else, Estrada and his allies seem to be baiting the
administration, hoping that it over-reacts and makes a
mistake that helps catalyze the opposition’s many strands
into a coherent movement. The administration has not fallen
into that trap yet.



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