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The $10bn question: what happened to the Marcos millions?

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The $10bn question: what happened to the Marcos millions?

In the 21 years Ferdinand Marcos ran the Philippines, billions went missing. As his son stands for vice-president, will the stolen fortune ever be recovered?

by Nick Davies
Sat 7 May 2016 08.00 BST
Last modified on Thu 4 Oct 2018

Imelda Marcos in her Manila apartment in 2007; the paintings disappeared before a raid in 2014. Photograph: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

IN THE EARLY HOURS OF A FEBRUARY MORNING IN 1986, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos flew into exile. After 21 years as president of the Philippines, Marcos had rigged one too many elections. The army had turned against him, and the people had come out on to the streets in their thousands. The Marcoses had seen the crisis coming and been able to prepare their escape, so when they landed that morning at the Hickham USAF base in Hawaii, they brought plenty of possessions with them.

The official US customs record runs to 23 pages. In the two C-141 transport planes that carried them, they had packed: 23 wooden crates; 12 suitcases and bags, and various boxes, whose contents included enough clothes to fill 67 racks; 413 pieces of jewellery, including 70 pairs of jewel-studded cufflinks; an ivory statue of the infant Jesus with a silver mantle and a diamond necklace; 24 gold bricks, inscribed “To my husband on our 24th anniversary”; and more than 27m Philippine pesos in freshly-printed notes. The total value was $15m.



This was a fortune by any standards, easily enough to see the couple through the rest of their lives. Yet the new government of the Philippines knew this was only a very small part of the Marcoses’ wealth. The reality, they discovered, was that Ferdinand Marcos had amassed a fortune up to 650 times greater. According to a subsequent estimate by the Philippine supreme court, he had accumulated up to $10bn while in office.

Since his official salary had never risen above $13,500 a year, it was blazingly clear this was stolen wealth on the most spectacular scale. Some of his closest allies also stole billions. As their victim was a nation in which 40% of the people survive on less than $2 a day, the Republic of the Philippines decided urgently to try to retrieve its money.

Even amid the chaos of the revolution, the very first executive order issued by the new president, Cory Aquino, established the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the PCGG. It was to recover “all ill-gotten wealth accumulated by former president Ferdinand Marcos, his immediate family, relatives, subordinates and close associates” and given the power to sequester any assets believed to be the proceeds of crime.


Thirty years later, the PCGG is still working, its 94 lawyers, researchers and administrators housed proudly in a building recovered from the Marcos family. The government gives it an annual budget of $2.2m. Its staff have traced money through jurisdictions all over the world and fought their way through hundreds of court cases. And yet something has gone terribly wrong: to date, the PCGG has recovered only a fraction of what was stolen by the Marcos network; no one has served a prison sentence for their part in the crime.

Bongbong Marcos campaigns for the vice-presidency. Photograph: Erik de Castro

Now, with its task still far from complete, its survival is threatened by a political development that would never have been anticipated by the crowds who swelled the streets in triumph as Marcos fled. The former president’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, generally known as “Bongbong”, is a frontrunner to become vice-president in the national elections on 9 May. If he wins, he would have the power to shut down the PCGG, as political allies of his family have tried to do in the past. The world’s biggest thief will have won.

Last month I was given unrestricted access to the enormous archive the PCGG has assembled in its years of global detective work: the president’s handwritten diary, frequently puffed with self-regard; the notepaper headed “From the office of the president”, with scribbled sums endlessly totting up his cash; minutes of company meetings with his comments scrawled in the margins; contracts; “side agreements”; records of multiple bank accounts; hundreds of share certificates; private investigators’ reports; and tens of thousands of pages of court judgments.


It needs to be said that this is not about Imelda Marcos and her infamous collection of shoes, although her shopping habit is real. She bought perfume not by the ounce but by the gallon. She hoarded old masters; at one point, she tried to buy Tiffany & Co. But in this particular circus she was only a clown, her crazy consumption deflecting attention from the big beast that was out of its cage.

"Other autocrats were stealing from their people – in Haiti, Nicaragua, Iran – but Marcos stole more and he stole better."

The PCGG archive tells the inside story of the biggest theft in history, and of the master criminal who organised it: skilful, arrogant, cruel. It also opens a door into the offshore world revealed by the Panama Papers. Marcos was one of the first to exploit the rats’ nest of secret jurisdictions and hidden ownership then in the early stages of being built beneath the floorboards of public life.

But what is most important about Marcos is that he committed his crimes as a politician. His career starts with a cynicism that now seems familiar – manipulating electorates, using money to buy power and power to make money. But he went one big step further in merging politics and finance, converting the instruments of government into one vast cash machine. A handful of other autocrats were also busy stealing from their people in that era – in Haiti, Nicaragua, Iran – but Marcos stole more and he stole better. Ultimately, he emerges as a laboratory specimen from the early stages of a contemporary epidemic: the global contagion of corruption that has since spread through Africa and South America, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Marcos was a model of the politician as thief.


A single document in the Manila archive marks the start of the detective story. In a sworn deposition, a young civil servant named Chito Roque describes how, on the night the Marcoses flew into exile, he worked his way through the crowds outside the presidential palace to the gates where anxious soldiers were posted. He was with his boss, a senior official in the new government, and they eventually found their way into the inner sanctum, the Marcoses’ private living quarters. There, they could see the signs of hasty flight: food still warm on the dining table, empty boxes, papers scattered on the floor, shredding machines stuffed with more paper.

His boss went home, but Chito wandered into the bedroom of the deposed president, where “I saw a filing cabinet and I opened the first drawer and I saw a safe inside and there were numbers, a combination that was pasted on the door, so I followed the combination and opened the safe.” Inside, he found records of bank accounts in Switzerland and Canada, share certificates and several letters signed by Marcos.

Those documents now sit in the offices of the PCGG, along with thousands more retrieved from the palace and the 50 or so other properties the Marcoses and their allies owned in the Philippines, and from homes and offices in the US. As the years have gone by, hundreds of thousands of pages have been added from other sources, all now sitting, neatly ordered, in a white, two-storey building near the centre of Manila. Outside, a six-lane highway is jammed with traffic, bellowing and belching fumes. Inside, all is calm and cool. A notice asks visitors kindly to leave their firearms at reception.


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