28 FEBRUARY 2007
The balding 57-year-old Pineda was onstage for nearly half an hour. His message, however, could be boiled down to a single sentence: End the Lapid era in Pampanga politics.
Trying to make sense of what that rare public appearance by Pineda meant, local columnist Caesar Lacson commented, "It suggested two things: Bridges have been burned and it signaled his unmaking of the Lapids."
And how. For there was the notoriously elusive Pineda, a good five months before the midterm elections, declaring war on former Governor Manuel 'Lito' Lapid, now a senator, and his son Mark, the current Pampanga chief executive. Not only that, the person he was endorsing to challenge the younger Lapid in the upcoming gubernatorial race was no other than his wife, provincial board member Lilia 'Baby' Pineda.
Business leaders later decoded Pineda's action this way: He wanted it known that he was going to directly manage his wife's campaign — and that he was going to make sure she would win. And just so no one would mistake what he wanted to happen, he had come out and declared it loud and clear. The kingmaker had spoken, and for the first time, he had done it in the open.
In Pampanga, where he hails from and continues to live, most people believe Pineda has helped many politicians — local and national — in their careers. These include former President Joseph 'Erap' Estrada, President Arroyo, and the Lapids. At one point in his speech, in fact, Pineda confirmed he supported the candidacies of both Lito and Mark Lapid in the 2004 polls. He skipped the details, though, on how exactly he helped them win.
But going by the controversies and investigations that have dogged him for years, Pineda appears to have been no small patron. Said to be wealthy on account of an alleged jueteng business across Luzon and elsewhere, Pineda has reportedly bankrolled the campaigns of various national and local officials supposedly in exchange for protecting the trade.
At the height of the Garci tapes scandal in 2005, Michaelangelo 'Louie' Zuce, nephew of controversial Commissioner on Elections official Virgilio Garcillano, even issued a sworn statement in which he said Pineda's wife Lilia had distributed envelopes containing money during two dinners hosted by President Arroyo at her La Vista home four months before the May 2004 polls. Among the recipients were Commission on Elections officials and himself, said Zuce.
Unlike with other politicians, Pineda had personal reasons for helping Arroyo. Aside from being his kabalen (provincemate), she is also his kumadre, being the godmother of his only son, Dennis, the 30-something mayor of Lubao. But in response to the allegations of payoffs taking place in her own home, the president later retorted that "no one gives bribes in front of me."
Pineda's role in the previous administration was supposedly played out differently. According to Ilocos Sur Governor Luis 'Chavit' Singson, Pineda was the one originally "assigned" to deliver then President Estrada's cut in the jueteng protection money to presidential pal Charlie 'Atong' Ang. Singson said it was Estrada himself who designated Pineda to do so in August 1998, barely two months after Estrada was sworn in as president. Singson, however, became the payoff collector in October 1998 after Estrada and Ang had a falling-out.
PINEDA, OF course, is not about to admit being what people say he is, since the game he is believed to operate in at least nine provinces (including Mindoros Occidental and Oriental, as well as Camarines Norte) is illegal. In an interview with the PCIJ after his New Year's Eve speech, Pineda even let loose a warning addressed to the Lapids, saying they should not make the mistake of raising the issue of jueteng against his wife.
He may, however, admit that he was raised on income his father Jose made from operating the Spanish card game monte. One of his former friends also says that Pineda got his own start in 1969, at age 19, when he got hired as a helper to a Pampanga congressman who was a monte operator. When that lawmaker left politics, Pineda was said to have been promoted as overseer of his monte operations in Rizal, San Juan (Metro Manila), and Quezon City.
By several accounts, Pineda is said to have struck out on his own in 1986, and while his game of choice was not monte, he did hit it big quite quickly. By then he was married to Lilia, a former buko (coconut) vendor whom he had met in a cockfighting arena. But Pineda ran into trouble just a decade later, when he was among alleged big-name jueteng operators such as Antonio 'Tony' Santos of Marikina (who was also said to be Pineda's mentor), Rosario 'Charing' Magbuhos of Quezon, Regalado 'Otto' Balboa (also of Pampanga), and Reynaldo 'Rene' Reyes of Angeles City, who were charged with corruption of public officials. They were all acquitted in 1998, but not before they were grilled in Congress on their supposed jueteng activities.
Police insiders in Pampanga now say that Pineda can afford to skirt the jueteng issue, as well as spare his wife from it, because he has "converted" the game to its legal version: the small town lottery (STL). But Romualdo Quiñones, chief of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office's STL project management office in Manila, says Pineda's name does not appear in any corporate documents of STL license holders. Still, Pineda reportedly owns and runs several businesses, among them fast-food franchises, a construction firm, and a hardware store that could help explain his apparent prosperity, which has enabled him to build a mansion with fortress-like walls in Concepcion, Lubao, in Pampanga.
What no one is denying is the fact that Pampanga remains very much the country's jueteng capital, and that whoever is running the game's operations there can wield significant political clout locally — perhaps even nationally — if he or she so wills it. For one, a jueteng operator is the one individual that can afford to be generous to politicians in need of cash for their campaigns, given a multimillion "business" that is free of taxes. For another, he or she has a ready network of loyal cabos (headmen) and cobradores (collectors) who can easily spread the word about a candidate who has his or her basbas (blessings).
Jueteng operators are also known to be the "substitute" departments of social welfare and of public works in many towns and provinces, considering the amount of money they pour into community projects such as artesian wells, basketball courts, and roads, as well as the doleouts they give to almost anyone who approaches them for financial help. This then gives jueteng bosses a deep well of goodwill into which the politicians they deem worthy of their time and attention (among other things) can also dip and use to help propel themselves into public office.
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