All About PBMA

The Unofficial Website of the Members
of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, Inc.

Journal

 Faith, Hope and Politics

Part 1 
DINAGAT ISLAND, SURIGAO DEL NORTE


THE PBMA may have started out with purely spiritual intentions. But as the organization grew, the need for money to sustain it became a pressing reality. In the early days of the PBMA, Ruben Ecleo Sr. and his missionaries would remind their followers to "detach" themselves from money and adhere to the proverb, "The tinkling of silver money destroys the life of man." Later, the Divine Master said the PBMA had to become a "business organization to help the members and give whatever assistance [was necessary]."

Ruben Ecleo Jr., PBMA 'divine master'Ecleo announced in the 1970s that the PBMA would engage in the land transportation business and other "lucrative" ventures. He asked support from the members, at that time, P100 per share of stock. Out of this was born the Northeast Mindanao Bus Company, or Nembusco. By Father Falcon's account, after a number of years in business the company shut down and did not make any public accounting of the shares. Dividends were not declared.

It was also reported that PBMA-ers were then required, when traveling to and from Surigao, to take the Ben-Glen fleet of boats, owned by the Ecleos. (Ben-Glen is the name of one of Ecleo's sons. He now manages the family's recruitment agency.)

Apart from shares of stock, members are required to buy rings and reading materials and to pay annual membership fees. In 1978 the membership fee was PS, a rosary kit cost the same amount, and a ring cost P20 or P3S, depending on the quality. By 1986, the ring was priced at P100. As of 1994, members were being charged an entrance fee of P20, as well as a membership fee of the same amount. But some PBMA members say missionaries pay annual dues ofP100, while stationary and ordinary members pay P25.

Free labor is another form of service PBMA members traditionally provide to their Divine Master. They observe a weekly practice every Sunday of pahina, a kind of bayanihan or mutual-help arrangement whereby they clean the streets, plant trees, carry stones for a building construction, among others. However, piously living up to full meaning of the word benevolent in the organization's name, many members provide free daily labor, particularly in constructing roads, Ecleo's mausoleum, the PBMA office, artificial lagoons, the unfinished mansion of Ruben Ecleo Jr. and other infrastructure projects.

Sarita, San Jose vice-mayor, recalls that when he arrived in Dinagat in 1969, there were only about 10 houses in the settlement, and the roads were unpaved. "Without help from government, we built roads with contributions from members and voluntary labor," he says.

Some wives of PBMA members proudly say their husbands or friends are given meal allowances, just enough to tide them over for the day, in exchange for the work they do for the Divine Master. Ecleo Jr., however, says the practice of free labor has been discontinued and the workers now receive minimum wages.

According to a Sunday Inquirer report by journalist Monica Feria, PBMA settlers were each charged P100 to occupy a 10-by-15-square-meter residential lot, even if the area was public land. In 1986 Ecleo Sr. applied for the use of 3,700 hectares of logged-over area, which he apportioned to his followers.

Ecleo ventured into many other businesses through the years, and today, his family is mightily well-provided for. Apart from setting up businesses, the PBMA founder was engaged in conspicuous consumption. His luxury cars—Mercedes Benzes, a Rolls Royce, a Continental and a Cadillac, the last three locally assembled with parts from the former Clark Air Base—stood out in the rugged terrain of Dinagat island. Hilly San Jose, with its winding roads, many of them unpaved, is unfit for cars. Powerful motorbikes and jeeps are the most practical means of transport.

In a garage at the back of Ecleo's mausoleum, some of the luxury cars and speedboats, along with a jeep, are parked today, covered with cloth. They form part of the legacy of the man who started the PBMA on faith. Like his cars, Ecleo's houses are not at all modest. The main house in San Jose, called the White House, is the largest in the town. Today, it also houses Ruben Ecleo Jr.'s expensive recording studio, which was set up, according to Ruben Jr. himself, at a cost of around P3 million. The elder Ecleo's former rest house, with a small indoor pool, is now occupied by another son, Allan II, barangay captain and prospective candidate for mayor. Another house is in Dinagat, where Ecleo stayed before moving the PBMA headquarters to San Jose. Two other houses are in Surigao City.

Ecleo had no known salary from the PBMA nor did he have a substantial inheritance. He was known to have engaged in mining and charcoal-making. In 1983 his wife and son Ruben Jr. formed REE Trading Enterprises, which closed down in 1987. The rest of Glenda Ecleo's investments are in Minahang Bayan/Dinagat; RGE Stitchmark, a tailoring shop in Surigao City; Twin Dragon Printing Press in Quezon City; and RGE Contracting Services Corporation, also in Quezon City, a recruitment agency of which she was voted treasurer in 1993.

In a speech in Congress in 1989, Rep. Glenda Ecleo talked of achieving social justice for the poor of Dinagat who, after the EDSA revolution of 1986, were finally able to form a mining cooperative known as the Minahang Bayan ng Mamamayan ng Dinagat Island. With a permit for small-scale mining, the inhabitants of the island could "uplift their livelihood," Rep. Ecleo said. In that speech, she did not disclose her business interest in the cooperative. However, in her 1992 statement of assets and liabilities, she listed it as among her "businesses."

Rep. Ecleo and most of her eight children live in Green Meadows, an upper-class enclave in Quezon City. The assessed value of her house is P2.5 million, according to her 1992 statement of assets and liabilities. But a check of real estate prices in Green Meadows shows that a square meter fetches about P16,000. An 800-square-meter lot, which is the minimum lot area in Green Meadows, already costs P12.8 million.

In 1994 Mayor Ruben B. Ecleo Jr. set up the RBE Recording Corporation, with his studio in San Jose as base. The company produces and sells cassette tapes containing his compositions. His captive market? The PBMA chapters in various parts of the country. Ecleo Jr. volunteers that the sale of his tapes has already returned his investment on the equipment.

NOT ONLY was the PBMA a winning business proposition, it also became a formidable voting machine. Former President Ferdinand Marcos led many officials and politicians in wooing Ecleo Sr. and his association's votes. The elder Ecleo was a staunch Marcos supporter. PBMA members like to say how precincts in their villages would turn out zero votes for opponents of Marcos. "We were one for Marcos," recalls Vic Sanchez, a PBMA official who works closely with Congresswoman Ecleo. "He [Marcos] visited Dinagat, and he always called the late Master to Malacanang."

In the February 1986 presidential elections, the majority of Dinagat residents voted for Marcos, giving the late strongman 20,249 votes, compared with Corazon Aquino's paltry 945. Dinagat was the most heavily populated town on the island before San Jose was converted into a municipality in 1988.

Dinagat, the first seat of the PBMA, was the voting machine of the Ecleos. In the 1987 elections, when Glenda Ecleo first ran for Congress against seasoned politico Wencelito Andanar, the town of Dinagat produced the votes for her, coming up with 17,865 in contrast to her opponent's measly 209. The entire island gave her more than 30,000 votes, while Andanar got only close to 6,000 votes. This was for Glenda Ecleo's first term in Congress.

In the 1988 local elections, when Moises Ecleo ran for governor—taking over the late Ruben Sr.'s candidacy—Dinagat marched to the election precincts and gave him 18,088 votes, the largest number of votes in any municipality or city in Surigao del Norte.

These numbers did not turn up, though, in the 1992 synchronized national and local polls. The Commission on Elections, acting on a complaint of former Governor Jose Sering, a political opponent of the Ecleos, placed the entire province of Surigao del Norte under Comelec control. Sering limited his petition to the municipality of San Jose, the seat of the PBMA, but the Comelec decided to cover the whole province, posting military personnel and ROTC cadets in every polling place. The poll body also directed an accredited citizens' arm to deploy as many watchers as possible.

Thus, on May 11, 1992, out of the more than 20,000 registered voters in San Jose, only 11,794 actually voted. More than 8,000 stayed away. Surigao del Norte Governor Francisco Matugas traces this "low" voter turnout to the double registrations of the past. "The PBMA's numbers are a myth," says Matugas. "The 1992 elections proved this."

In the presidential contest, Ramon Mitra won in the first district, represented by Glenda Ecleo. A chunk of his votes—10,223 out of a total of 33,537—came from San Jose. As for Glenda Ecleo, San Jose delivered 10,473 votes out of 33,239—and she got her second term in Congress. She won in 10 out of 16 municipalities on Dinagat island.

In the gubernatorial race, Moises Ecleo lost to Francisco Matugas. But Matugas got a severe beating from Moises Ecleo in San Jose—where he received only 61 votes compared with Ecleo's 10,674.

The barangay elections of 1994 exhibited the same trend that was evident in 1992—a decline in the number of voters even in the PBMA bailiwick. San Jose had 19,325 registered voters, but only 8,465 actually went to the polling places.

 

Part 2 
DINAGAT ISLAND, SURIGAO DEL NORTE


Ruben Ecleo Jr and PBMA membersON A HILL in San Jose town, overlooking the serene Melgar Bay, stands a massive rectangular building with a crown sitting on its top. Fronting the building is a landscaped park with the words "Holy Land" engraved on the hillside. A guitar-shaped swimming pool, said to contain healing waters, lies in a lower part of the park.

The town of San Jose, along with the rest of the rugged island of Dinagat, is a modern-day Noah's Ark to thousands of members of the PBMA. From various parts of the country, they trek there for their spiritual salvation, giving up property and abandoning their roots.

They believe that the end of the world will come in the year 2015. San Jose is their promised land, and whoever will be there at the appointed time will not perish but will be "saved." One man led them all there—and his body now lies in the cavernous building on the hill.

The building is Ruben Ecleo Sr.'s mausoleum. Nearby are the PBMA conference center, a circular stadium, a miniature dam, a lagoon, the beginnings of a structure that is to be the PBMA international office, and the unfinished mansion of the present Divine Master, perched on the hilltop.

Residents also climb to the park, with pails and buckets, to collect drinking water from the dam. The irony of it all is that the town badly needs water, but instead of a water system it has an awesome complex of buildings and infrastructure that honor a dead man, his family and the organization he founded. The vice-mayor says P45 million is needed for the water system. The mausoleum alone, residents say, costs P26 million.

Today, PBMA members still keep a round-the-clock vigil in the mausoleum, praying to the miracle man who began the PBMA and who, followers believe, healed them of sicknesses. To them, Ruben Ecleo Sr. was the Divine Master, the redeemer, the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as well as of Jose Rizal.

The elder Ruben, many of those who know him say, was overflowing with charisma. This was not a product of education, for he dropped high school in his second year. Neither was this influenced by wealth, because he came from a poor family. Born in 1933, Ruben was barely 15 when he lost his father, who was an arbularyo, or herbalist, known to practice folk medicine.

Accounts say Ruben was accused of rape while he was still in high school. He immediately left the island and became an itinerant, eventually joining a roving carnival group as a barker. He was a glib talker and could easily lure people into the carnival.

Ruben journeyed through parts of Mindanao and the Visayas. Somewhere along the way, he is said to have discovered that he had faith-healing powers. By most accounts, he founded the PBMA in the 1960s, in the town of Aloran, Misamis Occidental, where he started with 12 apostles. The group traveled extensively to take in new members. As his following gradually began to build up, Ecleo returned to Dinagat to set up his first faith-healing clinic, where thousands of people flocked to consult him. Records show that the PBMA was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1965. By 1988, the PBMA was reporting a total membership of 6,687 to the SEC. In interviews at that time, Ecleo Sr. aimed a membership of more than 20,000.

Missionaries were assigned to recruit members from as far as Luzon and from the nearby islands of the Visayas and Mindanao. Apart from seeking spiritual healing and the salvation of their souls, migrants were attracted to Dinagat island by things temporal, mainly the prospects of earning a living. A large part of the island is mining reservation, declared in 1939 by President Manuel Quezon. It is rich in chromite and gold, and to this day residents thrive on small-scale gold panning and chromite mining.

In 1990, the Bureau of Mines and Geosciences entered into 25-year production sharing agreements (MPSAs) with the private sector, among them cooperatives like Minahang Bayan/Dinagat. Under an MPSA, lies and cooperatives pay license fees and excise taxes to government to engage in mining.

"Chromite has been proven to occur at almost any elevation," says a December 1993 study on the geology and mineral deposits of Dinagat island, conducted by Graciano Yumul Jr. of the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Sciences. Chromite, a critical and strategic resource, is essential in three major industries: metallurgical, chemical and refractory. Japan used to be the biggest buyer of chromite from Dinagat island.

Parts of Dinagat island were also covered with forests. Data from the Forestry Management Bureau are sorely inadequate, but reports from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources say that some settlers on the island were engaged in small-scale illegal logging, cutting trees and converting them to charcoal, which was then sold in nearby areas. Ecleo had his own charcoal-making venture. More recently, former Governor Moises Ecleo was charged by the DENR in 1992 with illegal logging, particularly transporting illegally cut timber. The PBMA successfully prevented the arrest of Moises Ecleo by forming a human barricade outside the governor's office.

The wealth of Dinagat and most of Surigao del Norte lies in its bosom, in its natural resources, mainly in its mines and forests. But with the forests depleted, mining is the remaining source of wealth. As in most parts of the country, access to natural resources and control of their exploitation is limited to the elite, those with money and connections to power, or those who hold power themselves.

In the case of Surigao del Norte, political contests have not been waged on the sole basis of gaining control over the province's natural resources. Political families like the Ecleos, Navarros and Serings have interests outside of natural resource-based businesses. The Ecleos are into labor recruitment and printing, among others, although they maintain a stake in mining. The Navarros are a landed family, while the Serings are in rural banking.

The wealth to be obtained from natural resources is not in itself a strong impetus for fierce and contentious political battles. In a sense, it is still the traditional forms of patronage that define political goals. For members of Congress, these forms include the power of the purse strings, the power to appropriate money from the Countrywide Development Fund, the power to dispense pork-as the example of Glenda Ecleo clearly indicates. This power to disburse funds explains why a high premium is placed on membership in the ruling party.

In addition, a political position opens doors, providing access to offices that would otherwise be difficult to penetrate. For one, it facilitates the issuance of licenses to exploit natural resources.

While the case of Surigao del Norte leans heavily on the traditional, the presence of a cultist group gives it a different twist. Fighting the battle for dominance of the province means entering the realm of the spiritual, capturing adherents to a faith that thrives on the passed-on charisma of the late Ruben Ecleo Sr.

Members of the PBMA are usually poor, uneducated. The majority are migrants in search of a better life. Academics who have studied spiritual associations in Mindanao have found out that many of their mem bers have been violently uprooted from their own provinces because of wars waged by the New People's Army and the Moro National Liberation Front. One such study conducted by local historian Luz Almeda in 1992 notes that poverty, insecurity, lack of education and religious ignorance are common enough conditions of adversity that drive many people to embrace membership in spiritual associations. In the case of the PBMA, the reasons for joining include the promise of salvation, the cure for ailments and the expectation that the PBMA can help alleviate poverty. Lack of education, limited wealth and low status in society were not considered deterrents in seeking a better life. The PBMA gave people hope. Furthermore, "belongingness" and acceptance by the, group were highly regarded as benefits by its members.

The Luz Almeda study concludes that people join organizations like the PBMA because of mixed reasons, ranging from economic, political and religious to socio-cultural and educational. She writes that these reasons are interrelated: "Whenever the element of brotherhood and the promises of eternal salvation are present, people are always attracted to join….Those members who have little or no education would try to compensate for their inadequacy by affiliating with the spiritual associations in the hope of learning from the association."

For Father Florio Falcon, a Catholic priest who infiltrated the PBMA from 1975 to 1978 to study its inner workings, the PBMA "reflects the worldview of an agricultural people subjected to the awesome forces of nature, chained to a way of life by the socio-economic structures they could not understand, and kept ignorant and exploited by a few."

Local historian Fernando Almeda Jr. sees similarities between the PBMA and the Colorums of the 1920s because of the character of the membership, mostly from the peasantry. However, the similarity ends there. The PBMA is not a militant organization. The character of the Colorum movement may be gleaned from a 1924 incident in which Philippine Constabulary soldiers attacked a fishing village in Surigao on suspicion that residents there were fanatical Colorum rebels out to overthrow government. The villagers resisted and succeeded in crushing the soldiers. "The dam broke loose," Almeda Jr. writes in Surigao Across the Years (1993). "Numerous brutalizing pressures were brought to bear upon the peasantry, which produced a spontaneous violent reaction from this aggrieved sector."

The PBMA is also unlike the Lapiang Malaya, whose members staged an uprising in 1967, armed with amulets and bolos, and proclaiming they were fighting for equality, freedom and justice. More recently, in 1992, a group called the Good Wisdom for All Nations massed at the gate of Camp Aguinaldo asking for jobs. Most of them came from Zambales, a province that had recently been devastated by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

While the PBMA membership may be poor, its leaders belong to the rural elite and even hold political power. Patronage is also displayed in the PBMA, with strong leaders attending to the material as well as spiritual needs of their followers. The faith-healing side of the PBMA dominates the organization, and there is a remarkable absence of discussions on government abuses. What the organization officially stresses is self-help, as shown in the way it is supposed to have developed the town of San Jose, with little assistance from government. Self-help, however, may have been true in the early years of PBMA, when Ecleo Sr. was not yet in politics. After he became mayor and part of government, outside help came to the towns where PBMA members lived. In orientation, the PBMA may be closer to the Iglesia ni Cristo, a religious sect, bound by a strong leadership, that openly participates in elections as a solid entity. In the PBMA, what the Divine Master wills, the organization does. It has one vote, one voice. The difference is that, unlike in the INC, PBMA leaders themselves run for office.

Although the PBMA is fortified by its belief in Ruben Ecleo Sr.'s' faith-healing powers, it refuses to be called a religious cult. Instead, it claims to be a non-sectarian humanitarian and charity organization. To support this claim, members parade their platitudinous goals in their primer.

These stated goals include service to humanity; attainment of national unity; harmony and progress regardless of national leadership; promotion of international peace and unity; maintenance of harmonious relations with all nations, irrespective of creed and religion; attainment and maintenance of free, orderly, honest and good government; upliftment of the economic, social and moral conditions of its members; and establishment of community centers for its members.

Membership is of three kinds: missionary, stationary and ordinary. Missionaries, who belong to the highest level, travel to any part of the country or abroad to do charity work and recruit members. Stationary members, as the term implies, stay in the confines of their chapter and are assigned duties similar ro those of the missionaries; they are considered reserve missionaries. Ordinary members, the lowest on the totem pole, merely participate in the PBMA's charity work. The PBMA accepts members from all religions or sects.

Since the PBMA says it is not a religious sect, it does not present a systematic doctrine. But the group has certain beliefs that show its intense cultist character. For one, Ruben Ecleo Sr. is the Divine Master. Tales and myths have been woven around the immense powers, as well as the origins, of the Divine Master.

In various records of the PBMA, Ecleo. claimed he was a two-star American general before his rebirth in 1933 to Aglipayan parents. But in later stories, Ecleo maintained that, like Christ, he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of his mother. He claimed other similarities to Christ, saying that he taught at the age of 12 and that he cured people and instructed them to lead moral lives. Thus, he claimed to have two natures: a man who, at the same time, was like Jesus Christ.

But there were two standards of morality within the PBMA. Ecleo demanded from his followers a spartan life, without vices. He disallowed smoking, womanizing, drinking of alcohol. But he did not practice what he preached. He smoked, drank imported whisky, and had relationships with women other than his wife Glenda. PBMA members accepted their Divine Master's errant behavior, justifying this as a privilege granted to their leader. Besides, they also thought that it was their leader's way of testing his followers' steadfastness.

Ecleo also appeared to have a curious obsession with America. He even promised dollars to members of the PBMA, part of the rewards of staying with the organization. In a tape-recorded message supposedly made in 1976, Ecleo claimed that another person-a foreigner by the name of Dr. Hugh Tovar-was speaking through him and gave details on the greenbacks. In the same recording, Ecleo claimed to be the medium of the spirits of Dr. Hugh Tovar of Canterbury, Gen. Adriano de la Concepcion, and Captain Caple Jury.

The recording has Tovar purportedly saying that he and Ecleo deposited USS19 billion in the name of Ecleo in 1936—"for the people of Dinagat island and the development of Dinagat." By 1986, members of the association could withdraw the money, the stranger purportedly said. No such deluge of US dollars came to Dinagat in 1986, but that promise seemed to have been forgotten by that time.

The PBMA gives no details on who Hugh Tovar and Caple Jury are. Gen. Adriano de la Concepcion, said to be one of the "spirit guides," is regarded as the leader of a group that fought the Americans with a nativistic and nationalist orientation. At the beginning of the century (1902-03), Concepcion led the local resistance in Surigao against American rule. The uprising was crushed by the new colonial powers. Concepcion was captured and executed.

But even with Concepcion as Ecleo's "spirit guide," PBMA literature does not contain anti-US or anticolonial rhetoric. Its texts do not include discussions on social injustice or inequitable distribution of wealth as ills of society.

One of the stronger myths about Ecleo was that, as a medium, he had the capacity to know everything happening within the PBMA, even the misbehavior and well-kept secrets of his followers. Thus, PBMA members feared their Divine Master because they believed that suffering and punishment could come to their family should they betray their leader.

"Fear of physical harm exerted a tremendous pressure on the members," says Father Florio Falcon.

Another way that PBMA members are made vulnerable is through the teaching that physical sickness is the result of sinfulness. They can only be cured if they have faith and are without sin. If a patient is not cured, he is advised to renounce his evil ways, increase his faith in the Divine Master, and observe PBMA rules more faithfully. Ecleo, therefore, could not be faulted for any inability to cure the sick. The burden lay with the patient.

Once, Ecleo was asked by an acquaintance, a non-PBMA member, what the secret of his healing power was. Ecleo admitted that if the patients did not get well, he told them that they lacked faith. So all he did was admonish them to be better PBMA-ers. "He had nothing to lose," observes Osorio Calejesan, a retired government employee who watched Ecleo closely.

Just like their Divine Master, members of the PBMA believe they, too, can heal. This divine power is their source of empowerment. They wear rings, follow their libritos, or manuals for curing, and use "operating needles" said to have magical powers to cure diseases. In an essay in the book Filipino Religious Psychology (1977), Father Falcon gives the following eyewitness account:

"The needles are small and bent like a number 7, hence the password for the initiated: 'Have you a number seven?' During rituals for curing, members mumble cryptic words, believed to have healing powers. The language is mysterious, unrecognizable, but it appeals to the simple folk as a means of communicating [with] a mysterious reality."

The spread of the PBMA bothered the Catholic Church in Surigao del Norte. Ecleo's group was a real threat, attracting members from among Catholics. In 1977, the Bishop of Surigao, Miguel Cinches, issued a pastoral letter warning Catholics about the "erroneous teachings" of the PBMA: "This sect promotes practices which capitalize on the ignorance and gullibility of our people." The tone of the letter was mild and stressed the Catholic Church's concern for the flock.

However, as the PBMA continued to accept members from the Catholic Church, a second pastoral letter came in 1978, this time imposing sanctions on violators: denial of membership in any of the Church's organizations; refusal of Catholic burial; denial of sacraments like the Holy Eucharist, baptism and matrimony; and denial of the right to stand as sponsors in weddings and baptisms. To show that the Church meant business, Bishop Cinches refused to give Glenda Ecleo communion when she attended Mass.

 

 

Part 3 
DINAGAT ISLAND, SURIGAO DEL NORTE


Ruben Ecleo Sr. and wife, Rep. Glenda EcleoPROVIDING the link, between Surigao del Norte and Manila is Glenda Ecleo, widow of the PBMA founder. As congresswoman, she represents the first district of the province, which covers the islands of Dinagat and Siargao; the mainland constitutes the second district. Glenda Ecleo started in politics as a provincial board member in 1980. She ran for Congress in 1987, is now on her second term as congresswoman and will run for her last term in May 1995.

The incumbent congresswoman vows she "will not stop" being in politics: "No amount of intrigues can put me down." She is referring to her open feud with Governor Francisco Matugas. It was Matugas who defeated Moises Ecleo in 1992. For the 1995 elections, Matugas refused Glenda's offer for him to take her son, Ruben Jr., as his vice-gubernatorial running mate. As provincial chairman of Lakas, Matugas is ready to challenge Glenda Ecleo with a most unlikely candidate—the former mistress of Ruben Sr.

Reyneria Borja, currently provincial board member, has two children by the former PBMA Divine Master, one of whom she has also named Ruben Jr. Her son is 15 years old. "This is all public knowledge," she says frankly. The fact can even earn her "sympathy votes." Matugas's clever move, if it pushes through—other factions in the party have their own candidates—may mean a division of the PBMA votes.

Both Glenda and Reyneria will ride on the popularity of a dead man, the man they once shared in their lives. Glenda was accepted as the wife of the late Ruben Sr. and was known as his "material wife." But he had relationships with other women, and these women, Borja included, were known as the "spiritual wives."

Since the PBMA tends to be a macho organization, believing in male leadership, it was unthinkable to have Glenda Ecleo at the helm after the death of Ruben Sr. Nevertheless, her role in the Ecleo family is crucial. "I'm the connection outside," she explains.

Glenda's presence in Congress makes for an ideal arrangement. She is the source of her district's Countrywide Development Fund (CDF), more popularly known as pork barrel, which she has not hesitated to use for the benefit of PBMA-controlled areas. Moreover, she has access to the House Speaker, with whom she can discuss party matters. Glenda joined the ruling coalition, Lakas, in 1992, after Fidel Ramos won, but was formerly with the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) of defeated presidential candidate Ramon Mitra.

Glenda stumbled into politics "by accident." She did not expect to be anyone but the wife of the Dinagat mayor and supreme ruler of the PBMA. But in that position she had a ringside view of local politics, as well as of the impact her husband had on national leaders. "We used to support politicians, mostly from Siargao island," she says. "But we felt that helping them did not bear any fruit. We were only important during election time. We were only vote-getters for them. Politicians, local and national, came to us for solid votes. They took advantage of us. In return, when they won, they did not reciprocate our help. They did not build our roads."

Partly, there was some condescension from the mainland and outside Dinagat towards the PBMA. Some thought its members were a bunch of crazy fanatics. After winning their votes, politicians would again take them for granted.

Hurting from this experience, Ruben Ecleo Sr. decided to take power for himself and his family. This god on earth turned out to be a deft politician. In the early life of the PBMA, in the late 1950s, he realized he could run for public office and be catapulted to political power on the strength of his natural base, the PBMA. "He was aware of what politics could do to legitimize his hold over people," says Surigao historian Fernando Almeda]r.

In his first attempt, Ecleo Sr. ran for mayor of Dinagat town but lost to a very popular politician, Baldomero Miso. After his rather rude introduction to the world of politics, Ecleo Sr. intensified recruitment of members to the PBMA until Dinagat, formerly a scarcely populated place, was bursting at the seams with streams of migrants.

By then Miso, a crafty politician, knew he was in for a whopping defeat if Ecleo ran against him in the next elections. Miso then worked to have the adjacent barrio of Basilis a converted into a municipality. There he ran for mayor and won, leaving Dinagat to Ecleo and his PBMA. In 1963, on his second try at the mayoralty, Ecleo won. That launched his career in politics, cut short only by death. Nevertheless, the magic of Ruben Ecleo Sr. had rubbed off on his successors, Moises and Ruben Jr., and on his wife.

In 1980 Ruben Sr. coaxed Glenda into running for the provincial board. At first, she was shy and disdainful of politics. "I cried," she recalls. "I hated politics." She remembers that her late husband remarked, upon seeing her in tears: "Once you're there, it will be difficult to make you leave."

True to his prophecy, Glenda has been in politics for almost 15 years and is not thinking of retiring. In fact, she wants the Ecleos to remain in politics for a long time to come: "I want my sons to run so that I will have good working relationships with provincial officials. I even spoonfeed my son [Ruben Jr.]. I want teamwork."

Evidently, the teamwork has paid off Records from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) show that a huge amount from Congresswoman Glenda Ecleo's Countrywide Development Fund, or CDF, went to San Jose, her favored municipality. Out of16 municipalities in the first district, San Jose received the most from the CDF: P1.3 million in 1992; P8.18 million in 1993; and P910,000 in 1994. The last is based on partial data.

Other municipalities received, in August 1993, much smaller sums: P20,000 for San Isidro; P100,000 for Gen. Luna; P60,000 for Dinagat; P90,000 for Del Carmen; P180,000 for Dapa; and P10,000 for Basilisa. In this same batch of disbursements, San Jose, of which her son, Ruben Jr., is mayor, was allotted P3.175 million.

CDF money for San Jose was intended for livelihood cooperatives like the Ruben Ecleo Sr. livelihood cooperative; the Minahang Bayan ng San Jose cooperative (where Ruben Jr. is a shareholder); the Minahang Bayan ng Mamamayan ng Dinagat Island cooperative (which Rep. Ecleo considers one of her business interests); "ethnic cultural development"; infrastructure projects such as the municipal building of San Jose; the San Jose police outpost; completion of public market (funds were released in 1992); concreting of highway and road; repair and rehabilitation of guest house.

Rep. Ecleo listed the Minahang Bayan ng Mamamayan ng Dinagat Island cooperative (henceforth to be referred to as Minahang Bayan/ Dinagat) as one of her "businesses" in her 1992 statement of assets and liabilities submitted to Congress. Her staff at Congress say she's merely a consultant to the cooperative. The Cooperative Development Authority, which registers cooperatives, does not have records of Minahang Bayan/ Dinagat.

A 1993 Commission on Audit (COA) report on San Jose found an anomalous transaction involving Minahang Bayan/Dinagat. In June 1993, Mayor Ruben Ecleo Jr. released P500,000 from the municipality's CDF to Minahang Bayan/Dinagat without any formal and written contract between the cooperative and the municipality. The absence of this "memorandum of agreement," wrote the COA, "exposed government funds to risk of noncollection."

Moreover, Minahang Bayan/Dinagat is not at all qualified to receive money from the CD F. "Only people's organizations or nongovernment organizations could be given financial assistance by the local government," the COA report said. What appears questionable, too, is the recipient of the half-a-million pesos. The disbursement voucher shows that Rodolfo Buray, on behalf ofMinahang Bayan/Dinagat, claimed the money. Buray is the brother of Rep. Glenda Buray Ecleo, according to the congresswoman's staff at the House of Representatives. So far, no accounting of the fund has been made. Apart from Minahang Bayan/Dinagat, another Ecleo stronghold benefited from government money. The PBMA Builders, which holds office in San Jose, is a contractor for local government projects, says a PBMA official. The same source says it was established in 1990. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has no files of this group. In effect, the Ecleos were awarding projects to their own organization. It was all in the family.

During our visit to San Jose in October 1994, the public market was still unfinished. Partial documents show that releases for the market had reached P2.8 million as of 1992. As for the municipal building, total cost, as envisioned by Rep. Ecleo, was P5.5 million. Mayor Ruben Ecleo Jr. still holds office in his family's home, the "white house."

Access to funds is made possible by the Ecleos' ties with any party in power. The family has never been with the opposition. They remain on the side of the winners, whoever that may be: from Ferdinand Marcos to Corazon Aquino (through Ramon Mitra in the House of Representatives) to Fidel Ramos.

In their home base, the Ecleos' vehicle for getting around in the political world has always been the PBMA. It began, almost 20 years ago, without political intentions, swept in the faith healing powers of a glib young man.

SourcePhilippine Center for Investigative Journalism