Philippine Governor Singson Wants Estrada Behind Bars

Governor Luis "Chavit" Singson, a self-proclaimed middleman for gambling lords and Philippine President Joseph Estrada, is a well connected politician with many faces.

A licensed embalmer, marksman, provincial councillor, police chief, congressman, then governor for 24 years, Singson controls Ilocos Sur province in the northern Philippines like it was his own fiefdom.

Known to gamble big at casinos and cock-fightings, he is now gambling with his political life.

"They can call me anything, gambling lord, warlord, smuggling lord. I am ready to go to jail, but with him (Estrada) behind bars," Singson, whose allegations now threaten his long-time friend, told Reuters.

Guns, Goons and Gold

The three Gs — guns, goons and gold — that can drive Philippine politics and election also figure in Singson's history.

In the 1970s, he ran into violent clashes with the "saka-saka" private army of his cousin whose mother was governor and father congressman of Ilocos Sur, over control of the lucrative tobacco trade.

The clan war in a Singson dynasty that has endured throughout the Philippines' hundred-year history as a republic, has left scores injured and killed, razed a town to the ground, and fired up Singson's rise as a political kingpin.

Singson said he survived six ambush attempts by the saka-sakas. In one instance, he says, he faced 11 gunmen, and with his marksman's skill, mowed them down one by one.

In his 30-year career in politics, Singson, 59, has been friend and ally to politicians of all hues — Estrada, the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, as well as the late opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr, husband of former President Corazon Aquino.

Ilocos Sur's 500,000 people, mostly poor farmers living off the arid plains planted mainly to tobacco, depend on Singson from cradle to grave.

They work on vast tobacco and rice land he owns. They ride his buses to get in and out of the province. They build homes, roads and bridges with his construction firm's help.

For a long while, the governor's power firm, now a cooperative, lit up the province. They brought their dead to the funeral parlor he used to own but has turned over to a sister.

Parting of Ways

Last September, after deciding he wanted out of the Estrada circle, one of the first persons Singson called was a younger brother of Cory Aquino. Singson's lead lawyer, after the governor alleged last week that he personally collected payoffs from gambling lords for Estrada, is also from the Aquino family.

Singson's allegations followed a series of recent setbacks.

The police had tagged him a protector of a syndicate smuggling vehicle parts from Taiwan.

The government launched its Bingo Two-Ball game, a variant of the illegal numbers game jueteng for which he had served allegedly as a payoffs collector for Estrada.

To top it all, the Bingo Two-Ball franchise in Ilocos Sur was awarded to his rivals — cousins Eric and Grace Singson, and brother Bonito.

Last week, traffic police flagged down his car for bearing illegal blinker lights. Singson called the incident a failed ambush attempt, saying "people in power want to silence me."

Singson, who portrayed Estrada as "the lord of all gambling lords," is not short of critics, and his checkered past has left many Filipinos incredulous, if not ambivalent, about his recent revelations.

"A sinner has come to confess his sins," said a priest who offered a prayer at the start of the governor's news conference on Monday dealing with his allegations.

"The truth had been a victim of Singson's illegal activities for so long... So why has he become an honest man overnight?" the newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer said in an editorial.

The newspaper Today said: "Even crooks have limits, and even among thieves, there should be honor; it consists in paying homage to the simple rule: You do not kick a man when he's down."

Singson, the second of eight children, was born on June 21, 1941, to an engineer-father and a mother who pioneered the planting of Virginia tobacco in Ilocos Sur.

A member of the Philippine shooting team, he travels overseas to hunt, and his fervent wish of late has been to join a bear-hunting spree.

He survived four Philippine presidents but five years ago a stroke nearly killed Singson, prompting a quadruple bypass operation. "My life is over. This is just a bonus. I'm ready to go," he said.