Broward News

Broward Man at Center of National Scandal in Philippines

This February, 47-year-old Cezar Mancao went to the Philippine consulate in Fort Lauderdale to give a sworn affidavit. When the contents of his testimony were leaked this month to a Philippine news outlet, no one here seemed to notice, and nothing about it was reported in the U.S. press. His allegations, however, sent shock waves throughout the Philippines. He said a senator there -- Panfilo "Ping" Lacson -- masterminded a notorious double murder back in November 2000.

Today, Mancao -- who has spent the last decade living quietly in a $557,780 house in Pembroke Pines and working as a real estate agent -- sits in federal detention in Miami. He awaits extradition to his homeland, where corruption is rampant and national scandals regularly play out like crime sagas. According to Philippine news reports, authorities are so worried Mancao could be assassinated before he makes it to the witness stand that they are already planning extensive security measures for his arrival.

Phillippine newspapers have published articles that describe the background of the saga. According to the papers:

Mancao graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1986 and served as a second lieutenant before becoming part of the Philippine National Police (PNP) -- essentially, that country's FBI. Over the years, Mancao worked closely with a fellow law enforcement officer, Michael Ray Aquino. The two men carried out joint operations with names like "Special Project Alpha" and fought a criminal syndicate called the "Red Scorpion Group."

In 1995, Mancao and Acquino worked together on an operation against a group of bank robbers. Their boss was Ping Lacson, who, long before becoming a senator, served as head of the PNP. All three of the men, plus other officers, were accused of misdeeds during the raid and were charged with murder. Charges were ultimately dismissed.

In the late '90s, then-President Joseph Estrada named Lacson to head up the so-called Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) in addition to his duties running the PNP. Aquino and Mancao were awarded jobs under Lacson as high-ranking officers in the PAOCTF.

In the fall of 2000, a journalist/publicist named Bubby Dacer made public comments against President Estrada. Some reports indicate that Dacer may also have held information that connected Estrada and Lacson to a stock market scandal. Authorities in the Philippines say the police task force hatched a plan to have Dacer killed.

At 10 a.m. on November 24, 2000, Dacer and his driver were abducted in traffic in Manila. They were interrogated, then strangled. According to court documents, their bodies were "placed up on a heap of wood and tires, doused with gasoline, and burned." Their car, with their remains inside, was later found in a creek.

No one has accused Mancao of a hands-on role in the murder. But in his leaked affidavit, he admits that he headed the investigation into the deaths so that he could cover up police involvement. He advised a fellow cop to get rid of documents that had been taken from Dacer's car.

But the major revelation in Mancao's affidavit was his testimony about a conversation he overheard between Aquino and Lacson. According to the affidavit, the three men and a driver were traveling to a Japanese restaurant for lunch in October 2000. Mancao overheard his boss order Aquino to "liquidate" another man, a rival in the police force. Aquino responded that he'd rather "neutralize or liquidate" Dacer first because it would please President Estrada. Lacson told him to do both.

In January 2001, months after Dacer's murder, President Estrada faced impeachment and was overthrown in a four-day peaceful revolution. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sworn in shortly thereafter.

Under Macapagal-Arroyo's new regime, the Justice Department began an investigation into Dacer's murder. In May of 2001, ten men were charged. Initially, no charges were filed against Lacson, Mancao, or Aquino.

Lacson left the police force and won election to the Philippine senate, also in May of 2001. In his affidavit, Mancao says that around this time, Lacson called him and Aquino to a secret meeting and advised them to leave the country, for fear that the new presidential administration would implicate them in the murder. The new senator had bigger political ambitions and didn't want his image tainted. In fact, he ran unsuccessfully against Macapagal-Arroyo for president in 2004.

"He assured us that he will take care of both of us and will continue to give us our monthly allowance," Mancao's affidavit says. He and Aquino followed Lacson's advice, leaving the Philippines in the summer of 2001 and going to Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Las Vegas before Mancao settled in Florida and Aquino went to live in New Jersey.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court, Mancao and Aquino were added as defendants in the double murder in September of 2001. An arrest warrant was signed for them in the Philippines in 2006. It's unclear why they were never extradited back then.

Meanwhile, here in South Florida, Mancao largely escaped notice. He sold real estate and helped run the South Florida Philippine Basketball Association. A man who played with him, Bennie Trinidad, says "He was a pretty good player." Rey Lazaro, a former pro basketball player from the Philippines, also helped run the league. He says he knew Mancao as "a good man. When I met him, he was doing a lot of good things for the community."

Maria Barrameda, who writes for a local Filipino newspaper called Basta Pinoy, says Mancao once came to her office to place an ad for his real estate business, and once joined her on a radio show. "He seemed very nice, very intelligent," she said.

Marylou Macatamgay, who works at the Philippine Consulate, said people say both good and bad things about Mancao. But after years of hearing about wild Philippine politics and living in South Florida, "it's not surprising to me that out the clear blue sky you learn that the nice guy you were talking to -- he's somebody else!"

In 2005, Aquino got in trouble in New Jersey. A Filipino-American named Leandro Aragoncillo was a Marine-turned FBI analyst who worked in the White House under Al Gore and then Dick Cheney. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for taking top secret documents -- ones that could potentially hurt President Macapagal-Arroyo-- and forwarding them on to Senator Lacson in the Philippines. Aquino was found to also possess those classified documents, and he too was sent to prison, where he remains.

Mancao was arrested in Florida in April 2006 to be a material witness in that spy case. He said that Senator Lacson had come to Miami in 2003 -- during his run for the presidency -- and asked Aquino to try to discredit President Macapagal-Arroyo by showing that her husband had accepted illegal kickbacks and invested in real estate here. Apparently, Mancao was let free after he testified.

Judging from court documents, it wasn't until September 2008 that Philippine authorities came looking for Mancao. That's when the U.S. began proceedings to have him extradited to the Philippines. He was arrested in November.

In the ensuing months, Mancao has agreed to turn state's witness for the Philippines and testify against his former boss, Lacson. In February, he gave the bombshell sworn affidavit, and he has agreed to be sent back to his homeland any day now. Alicia Valle, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami, says he we will be turned over to custody of the State Department.

Last week, the daughters of Buddy Dacer, who now live in New York and California, began the process of working with the Justice Department to bring murder charges against Senator Lacson. According to Phillippine news outlets, they wrote in an affidavit, "Lacson has an axe to grind, so to speak, against our father. Our father strongly opposed Sen. Lacson's appointment as chief of the Philippine National Police during the Estrada administration. Our father had repeatedly told us a few months before his disappearance on Nov. 24, 2000 that if something happened to him, there should be no one else to blame but Sen. Lacson."

Senator Lacson maintains that he was not involved in the murder. Lacson suspects that his former subordinate Mancao is being pressured to switch sides in order to escape blame. Lacson says his old driver will testify and dispute Mancao's accusations about what happened in the car that fateful day. Presumably, Aquino will be asked to give his version of events, too. He remains jailed in New Jersey but also faces extradition charges.

Mancao's local attorney, Michael David Schutt, would not comment for this story, and his federal public defender, Bernardo Lopez, did not return calls.

Mancao, apparently worried that he could be killed before he gets to a Philippine courtroom, has reportedly asked for a bulletproof vest and media accompaniment during his extradition. His wife Maricar -- who was a doctor in the Philippines and is now raising their four kids alone -- is also concerned for his safety. She could not be reached for comment, but here's a half-English, half-Tagalog TV news piece that includes an interview with her in Miami.

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Deirdra Funcheon