I was in Jolo, Sulu almost four years ago as part of a fact-finding team to investigate human rights abuses by the AFP. The results of the investigation did not surprise us, many in our team being veterans of fact-finding missions. What surprised us, however, was the scale and brazenness in which it was perpetrated: People by the thousands fleeing their homes, away from AFP’s carpet-bombing and shelling. Rows upon rows of houses of people suspected to be “rebel sympathizers” burned to the ground. Indiscriminate arrests. Unprovoked killings.
That was four years ago. Now it has only gotten worse, not only for Sulu but for elsewhere in the country. One only has to look at Southern Tagalog, Western Visayas and Central Luzon. Meanwhile, the list of politically-motivated killings of activists, journalists, church people and lawyers continues to grow.
Upon the heap of corpses of these victims are remarkable military careers erected. Like that of Romeo Tolentino. A member of the PMA Batch ’74 (who counts First Gentleman Mike Arroyo as its honorary member), Tolentino has shown in his career so far that it takes guts and a considerable amount of gore to make it in the military.
Only four years ago, Tolentino was a mere colonel assigned to the military outpost of Jolo to chase away Moro rebels. He acquired quite a reputation there. It was during his stint as brigade commander of 104th IB when the war there intensified tenfold. His biggest break came after the kidnapping of tourists in Sidapan, Malaysia by Abu Sayyaf. In supposed pursuit of the bandits, Tolentino was given free reign in Jolo. One shining moment in his career in Jolo was on April 24, 2002, when he ordered his troops to shell Kahoy Sinah Elementary School in Parang, Sulu, thereby killing four civilians including a kid.
For this feat and many others, he was promoted to brigadier general.
After my brief Jolo trip, I maintained close contact with concerned people there. In 2003, after the Magdalo rebellion in Oakwood Mansions in Makati, story was rife that senior military officers were condoning, even participating in, massive corruption, thus fuelling the Magdalo rebellion of junior officers.
During this time, I wrote a piece about military corruption based on information given by people in the know in Jolo. Apparently, Tolentino was right in the middle of under-the-table transactions there — selling to the enemy everything the military had from fuel to guns to ammunition.
Some of the Magdalo officers in Oakwood including Capts. Gerardo Gambala and Milo Maestrecampo – who recently took back everything they did and stood for in Oakwood – served under Tolentino. On July 27, 2003, Tolentino led in assembling the loyal government troops who were readied to crush the Magdalo rebellion.
For his show of steadfast dedication to Arroyo’s republic, Tolentino was again promoted to major general.
At the height of the Hello Garci controversy, Tolentino again figured in the news as one of the generals mentioned in the tapes who supposedly helped Gloria Arroyo steal the 2004 elections.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tolentino has been steadily rising through the military ranks despite protests from legislators. Malacañang apparently knows how to reward loyalty. In a span of three years, Tolentino remarkably rose from a lowly colonel to a to a two-star general. From a brigade commander to a division commander in two coveted commands (Southern Command and Northern Luzon Command).
Just days ago, Tolentino again figured in Arroyo’s promotion list, this time as one of a handful of elite “three-star” generals in AFP. The Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Presidential Chief of Staff Mike Defensor as saying: “The President is really fond of him because of his exploits. He is a known fighter.”
Arroyo has reason to be fond of Tolentino, who is loyal, brutal, knows how to keep secrets and is ready to dirty his hands for his boss.