After half-century of political life, erstwhile Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile stepped down from the pinnacle of power in June 2013, a role that he had performed with calculated planning and precise execution. His adroit balancing act during the impeachment trial of then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona was the epitome of his political career.
Enrile began his public life as then-Senate President Ferdinand E. Marcos’ personal lawyer in 1964. When Marcos was elected President in 1965, he appointed Enrile – who had become part of his inner circle – in various capacities: Undersecretary/Acting Secretary of Finance, Acting Insurance Commissioner, Commissioner of the Bureau of Customs, Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Secretary of the Department of National Defense.
In 1971, he resigned as National Defense Secretary, after serving for only a year, to run for a Senate seat. He lost in his first electoral try. Marcos re-appointed him as National Defense Secretary in 1972.
On September 21, 1972, Enrile survived an alleged assassination by communist insurgents as he was riding in his car. Marcos declared martial law citing the ambush attack on Enrile. In 1973, Enrile became Minister of Defense under a modified parliamentary system, one of the most — if not the most — powerful positions under the Marcos martial rule.
As one of the 12 architects of martial law, Marcos presented Enrile and the others with a gold Rolex watch each. Hence, they came to be known as the “Rolex 12.” Enrile’s role was crucial because as it turned out the ambush on him was a fake. It was stage-managed to give Marcos a justification to declare martial law.
The turning point in Enrile’s relationship with Marcos came in the early 1980s when Marcos changed the chain of command in the armed forces. Enrile was no longer in the loop! The new chain of command was from Marcos, as the Commander-in-Chief, straight to the Chief of Staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, who was a cousin of Marcos. Enrile swallowed his pride and stayed on as a powerless Defense Secretary.
After Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated on August 21, 1983, Enrile made his move: he secretly aligned himself with the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), which was headed then by his Aide-de-Camp Lt. Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan.
In February 1986, Enrile with support from RAM and the “Cagayan 300,” a shadowy militia – or private army — purportedly organized by Enrile, launched a coup d’état against Marcos. It was also rumored that Enrile got the support of the CIA (Source: “The Gold Warrior” by Sterling Seagrave)
However, the day before the launching of the coup d’état, Ver discovered the plot and alerted Marcos. Marcos ordered the arrest of Enrile and then-Armed Forces Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos who was also a cousin of Marcos and also one of the “Rolex 12.” Enrile, Ramos, and their supporters barricaded themselves at Fort Aguinaldo. When word went out that a revolt was in progress, the people rallied around them, which sparked a popular citizens’ revolt that came to be known as the People Power Revolution. Enrile and Ramos were acknowledged as heroes of the revolution.
But fate wasn’t so kind to Enrile. For the second time, the presidency eluded him. Ninoy’s widow, Cory Aquino, was swept to the top by the masa. Enrile settled for the same post that he held under Marcos, Secretary of Defense. But he didn’t stay too long. He was forced to resign in November 1986 after a few months on the job. Cory probably thought that if Enrile rebelled against Marcos, he could do the same to her. Ramos took over the Defense post.
Since then Marcos loyalists and Honasan’s “RAM boys” who were unhappy with Cory’s leadership launched six successive coup d’états. Due to Enrile’s closeness to Honasan, he was believed to have supported the failed rebellions.
In 1987, Enrile ran and won a Senate seat. In 1992, he ran and won a congressional seat representing his bailiwick, the First District of Cagayan. In 1995, he entered the Senate race again and won a seat as an Independent.
In 1998, he tried to reach the presidency for the third time. He ran as an independent candidate against then-Vice President Joseph “Erap” Estrada. But Erap was unbeatable.
During the impeachment trial of Erap in 2001, Enrile was one of those who voted against opening the controversial “second bank envelope.” That vote triggered the Second EDSA People Power Revolution that ousted Erap.
In May 2001, Enrile ran for reelection to his Senate seat and lost. In 2004, he made a comeback and regained his old Senate seat. In 2008, he was elected by his peers to serve as Senate President. He was reelected in 2010.
In 2012, he reached the high mark of his political life when he presided over the Senate impeachment trial of then-Chief Justice Renato Corona. He led a group of seven senators who pledged to vote as one bloc. The group met on the night before the judgment day to decide for acquittal or conviction. Enrile presided over the group discussion and he advocated for conviction to which the group concurred.
Had the group voted for acquittal, Corona would have been absolved of the charges. Once again, Enrile took a step to change the course of Philippine history.
In an attempt to keep a Senate seat for the Enrile family, his only son, then-Rep. Jack Enrile, ran for the Senate in 2013. He was ahead in the polls initially but his ratings fell down after stories of his involvement in the shooting deaths of several individuals surfaced in the news and social media. He lost the election.
On December 4, 2013, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago delivered a privilege speech attacking Enrile for a variety of crimes including plunder, illegal gambling, illegal logging, and illegal importation at the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA). Miriam also accused Enrile of masterminding the pork barrel scam.
In her speech, she requested Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to investigate the thousands of deaths and forced disappearances during the Martial Law era wherein Enrile served as Defense Minister from 1972 to 1986.
Within days of Miriam’s scathing attack against Enrile, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) formed a seven-member special joint task force to investigate Miriam’s allegations against Enrile.
Enrile finally reached the end of the road. But the question remains: Is he going to beat the rap? If not, he’d probably end up in a kubol (cottage) for the rich on the grounds of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinglupa City. However, if he beats the rap, he’d probably spend the rest of his life in the comfort of a white mansion on an idyllic island off the coast of Cagayan, his birthplace.
Indeed, life has been good to Enrile who was supposedly born out of wedlock to a poor woman fathered by renowned and married lawyer. Reunited with his father in his early years, he pursued a career in law, which opened a lot of doors to the corridor of power. He occupied high positions in government but the one that he wanted most – the presidency — eluded him.
But whatever fate bestows upon him at the sunset of his long and colorful life, he can reflect and say, “It was good; not bad at all.” Indeed.