In the 21 years Ferdinand Marcos ran the Philippines, billions went missing. As his son stands for vice-president, will the stolen fortune ever be recovered?
In the early hours of a February morning in 1986, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos flew into exile. After 21 years as president of the Philippines, Marcos had rigged one too many elections. The army had turned against him, and the people had come out on to the streets in their thousands. The Marcoses had seen the crisis coming and been able to prepare their escape, so when they landed that morning at the Hickham USAF base in Hawaii, they brought plenty of possessions with them.
The official US customs record runs to 23 pages. In the two C-141 transport planes that carried them, they had packed: 23 wooden crates; 12 suitcases and bags, and various boxes, whose contents included enough clothes to fill 67 racks; 413 pieces of jewellery, including 70 pairs of jewel-studded cufflinks; an ivory statue of the infant Jesus with a silver mantle and a diamond necklace; 24 gold bricks, inscribed To my husband on our 24th anniversary; and more than 27m Philippine pesos in freshly-printed notes. The total value was $15m.
This was a fortune by any standards, easily enough to see the couple through the rest of their lives. Yet the new government of the Philippines knew this was only a very small part of the Marcoses wealth. The reality, they discovered, was that Ferdinand Marcos had amassed a fortune up to 650 times greater. According to a subsequent estimate by the Philippine supreme court, he had accumulated up to $10bn while in office.
Since his official salary had never risen above $13,500 a year, it was blazingly clear this was stolen wealth on the most spectacular scale. Some of his closest allies also stole billions. As their victim was a nation in which 40% of the people survive on less than $2 a day, the Republic of the Philippines decided urgently to try to retrieve its money.
Even amid the chaos of the revolution, the very first executive order issued by the new president, Cory Aquino, established the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the PCGG. It was to recover all ill-gotten wealth accumulated by former president Ferdinand Marcos, his immediate family, relatives, subordinates and close associates and given the power to sequester any assets believed to be the proceeds of crime.
Thirty years later, the PCGG is still working, its 94 lawyers, researchers and administrators housed proudly in a building recovered from the Marcos family. The government gives it an annual budget of $2.2m. Its staff have traced money through jurisdictions all over the world and fought their way through hundreds of court cases. And yet something has gone terribly wrong: to date, the PCGG has recovered only a fraction of what was stolen by the Marcos network; no one has served a prison sentence for their part in the crime.