Atty. Vitaliano Aguirre II was already a familiar figure to television viewers prior to his appointment by President Rodrigo Duterte as Secretary of Justice. He was that lawyer who was publicly castigated by Senator Miriam D. Santiago, who, on live television, confronted him during the impeachment proceedings of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona. As one of the private prosecutors, he earned her ire when he was seen covering his ears as she heaped verbal abuse at the prosecuting team, whom she deemed incompetent. He didn’t get away with what was perceived as mischief, and he consequently faced the wrath of the senator and was ejected from the venue.
This altercation became a sideshow of the proceedings, and inadvertently put the prosecutor in the spotlight. “I didn’t intend to show disrespect to the Senate,” he recalled. “It was a natural reaction to the senator’s own disrespect to the prosecuting team. She used the word ‘gago’ to describe lawyers at least twice. Her voice was quite shrill and I was seated very close to the speakers, so it really felt jarring, getting all that verbal abuse. I had no idea the cameras were focused on me.”
Today, as Secretary of the Department of Justice, Aguirre is in the news again. Just three weeks into office, he made himself the most hated enemy of a group of people who toil in a certain field. It’s not the members of the Senate this time; these happen to be the powerful drug lords and traffickers who have already put the secretary on their hit list. But for Aguirre, having a price tag on one’s head is all in a day’s work for anyone who opts to take an active role in the President’s war against illegal drugs.
The war is waged from his office at the Department of Justice in Manila. In contrast to the explosive issues he must confront, the place seems sedate and stately. One would expect an actual war room with a staff constantly on the phones, screaming or arguing, and perhaps frantic undersecretaries streaming in out. But the Office of the Secretary is actually as quiet as a library. Although his schedule is constantly hectic, Aguirre is calm and pleasantly congenial.
“We’re at work no less than 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. He wasn’t complaining when he said this. This was just an expression of the enormous amount of work that has to be done. He appears to thrive on pressure and daunting challenges. During the period when he had his own law firm, he had taken on controversial cases involving high-profile clients.
The break he was waiting for came in 1995, where he handled the controversial Hubert Webb case, dubbed the “crime of the 20th century” when Webb was accused of the murder of the Vizconde women. It was his law partner Atty. Rudy Robles, a compadre of Hubert’s father Freddie Webb, who recommended him. For five years, they conducted hearings three hours a day, four days a week. The decision was rendered January 6, 2000.
He also handled other high-profile cases, like one for Sen. Panfilo Lacson, whom Aguirre successfully had acquitted. He had long wanted to be in semi-retirement, but somehow got involved in more such cases. Chief Justice Corona’s impeachment case in 2012 was followed by the Mon Tulfo airport brawl involving then spouses Raymart Santiago and Claudine Barretto, and the latest, as defense attorney for former Philippine National Police Special Action Force commander (PNP-SAF) Gen. Getulio Napeñas in the Mamasapano massacre case.
Asked how he was able to cope with such physically and mentally demanding cases, he said, “You don’t feel tired when you enjoy your work.” That’s why he envies tennis players and basketball players. “They get to do what they want and get paid a lot for it.” Unfortunately for him, “Mahiyain tayo maningil” (I’m too shy to charge a lot), he said with a smile.
PNP Chief Ronald ‘Bato’ De La Rosa and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II are the cover of Asian Dragon Magazine’s anniversary August-September 2016 issue. Read Justice Secretary Vit Aguirre’s full story inside the magazine, available in all leading bookstores nationwide or downloadable from the Asian Dragon Magazine App, free on Google Play Store, iTunes, and Amazon.
[Photograph: Jovel Lorenzo]