The legend of the Marcoses' gold Treasure: Conflicting tales swirl around claims over dictator's reputed hoard. Some believe billions were bundled out of the Philippines, while skeptics insist the story is only a fairy tale.

Sun Journal

November 22, 1997|By Uli Schmetzer | Uli Schmetzer,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MANILA, Philippines -- If Imelda Marcos is to be believed, her husband, the dictator, bricked up his family home with lead-covered gold bars.

If the Philippine Central Bank is to be believed, the amount of gold the Marcos family allegedly hoarded would have required a convoy of trucks to move. Its size would have exceeded all the gold reserves ever kept in the bank's vaults.

If a private investigator is to be believed, $7 billion worth of the Marcos gold held by Marcos-family front companies is navigating through Swiss accounts or has been laundered already.

And, if the Swiss banks are to be believed, the entire account of the gold is a fairy tale invented to discredit the Swiss, keep Imelda Marcos out of jail and Filipinos dreaming about a golden windfall that will miraculously resolve all their economic woes.

What makes these unconfirmed reports so fascinating is that every time someone derisively calls one of them a fairy tale, someone else injects it with a shot of realism.

Last month, Sen. Franklin Drilon, the former Philippines attorney general, disclosed during a Senate hearing a list of 97 Marcos bank accounts in the U.S., Asia and Europe. He said the accounts held gold, dollars, yen and deutsche mark deposits.

Also last month, Mrs. Marcos provided another reason to believe the reports of hidden wealth.

The former first lady told a spellbound Congress during a 45-minute speech how, in 1954, she tried to renovate her in-laws' ancestral home in northern Batac by knocking down a brick wall after she returned from a one-year, around-the-world honeymoon.

"When Ferdinand saw what I had done, instead of being gratified at my initiative, he was flabbergasted and asked what I had done with all those bricks," she said. "Then he ordered that the bricks ++ be gathered and neatly piled.

"It turned out that those were gold bricks covered with lead and were securely plastered in the walls of the rooms that I had designed," she told a Congress whose committees have been attempting for 10 years to solve the mystery of the missing gold.

Perhaps on purpose, Mrs. Marcos added fuel to the fire when she told Congress that her husband started to stash away gold as long ago as 1946. She said she saw the first cache of gold in 1954 in a vault of the First National City Bank of New York at its branch office near the Jones Bridge in Tondo, Manila.

Mrs. Marcos said that during their honeymoon around the world, her husband frequently held talks with gold traders. He bought more gold in 1957.

She said the couple traded in gold over the next few years and made a "substantial profit" when gold prices soared from $32 an ounce to more than $700 an ounce in the late 1970s. That was a few years after Marcos, elected president in 1966, declared martial law in 1972.

But Mrs. Marcos said that if there was any gold left when the couple fled to exile in Hawaii in 1986, the certificates to prove it were all stolen from them during the hectic last hours of their escape.

Mrs. Marcos also indignantly denied that her husband took gold out of the Central Bank. She portrayed him as a man "who gave more than he took."

"My husband's gold was in his heart," she said.

Lawmakers have been accusing one another of "botching" the hunt for the gold, known in official jargon as Operation Big Bird.

Big Bird was launched in 1986 shortly after Marcos was ousted by Corazon C. Aquino's People's Power movement. Aquino created a committee to find the Marcoses' money, but its members have been changed so frequently that suspicion arose that some of them were looking after their own rather than the nation's interests.

While the search continued without much success, the demands on the Marcos fortune grew by leaps and bounds.

A treasure-hunt company, Golden Buddha Corp., last year was awarded $2 billion in damages by a Hawaii state court. The court accepted allegations that the dictator had stolen from the company's late founder a hoard of gold and jewels he discovered and which allegedly had been the booty stolen from throughout Asia by Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita during World War II.

Meanwhile, about 10,000 people who suffered human-rights abuses during the Marcos era (1966-1986) were awarded $1.9 billion in damages by a U.S. court. About the same time, the Philippine government was arguing that all Marcos' money and gold belonged to the people of the Philippines, from whom it had been stolen.

Some of the interested parties accused the national oil company of laundering Marcos' gold with Swiss connivance, and President Fidel V. Ramos of setting up a secret sale of Marcos gold during his recent visit to Europe. Both allegations were dismissed as "hogwash" by a presidential spokesman and the oil company.

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