The ESQ&A with Salvador Panelo, Presidential Legal Counsel
As Rodrigo Duterte’s explainer and defender of bank accounts, Atty. Salvador Panelo was one of the more visible supporting cast members during the election campaign season. Now as Presidential Legal Counsel, Panelo talks (and sings) to Audrey N. Carpio and Miguel Escobar about his deep connection with the President, his love of clothes, and the one thing the world needs now.
ESQUIRE: Can we talk about your fashion sense? You have a distinct style. What do you think about when you get dressed in the morning, or for a certain event?
SALVADOR PANELO: Whatever is available in my wardrobe. I have plenty. My wife tells me, “You need another house for the clothes that you haven’t worn.” Kahit nung bata pa ako mahilig na ako. And I don’t follow trends. I set the trend for myself. Kung may gagaya, ayoko na. Ako nagdala nung tattered jeans. Kaya lang nung ginaya ni Boy Abunda, ayoko na (laughs).
ESQ: You wore this purple suit...
SP: ‘Yung suot ko nung BPI, that’s maroon. Medyo dark pero maganda naman kulay nun. Did you see my barong at the inauguration? I designed that. Ang dami ngang nag-comment dito. Sabi ni Presidente, “You have the most elegant barong.” I also grow bonsai. I have 300 pieces at home. That’s where I de-stress myself.
ESQ: Is that one of your hobbies?
SP: Yeah. Tapos I play (gestures with his fingers).
SP: I compose songs. (Sings) Take my hand, be my girl and we’ll love forever. Touch my hair, kiss my lips, they are yours forever. You are the love of my life. You are the song that I sing. You are the music I hear. You are the love of my life!
ESQ: Do you perform anywhere?
SP: I used to have a television show. Have you heard of Arthur Manuntag? The top balladeer of the country? Nag-duet kami sa RJTV, seven years ago, eight years ago.
ESQ: That could have been your other career.
SP: That’s my fallback (laughs).
The Presidential Legal Counsel to Rodrigo Duterte brought his own leather pants for this shoot because he just so happened to have leather pants handy.
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On "mind-melting" with Duterte
ESQ: You were Presidential Spokesperson. Did you enjoy that job?
SP: Even prior to [Duterte] being the president, he already told me, “Pare, ikaw ang gusto kong Secretary of Justice, or kahit Chief Presidential Legal Counsel.” Pero nung manalo na siya, nagulat ako, inannounce niya na Spokesman. I will quote him: “You express my thoughts in the way I want it.”
"I can read his mind kasi. We’ve been together for 30 years. Magbarkada kami. And we both belong to the left. We’re both lawyers. We’re both very strict. Ayaw namin ng corruption. We are outraged by any act of brutality or violation of any right of the citizen. Pareho kaming street-smart."
ESQ: What is it about him that you understand?
SP: I can read his mind kasi. We’ve been together for 30 years. Magbarkada kami. And we both belong to the left. We’re both lawyers. We’re both very strict. Ayaw namin ng corruption. We are outraged by any act of brutality or violation of any right of the citizen. Pareho kaming street-smart.
ESQ: So you two are very like-minded.
SP: May mind-melt nga daw kami sabi niya sa magazine e.
ESQ: Do you mean “mind meld”?
SP: Mind melt. Melting of the minds. Ten years ago, I advocated for the abolition of Congress, the establishment of a constitutional dictatorship. But by my third year, wala pa ang pangalan niya. Seven years ago, bumanat na ako: “We need Duterte.” Tapos I brainwashed him, in a way; sabi ko sa kanya, “You have a date with destiny.” Gumanon ako. “If you run, you’ll win, landslide.” Bwisit na bwisit siya sa akin, “Tigilan mo na ‘yang kabalbalan mo, pare. Ayokong tumakbo.”
ESQ: What is your role as Presidential Legal Advisor?
SP: My office is proactive. If we feel there is a need for the issuance of an Executive Order, we will not wait for the President to tell us. Like, ‘yung sa handicapped, they were complaining na wala silang benefits, kulang ang protection ng mga disabled. So binigyan ko ng assignment ‘yung isang abogado.
ESQ: Would you tell the president if he was wrong?
SP: Oh, yes, of course. But it is seldom that he is wrong. He’s a thinking person. May sasabihin ka sa kanya, makikinig lang ‘yun sayo hanggang ma-absorb niya. Pagiisipan niya. Gaya nung Constitutional Convention, inaannounce na ‘yung Con-Con tapos nagulat ang mga tao— bakit Constituent Assembly na lang? E simple lang ang paliwanag, e. We need money. Tapos eight billion ang magagastos natin. Matagal pa.
"The Cabinet is always a happy moment. We’re always laughing, never a dull moment with him there. He listens to you. If he disagrees with something, he’ll say it in a very mild manner. Unless you provoke him and he’s talking about drugs. Sabihin niya kay Leni, 'Ma’am, type kita. Ligawan kita.' Ganoon."
ESQ: What’s the new Cabinet like?
SP: The Cabinet is always a happy moment. We’re always laughing, never a dull moment with him there. He listens to you. If he disagrees with something, he’ll say it in a very mild manner. Unless you provoke him and he’s talking about drugs. Sabihin niya kay Leni, “Ma’am, type kita. Ligawan kita.” Ganoon.
ESQ: So do you think the media just doesn’t understand President Duterte?
SP: It’s not exactly the media in its entirety. It’s only one or two reporters that have a wrong interpretation of what he says. The President is a one-liner man. He doesn’t seem to explain. But he actually does, if you listen to him thoroughly and intently. In the course of his, ‘yung sinasabi nilang...
SP: Ramblings.... Napapaliwanag niya, e. Pero ‘pag narinig mo lang ‘yung one-liner niya, sulat ka na kaagad, ah magkakamali ka. ‘Yan ang naging role ko—ako ang nagpapaliwanag. I speak for the President pag medyo mabibigat na ang usapan.
ESQ: Practically every time he opened his mouth you had to come to the rescue.
SP: Oo. Like, ‘yung BBC, tumawag sa akin, nung spokesman pa niya ‘ko. “Attorney Panelo, your President said he will kill 3,789 criminals”. When, actually, what was said and meant was that he would pursue to the ends of the earth and put behind bars the criminals, and if they resist, they will be killed. And that’s allowed under the law. Natawa si Rody. “Actually ‘yan ang gusto kong sabihin, pare.”
ESQ: Even people who didn’t vote for him seem to agree with most of what the President has been doing, but what they can’t forgive are the extrajudicial killings.
"Bakit maraming napapatay? ‘Wag na nating sabihin ‘yung mga gustong manlaban, ‘yung, in other words, police officers are only defending themselves. Ang talagang katotohanan niyan, hindi ba sabi niya, surrender. ‘Yung mga nagsusurrender na ‘yun, magtuturo ‘yun e. So ‘yung ituturo nila, papatayin ka. Kaya may salvaging. Ituturo ka nila e. ‘Yan ang nangyayari ngayon. They’re killing each other."
SP: Hindi naman totoo ‘yun. Let me tell you: Bakit maraming napapatay? ‘Wag na nating sabihin ‘yung mga gustong manlaban, ‘yung, in other words, police officers are only defending themselves. Ang talagang katotohanan niyan, hindi ba sabi niya, surrender. ‘Yung mga nagsusurrender na ‘yun, magtuturo ‘yun e. So ‘yung ituturo nila, papatayin ka. Kaya may salvaging. Ituturo ka nila e. ‘Yan ang nangyayari ngayon. They’re killing each other.
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The cost of Duterte's war on drugs
ESQ: Does it concern you that the image of the Philippines is becoming that of a bloody, tyrannical society?
SP: ‘Yung mga critics lang ang nagsasabi nun, but you ask the ordinary people.
ESQ: The War on Drugs has been a huge failure in other countries. Shouldn’t there be a different approach to the problem?
SP: Hindi, kasi ang problema, bakit ba mayroong drugs? Kasi mayroong source. So you go to the source. Pero nasaan ang source? You have to find out where the source is. Right now, it’s coming daw from China. ‘Yung iba, Mexico. E ‘yan ang sisirain mo. But meanwhile, siyempre titirahin mo ‘yung mga pusher. Sila nagpu-push, e. Kung walang nagpu-push, walang bibili, ‘di ba? Hindi nagsa-succeed ang War on Drugs sa ibang bansa kasi pati sila ay kasangkot. Sa Mexico, sila-sila rin ‘yun e: ‘yung government officials. But not this one. Gusto mong magmura si Rody? Banggit ka lang ng drugs. Umiinit agad ang ulo.
ESQ: Does it concern you that the image of the Philippines is becoming that of a bloody, tyrannical society?
SP: ‘Yung mga critics lang ang nagsasabi nun, but you ask the ordinary people. We invite the Human Rights Commision, come here and see for yourselves. Nakikinig lang sila sa chismis, galing sa mga critics ng Presidente.
"Hindi nagsa-succeed ang War on Drugs sa ibang bansa kasi pati sila ay kasangkot. Sa Mexico, sila-sila rin ‘yun e: ‘yung government officials. But not this one."
ESQ: What happens if the President is tried for crimes against humanity?
SP: Malabo ‘yun. Anong ebidensya ginagawa niya? His policy is, they will not go unpunished, there’s hell to pay, I will not tolerate salvaging. That’s the official policy.
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"A reputation for handling hopeless cases"
Lawyers do not lie—only clients do. Personal policy ko, ‘pag nagsinungaling ka sa ‘kin tapos nagulat na lang ako, e iiwanan kita.
ESQ: You’re also known for your controversial, high-profile cases.
SP: They come to me.
ESQ: Why do you think they go to you?
SP: I understand I have developed a reputation for handling hopeless cases.
ESQ: Do you still take the cases if you think or know that your client is guilty?
SP: Yes. First, lawyers don’t accept cases on the basis of what they perceive the case to be. Sa trabaho ng abogado, kailangan pakinggan mo muna. Lawyers do not lie—only clients do. Personal policy ko, ‘pag nagsinungaling ka sa ‘kin tapos nagulat na lang ako, e iiwanan kita. Kasi nagkaroon na tayo ng breach ng ating juduciary relationship. So I will withdraw immediately. I cannot lie for you. Kailangan sabihin mo na sa ‘kin, para I know how to defend you. Saka ang trabaho talaga namin is to protect your rights.
ESQ: Is that why you left the Ampatuan case?
SP: No. I was getting sick na. My god, isang truck yata ‘yung babasahin kong dokumento. After a while, sabi ko, ayoko na nito. Saka wala naman akong natatanggap na pera dun. When Fortun took over, I think 100 million [pesos] na ang nagastos ng mga Ampatuan. Nagtuturo pa ‘ko. Ang dami kong ginagawa e. And then kinukulit ko pa si Duterte. Takbo na, pare, takbo na (laughs). So nag-unload na ‘ko ng mga kaso.
ESQ: You were an activist in your youth. Were you anti-Marcos?
SP: When I was an activist, I adopted the line of the National Democratic Front of Joma Sison. There is a ruling elite. That’s what we fought against. Marcos represented the ruling elite. When that was finished, parang pinalitan lang ‘yung ruling class. So that wasn’t the solution to our problems. So me and the President, whatever the law is, we will follow. That’s why magulo ‘yung bayan, obedience to the law has become optional. I was for the oppressed. Now that I’m here, I’m also against the oppressors, that’s why we’re against criminality, drugs, corruption. What’s different now is that we have power to do what we wanted when we wanted to change the government. Many members of the Cabinet are former activists, kasama dati sa lansangan.
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On the West Philippine Sea dispute
ESQ: Now that the Duterte administration has inherited the West Philippine Sea issue, what is your advice for him?
"I cannot even understand why we are friends with America when China is just a neighbor, and now we’re against our neighbors."
SP: The legal issues have been resolved. But the differences remain unsettled. So what do you do? You talk. Kaya marunong nga si Rody, e—a thinking President. Anong gagawin natin diyan? Mag-usap na lang tayo. Let’s talk.
ESQ: With China?
SP: Yeah. We don’t want war. We cannot afford to go to war. We are not capacitated to do that. So let’s just talk. Foster goodwill muna. I cannot even understand why we are friends with America when China is just a neighbor, and now we’re against our neighbors.
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On a hero's burial for Marcos
ESQ: Why is Marcos’ burial in Libingan ng mga Bayani so important to Duterte?
SP: He feels the issue has divided the country for so long and he wants to put closure on that. When he was campaigning, he repeatedly said, these are the things I’m going to do as president, one of them is to bury Marcos. From my point of view, when he said that and the people overwhelmingly elected him as president, those who voted for him, the 16 million, gave him the authority and the mandate to perform the things he promised us hence—whatever agreements entered into between Ramos and the family, na-supersedena lahat ‘yun. Moreover, the regulations nakalagay, presidente, sundalo, pasok lahat, mayroon sinasabi, those who receive valor awards.
"From my point of view, when he said that [he would bury Marcos, during the presidential campaign] and the people overwhelmingly elected him as president, those who voted for him, the 16 million, gave him the authority and the mandate to perform the things he promised us."
ESQ: Marcos’ medals have been deemed fraudulent.
SP: According to the Historical Commission, hindi totoo ‘yung medalya. Pero saan ba galing ‘yun, sa America hindi sa atin. So sabi ni Duterte, why should I be basing my decision on what a foreign country says about a Filipino? You cannot dispute the fact that he was a soldier, he fought for his country and therefore he’s qualified. Apart from that, he was president.
ESQ: But he was ousted. Do you and the President agree that Marcos is no hero?
SP: Even if he was ousted. You must remember, he won twice. Since the regulation does not even distinguish between a good and bad president, I think he’s qualified. In the petition that they filed, they were citing R.A. 289, which created the National Pantheon for Heroes, in effect the LNMB, that law says the state recognizes the sufferings of those victims of Martial Law. And because of that, the state will give compensation to them. But I looked over the provisions and wala naman sinasabi na si Marcos ang responsable noon, si Marcos ang torturer noon, si Marcos ang criminal noon. A board was created prescisely to manage the compensation. One of their duties is to bury the remains of all presidents, comma, national heroes, comma, and patriots. Which means they separated heroes from presidents. As far as I’m concerned, millions of Filipinos consider him a hero. Moreover, a person who is a scoundrel and buried in LNMB does not alter the fact that he is a scoundrel. A saint sa libingan ng mga magnanakaw will also not erase the fact that he is a saint. What’s in a name? E patay na ‘yun.
Since the regulation does not even distinguish between a good and bad president, I think [Ferdinand E. Marcos is] qualified.
ESQ: What is the most important issue for the President?
SP: First, stop the drug menace, stop corruption, stop criminality. We really have a problem with drugs because now there are 600,000 surrenderers. According to experts, if you are addicted to shabu it is irreversible. My suggestion is to create a community for them. Buy an island, build schools, factories. Give them livelihoods. By doing that, they are saved from themselves, and society is saved from them.
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The private life of Sal Panelo
Naniniwala ako sa rebolusyon. Pero sabi ng spirit guide, alam mo ‘yung Bible, kahit anong basa mo niyan, it only teaches one concept: Love.
ESQ: Tell us more about yourself.
SP: When I was in Hawaii. Abogado ako ni Imelda. I was there, e. That was the time when my son was born, si Carlo. Tinawagan ako ni Doktora Panelo, umiiyak. Sabi ko, “Bakit?” Kasi nanganak na nga e. Sabi niya, “Special child ang anak natin.” “What do you mean?” “May Down syndrome.” “E bakit ka umiiyak?” “Kasi nga special child.” “O ayaw mo pa niyan, mayroon tayong anghel for the rest of our lives?” ‘Yun kaagad ang dating sa akin. So nagulat siya sa sagot ko. Bigla siyang “Oo nga, no.” Tinanggap niya na.
ESQ: Do you have a mentor or someone you learned a lot from?
SP: I met a spirit guide in Pila, Laguna, 1984. I was a violent leftist. I was targeted for assassination by the government and even by the Left kasi they could not believe I could organize entirely in Albay, singlehandedly. Naniniwala ako sa rebolusyon. Pero sabi ng spirit guide, alam mo ‘yung Bible, kahit anong basa mo niyan, it only teaches one concept: Love. ‘Yun naman talaga ang problema natin, hindi tayo marunong magmahal. Mahal lang natin sarili natin. That’s it.
This piece originally appeared in our September 2016 issue. It appears here in full, and with minor formatting edits from the website's editors.