Rolando Galman, the Other Body on the Tarmac

When Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on August 21, 1983, all fingers were pointed at Rolando Galman. But who was he? Where did he come from? Gregorio C. Brillantes looks back on the life of the alleged assassin before that fateful day at the tarmac.
IMAGE Bettmann/Corbis

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue. 

Thirty-three years after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the question of who ordered the death of Ferdinand Marcos’s foremost opponent remains unresolved. But the identity of the assassin—the man who killed Ninoy Aquino with a single shot to the head—has been known all along, according to the 15 military men sentenced to double life imprisonment in 1990 by the Sandiganbayan for the killing of both Senator Aquino and Rolando Galman on August 21, 1983.

It was Galman who killed Ninoy Aquino, they maintain up to now, protesting their innocence. From the first probe conducted by then PC Chief Gen. Prospero Olivas through the hearings of the Agrava Commission to the second and final trial (the first acquitted them) before the Sandiganbayan, Ninoy’s military escorts had told the same story—that Galman, amazingly, penetrated security cordons at the airport and then, as the Opposition leader flanked and followed by his AVSECOM escorts stepped from the passenger-tube stairs onto the tarmac, sneaked up from behind and fired the fatal shot before he was himself gunned down.

Around the figure of the mysterious gunman the Marcos military, and some officials, spun a number of theories to explain Aquino’s slaying. Galman was described variously as a Communist assassin ordered to avenge the wrongs Aquino had done the NPA and only incidentally to embarrass the Marcos regime, as hit-man hired by the families of Aquino’s own victims, as a provincial gangster released from prison to do his master’s bidding, as a hit-man in the employ of CIA conspirators out to discredit and topple the Marcos government.

Who really was Rolando Galman? Where did he come from? How did history come to assign him a role in the country’s “crime of the century”?

This article—adapted from a feature in the April 7, 1984 issue of Veritas Newsweekly—offers some glimpses into the life of the other man who lay dead on the tarmac.

* * *

Phil Air Force Col. Arturo Custodio (center) appears to stop an official from completely lifting the sheet covering Rolando Galman who allegedly shot Ninoy Aquino. Photo taken November 3, 1983.

In the low frame house in Pasay city with the cardboard sign saying, “Off Limits to Military Personnel—By order, Agrava Board” tacked on the front door, Saturnina Galman tells of the time she last saw her son Rolando, three years before the soldiers gunned him down at the airport.

“No, I can no longer remember what day and month that was in 1980,” says Saturnina Galman in a Tagalog monotone so faint and subdued one has to strain to catch the words when a truck or jeepney rattles by outside the bolted door.

What she can recall is that it was after planting time in the fields and she had brought along a daughter’s umbrella as the sky threatened rain. And the trip itself—a rare event for her, though it was actually less than an hour’s ride to the next province; by bus from Aliaga, Nueva Ecija to San Miguel, Bulacan, and then the last two kilometers down the road on a tricycle to the barrio of Bagong Silang, where Lando, as she had always called the eldest of her nine children, lived with Lina Lazaro, and their son Reynaldo, and Lina’s daughter, Roberta.

Her anguish is real, relentless, so different in kind from the chic anxieties of the bourgeoisie. Her bloodshot eyes sometimes stare vacantly at the newspaper clippings pasted on the wall, about Ninoy Aquino and her son.

She was unfamiliar with the route and almost lost her way. Her husband Celso was away in Baguio, a driver for NAWASA, and none of their children, as it happened, could accompany her. The older ones, like Isagani and Nenita, had married and left barrio Santo Tomas in Aliaga, as Lando had in 1972; and the rest who still lived at home, Marilyn, Julie, Normita and the youngest, Celso Jr., were either in school or busy on the one hectare farm, which the family had leased from her brother’s father-in-law, in the neighboring town of Zaragoza.

But there were kind strangers still to be encountered in the countryside that could turn desolate and fearful at night. With their help, Saturnina Galman found her way to the house her son built in 1978. It stood on a tree-shaded lot directly in front of a bridge of bamboo poles over an irrigation ditch.

Of wood and concrete, it had a terrace, a dining room-kitchenette, two bedrooms, and a TV antenna atop the galvanized iron roof—such a house as a farmer in Central Luzon might build after some years of abundant harvests. A quiet place, too, where a successful farmer could retire in peace, for Rolando Galman lived on the far edge of Bagong Silang, where the houses, more modest than his, were few and far between. Visitors from out of town would not come this way unless they had an important message to deliver, an urgent matter to discuss, or some such purpose in mind.

Two civilians carry Saturnina Galman out of a military autopsy room after she identified her son’s body.

“I had a sudden yearning to see Lando again, that was what made me go to Bagong Silang,” says Saturnina Galman. “When Lando and Lina began their life together, they settled in Zaragoza. There, he went on farming as before, and we could see each other every now and then. But since Lando and Lina moved to Bulacan, I had seen my son only twice, and very briefly at that, when he passed through Santo Tomas in a hurry.”

“Those were the years he had to work long and hard, as a farmer, a share-cropper,” says Saturnina Galman—on riceland owned by kinsfolk and other people, both in Nueva Ecija and Bulacan. He also raised pigs in his backyard. Most of the hogs he fatted for the market and some he set aside for an occasional lechon, for his friends and neighbors and the men he worked with in the fields. “He was helpful and kind to everyone,” she says, “especially to the poor and unlettered, like us.”

It was a happy visit, that morning in 1980; but Saturnina Galman has no recollection of what she and Lando talked about, except that it was about things in general. Nothing special or memorable, as if the mere fact of seeing her son again, strong and husky as ever, was all that mattered. She left early in the afternoon, with fifty pesos that Lina insisted on giving her, to pay for the fare back to Aliaga. It was only when she was almost within sight of her house in Santo Tomas that the rain that had hovered over the day fell suddenly, only then did she use the umbrella from one of her daughters.

A different storm had driven her to seek shelter in this house in Pasay City half a day’s journey from the barrio in Aliaga. She has been away from home for seven months now. In the room, though sanctuary enough being the office and parlor of the lawyer who represents the Galman family before the Agrava Board, she seems to hold herself tight in her chair, a thin, slightly stooped woman of the peasantry stranded in the city. Her anguish is real, relentless, so different in kind from the chic anxieties of the bourgeoisie. Her bloodshot eyes sometimes stare vacantly at the newspaper clippings pasted on the wall, about Ninoy Aquino and her son.

Saturnina testifying before the court.

Her daughter Marilyn, who is 21, smiling and more at ease, comes to sit beside her. Reassured somehow, prompted gently by her daughter, she recounts a story concerning Lando as a boy growing up in Santo Tomas, long before those other tales that various generals and colonels, and politicians, too, and other dubious characters, would tell about him.

“One day when Lando was five,” she says, “I happened to look out of a window and saw him running after something in the yard. It was twilight and there was a ball of fire, bright blue in color, that he was trying to catch. It rolled into the dark under the trees. Lando followed it and caught it—like this—cupping it with his hands to the ground. I went down to the yard and found him just standing there in the dusk. The blue fire no longer in his hands…

“He was a boy who saw things that other people could not see,” she says with a fierce nod as if to set right anyone who dared mock her faith in her son. “He could see the small people,” she continues, “the tiny ones who lived in anthills, in dark corners under a house, a tree. I did not witness it myself, but our neighbors said that one night they saw Lando holding a white rooster shining brightly like a light. Once, he was able to  come inside a house though all the doors were shut and no one had let him in. Everyone in the house was amazed. I think he was in Grade 1 then.”

Marilyn’s memories of her Kuya Lando are more prosaic, domestic. “He was soft-spoken, thoughtful, and made friends easily. He had a way with children, a knack for baby-sitting. It was because of his voice, which could be soothing,” she explains, “and also because he could keep still, just listening. Or thinking his own thoughts, quietly, unlike other boys his age.”

He learned to work early in the fields, in Aliaga and Zaragoza, says Marilyn. “Often he would bring home mudfish and frogs he caught in the paddies for Nanay to cook for supper. He had to stop schooling in Grade 5, in 1958, so he could help more around the house and hire out as a sharecropper along with our cousins and other men from the barrio. We have always been poor. Tatay made very little as a driver, P130 at the most. Kuya Lando was serious about doing more to help the family. As a young boy, even before he quit school, he had begun to raise pigs, for Nanay to sell in the market on Sundays.”

But it was not all work for him, even then, says Marilyn. “He kept matchboxes filled with spiders, which he pitted against those of other boys in the barrio. As a teenager he went to dances in the barrios and the poblacion. Once, he was a consort at a Santacruzan. He played basketball. He was no singer, but just for fun he would start a song and then stop, laughing.”

Saturnina Galman says: “He was good at climbing trees, to get at the fruits—guavas, star apples, santol—for his brothers and sisters. But once he slipped and fell from a tree and hurt himself badly on the sharp post of a fence. He bled a lot and had to be rushed to a clinic in the poblacion. That was how he happened to have that scar…It was only after I had seen that scar on his crotch could I bring myself to believe that it was Lando who lay in the morgue at the Camp Crame.”

* * *

Rolando’s sister Marilyn and mother Saturnina await decision by the Supreme Court on their being under custody of the police.

But Marilyn still has a few more stories about her brother in a happier time. “He was a neat dresser,” she says. “He had few clothes, but the ones he bought were carefully chosen, the very best he could afford. He had a hearty appetite; he liked eating pinakbet, labong saluyot, broiled hito, [and] also fried chicken. But his favorite was sinigang, how he loved pork sinigang! And biko at palitaw—whenever he brought that home, it was like a celebration. That, and watermelon—he would tease us first, pretending he would eat all, and then when we were about to cry would give us the bigger part.”

Rolando Galman grew up, took a wife and left home and parents, brothers, sisters, who seldom if ever saw or heard from him in the years of martial law. It was really nothing unusual, Saturnina Galman says now. Even her other married children, who lived not too far from Aliaga, hardly found time to visit her, they had their own children, their own problems to worry about.

Still, she must have been pained and perplexed when Lando, the dutiful and obedient son, failed to come home for his father’s burial, in 1981.

The year after Saturnina Galman visited her son in Bagong Silang, her husband was waylaid and killed as he walked home one night, in Santo Tomas, Aliaga.

The shots that made her a widow woke her up, but after a while she went back to sleep: she had heard night gunfire before, and in that part of Nueva Ecija, it was said, men stalked other men, they ambushed and shot one another, the crimes unsolved, but the motives no longer considered so mysterious. It was partisan politics, or so it was thought by the simpler rural folk, that accounted for those ambuscades, those shots in the night; and Celso Galman, his wife knew, had absolutely nothing to do with politicians and their works.

Before sunrise the next day, a neighbor leading out a carabao to pasture found Celso Galman sprawled dead in a bamboo grove.

The other stories told of Rolando Galman may be said to have had their beginnings in that week his father was killed and he did not come for the burial; stories, rumors, allegations, reports, documented or otherwise, authentic or fabricated, confirmed or denied, true or false, but with a single dark strand linking them all and relating each one back to yet another story that began in the early 1970s, or some time after Saturnina Galman’s son left Aliaga to live with Lina Lazaro in Zaragoza.

The funeral procession for Galman. 

It was then, according to Constabulary files on him first gathered in Nueva Ecija, that the gentle, soft-spoken Rolando Galman joined a gang that operated initially in the towns of San Isidro, Gapan, Aliaga, and Zaragoza. Led by Feliciano de la Cruz, a murder suspect long wanted by the PC, the Nueva Ecija hoodlums soon extended their violent trade to Bulacan and Metro Manila, their services ranging from holdups to the liquidation of political enemies.

Celso Galman was killed, it was said, to avenge the death of one of his son’s victims; and his son stayed away from the funeral when he learned that an ambush awaited him in Aliaga.

Such was the notoriety of the de la Cruz goons that later, after the Assassination in August, General Prospero Olivas could tag Rolando Galman, who was by then in no position to dispute the description, as “a gun for hire, used by various elements, including organized crime, and by subversive elements, possibly for individual vengeance, armed robbery, carnapping, hijacking, bank holdups, and kidnapping for ransom…” It has since been pointed out that, though charged with numerous crimes, Galman was not found guilty by any court. And he was never charged with subversion, this alleged hitman who was, Malacañang and the military would have the entire nation believe, an NPA commander, a Communist assassin.

A PC dragnet in March 1982 caught and dumped him in Camp Olivas stockade in Pampanga, where he was detained for eight months. In that period, according to testimony before the Agrava Board, friends from Nueva Ecija, including AVSECOM Col. Arthur Custodio, helped arrange his release, on the grounds that he was no “subversive,” and he walked out of Olivas in November 1982.

It was the solicitous Colonel Custodio, Rolando Galman’s son and stepdaughter have testified before the Agrava Board, who came with three other men to fetch their father on the night of August 17, 1983. From there Rolando Galman seems to have driven off into a darkness deeper than the night, offering, despite probing searchlights, nothing more than a few ambiguous, fleeting glimpses of the man in the three days before the Assassination: in a motel room with a nightclub hostess, in a department store looking for a plastic ID jacket, in a pizza joint drinking beer with a couturier-friend.

Suddenly, he emerged from the shadows, into the noon glare on the tarmac, chatting with AVSECOM soldiers beside the armored van, goes one account, before Ninoy Aquino came down the passenger tube stairs.

* * *

Galman’s mother with counsel Lupino Lazaro, daughter Marilyn Galman and grandson Reynaldo.

Seven days later, in Santo Tomas, Aliaga, Saturnina Galman and her daughter Marilyn were weeding a field when PAF Major Ruben Alcantara came driving up with PAF troopers and Aliaga policemen in two jeeps.

“Major Alcantara wanted to know if Lando was my son,” says Saturnina Galman in the lawyer’s house in Pasay. “We must come with him, we were needed in a matter that involved Lando, he said. What could we have done? They would not let us go home and change our clothes, it was almost noon and we had been working all morning in the sun. We had heard on the radio of the killing of Senator Aquino, but there was nothing that might have led me to think that they would blame Lando. So I told Marilyn not to worry, we would just go to Cabanatuan and settle this problem, whatever it was, about Lando.”

But from Cabanatuan, they were driven to Fort Magsaysay in Laur, and from there were taken to the Air Force headquarters, in Nichols.

“I kept asking Major Alcantara and the others what they wanted of us,” says Saturnina Galman. “They showed me an ID picture, saying it was Lando’s and that he had been shot dead after killing Senator Aquino. We were kept there for three days, then on the night of August 29, we were brought out of Nichols. Several times we had to alight and ride in another vehicle.

“We took a long, twisting route, it was like going around in circles, for our safety,” they said. The followers of Aquino knew that Lando had shot him, one of them said, and if they saw us they would surely kill us both. I was trembling in my anger. I wanted to shout: My son could not have done it! He was only a poor farmer. It was the night we were taken to the morgue in Camp Crame. Still I could not really believe it was Lando, I could not, until I saw the scar, from his boyhood…”

Mother and daughter were in the PAF’s “protective custody” until September 1, 1983 when they were transferred to the NBI on Taft Avenue. “We were given a room that was quite comfortable,” says Marilyn. “It was not a cell, there were no bars. But there were always two guards posted at the door."

They too had concerned friends in Nueva Ecija, who knew a lawyer. Atty. Lupino Lazaro filed a case for habeas corpus with the Supreme Court, and the High Tribunal ordered their release from NBI custody on October 27, two months to the day after Major Alcantara had come for them in the fields, in the barrio in Aliaga, Nueva Ecija.

“I’m going home next Friday,” says Marilyn. “A niece is graduating from high school in Zaragoza. My brothers and sisters will be there.”

Saturnina Galman cannot go home, at least not yet, not while the Agrava Board hearings are still on, or so Atty. Lazaro has impressed upon her. The fact-finding inquiry at the moment seems to favor the popular and the prosecution’s own verdict on the assassination: Ninoy Aquino was shot almost point-blank from behind and above as he was hustled down the plane tube stairs; PC Sgt. Rogelio Moreno followed three steps close behind and above Aquino going down to the tarmac and all that has led more and more people to disbelieve those Marcos-inspired theories and official explanations about the double murder infamy. Such as, in particular, Malacañang talks and tales about the late alleged communist assassin who after the deed can tell no tales; Galman was shot, peppered, riddled, seconds after shooting Ninoy near the tarmac base of the stairs, but now in the growing contract view: Rolando Galman definitely—whatever his other roles and disguises might have been: humble farmer, free-spending lover, hired gun, convict, dissident leader—Galman could not have been, decidedly was not the man who shot and killed Ninoy Aquino.

“I wish I could go home on April 16,” Saturnina Galman says in her small, tired voice. She looks beseechingly about her, at Marilyn and her grandson Reynaldo, pensive and quiet, watching the strangers in the room.

It will be Lando’s 34th birthday,” she says, as if to herself. “I wish I could go back then and be with my children. So we could all go to church and pray for the soul of Lando."

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About The Author
Gregorio C. Brillantes
Gregorio Brillantes was born in Camiling, Tarlac, in 1932 and was educated at the Ateneo de Manila. He was executive editor of the Philippines Free Press and editor-in-chief of Asia-Philippines Leader, and since 1972 has been an editor and writer for various other publications, including Veritas newsmagazine, National Midweek and Philippine Graphic.
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