MANILA, Philippines—Undersecretary Rico E. Puno of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) says he will never turn his back on President Benigno Aquino III, not in the hostage-taking tragedy that has tainted his presidency this early.
“I am willing to take a bullet for him. I never leave anyone,” Puno told the Inquirer. “We have been friends for so long. Why should I abandon him now of all times?”
Puno is one of the highest administration officials enmeshed in the Aug. 23 bloodbath with Malacañang’s revelation that he, not Secretary Jesse Robredo, is in charge of police and public order in the DILG.
The fallout from the slaughter of eight Hong Kong tourists on the bus
seized by a dismissed police inspector seeking reinstatement has prompted head-scratching on who Robredo’s DILG twin is.
Puno, 54, is an agricultural economics graduate of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños.
Critics claim Puno does not have any qualification to head the DILG post with administrative supervision over the Philippine National Police.
But Puno thinks otherwise.
According to him, the Punos are close to the Aquinos. His mother hails from Tarlac province.
In 1986, after Mr. Aquino’s mother Corazon became the President, Puno and her son became close.
An accomplished practical shooter, Puno said he trained members of Corazon Aquino’s Presidential Security Group (PSG) in firearms proficiency.
Because the presidential son also showed interest in shooting, he and Puno became weekend shooting buddies.
In 1992, Puno formed the Far East Ballistics Co. that imported rare gun parts and ammunition. But in 1995, the company folded up.
“Most of the stuff we imported, we used up in the firing range because of my passion for shooting,” he chuckled.
Responding to criticisms he was nothing more than a gunrunner, Puno said that the only dealings he had with the PNP was when he sold around 200 to 300 rounds of rare ammunition to the agency.
The Malacañang profile on Puno says that he ran Mr. Aquino’s senatorial campaign.
“I was always with him and went around the country with him to campaign. Whatever he needed, whatever errands needed to be done, I’d do it,” Puno said.
Puno later became the senator’s consultant tasked to “liaison” with the police and military. He was Aquino’s consultant in the Senate committee on public order and safety and dangerous drugs from 2007 to 2009 and later in the special oversight committee on economic affairs from 2009 until July 4, 2010.
His work in the Senate’s economic affairs committee was “coordinating and working” with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the PNP regarding their budget and equipment.
“I know the current crop of senior officers back when they were junior officers. What I know about them goes beyond what’s in their personal data sheets,” Puno said.
The right path
People in the DILG don’t think Puno has the right stuff in his post.
“He is in control of a very sensitive sector … The person for this position needs to be highly qualified. He is not even a lawyer,” said one DILG source.
“Ganito ba yung daang matuwid (Is this the righteous path)?” the source said, referring to the President’s campaign promise to lead the country to the right path. “It’s OK to put people you trust in sensitive positions. But they should have the necessary qualifications.”
In response, Puno said the law did not stipulate any qualifications for DILG undersecretary. “I don’t know what kind of qualification are needed for the position. I don’t understand that.”
Puno pointed out that former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed her gardener and manicurist to important government posts.
“This is the mandate from the President (Aquino). We campaigned for him, we risked everything for him. Then we will leave him? We have to help him now to run this government honestly.”
Alcuin Papa, Philippine Daily Inquirer