Imelda Marcos, thief, still thrives

She’s never paid a price for stealing billions from the Philippines

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During their two-decade conjugal dictatorship, as it came to be known, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos pillaged up to $10 billion from Philippine coffers to finance their extravagant lifestyle. Nearly 20 years after their downfall, and in spite of an extensive recovery effort, most of that wealth is still missing.

Marcos’ three terms as president, from 1965 to 1986, were marked by rampant corruption, political repression and human rights abuses. Imelda spent her tenure as first lady buying shoes, rare artwork, multi-million-dollar properties and, of course, lots and lots of jewels.

So it made for a small but sweet victory when an anti-graft court last week ordered the former first lady to turn over more than $100,000 worth of jewelry on the grounds that it was ill-gotten. The Presidential Commission on Good Government, which is charged with recovering the Marcos’ stolen loot and providing restitution to thousands of victims of Marcos’ brutal reign, has confiscated two other jewelry collections worth about $8.4 million, and hopes to exhibit them as part of a very belated shaming exercise.

Millions of dollars worth of jewels is a substantial windfall, but it pales in comparison to some of the other assets recovered by the commission (and it’s a just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s still out there). Here’s a rundown of some of the reclaimed loot:

Shoes, clothes, jewels: When Imelda fled Malacanang Palace with her husband in 1986, she left behind a personal safe filled with “freshwater pearls, a grocery-size carton of beaded turquoise necklaces, miniature standing trees carved out of semiprecious stones, hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry and a reported $50,000 worth of gold coins,” as well as thousands of designer shoes, hundreds of designer dresses and five shelves of designer purses.

The jewelry collection now in custody consists of 60 pieces, including a 150-karat Burmese Ruby and a 30-karat Bulgari diamond bracelet that was valued at $1 million in 1986. (Imelda has joked that the Philippine government has left her with nothing but “junk,” which she refers to as “The Imelda Collection: guaranteed to tarnish and disintegrate.”)

Precious art: The good-government commission has a list of more than 100 missing paintings believed to have been purchased by the Marcoses with dirty money. This past year, one of those paintings — Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nympheas” — turned up at an auction in New York where it sold for $43 million.

Authorities traced the painting back to a former secretary of Imelda Marcos who was also in possession of — and trying to sell — three other impressionist masterpieces that had formerly belonged to Imelda. In November, the secretary was convicted of conspiracy and tax fraud.

Big-time real estate: The commission has seized $350 million worth of real estate in New York, including a Wall Street skyscraper (which sold for almost nothing), the Crown Building, a nine-story Manhattan shopping mall, a Fifth Avenue tower and a 13-acre estate on Long Island. The Marcoses also had several properties in Beverly Hills and two homes in Princeton Pike and Cherry Hill, N.J. Their Philippine vacation home recently sold for $2 million.

Tons of cash: In 2003, a Philippine court ordered the forfeiture of $683 million held in Swiss bank accounts in Marcos’ name. Switzerland turned over the money in 2004. In a vault held by Marcos, the Swiss central bank also found a ruby and diamond tiara worth about $8 million.

According to a World Bank report, the Marcoses managed to accumulate their wealth through a number of channels: by using their political power to take over large private companies, creating state-owned monopolies, skimming off international aid, and directly raiding the public treasury. They then laundered their ill-gotten gains through shell corporations, eventually investing it in real estate and depositing it into offshore accounts.

When the family finally fled the palace during the 1986 popular uprising, they carried as much of their wealth as they could on their persons: 89 family members and servants carried $10,000 in cash each. Their jet held 50 pounds of gold bullion and $5 million to $10 million worth of jewelry. A second plane carried 22 boxes filled with $1.2 million of newly minted currency.

Incredible, right? That’s not even the worse of it: Today, Imelda Marcos serves as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives and lives in relative peace and prosperity in the Philippines.

She’s never served a day in jail for defrauding her country.

Catherine A. Traywick is a multimedia reporter living in Washington, D.C. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.


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