It was like a thief in the night. Sudden and without warning.
Army Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro, appointed as the Armed Forces chief of staff only five months ago, was removed from his position unceremoniously and without any explanation last week.
In August, when Bacarro, one of the few Medal of Valor awardees, was appointed to the military’s top position, he was to serve for three years – the first to benefit from a new law that gives senior generals a fixed three-year term.
The law would reform the military’s “revolving door” policy when senior generals got to be appointed to the top post for as short as 69 days.
Former presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Rodrigo Duterte had 11 chiefs of staff during their terms. Arroyo served for nine years and Duterte for six years.
If the law was applied to Ferdinand Marcos’s tenure, he would only have three chiefs of staff – Andres Centino who served until August 2022, Bacarro who was supposed to serve until 2025, and his successor who was to retire in August 2028.
Centino was a holdover. He was appointed by Duterte to replace his classmate, Jose Faustino. Bacarro is also Centino’s classmate. All three graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1988.
When Faustino was named officer in charge of the Department of National Defense, it seemed the ruling PMA 1988 class had full control of the military organization.
But it was short-lived. In the first week of January 2023, Bacarro was removed and Centino was reinstated. There was talk that Faustino, who was not made permanent defense secretary after six months, had resigned along with three other defense undersecretaries.
Faustino retired from active military service in November 2021. He was barred from taking a Cabinet position for at least one year and was expecting the president to make him permanent defense chief in November 2022. But that did not happen. He was expecting it to be at the end of the year. Again, it did not happen, forcing him to quit.
Bacarro’s replacement suggests there is an ongoing purge in the uniformed service – in the defense and military sector as well as in the civilian police service.
A few days before Bacarro’s retirement, Benhur Abalos, the Interior and Local Government secretary, asked for the courtesy resignations of more than 900 generals and colonels to cleanse the ranks of senior officers suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade.
The twin moves in the military and the police were unprecedented. Although senior police officers were asked to file for early retirement in the 1990s during the administration of Fidel Ramos, the call for courtesy resignations to weed out those linked to the illegal drug trade was a sweeping action.
Less than 10 senior police officers were suspected to be involved, but why asked all generals and colonels to offer courtesy resignations? The drug issue could just be a cover for a political purpose.
Marcos Jr. wanted to clean up the organization not because of drugs or corruption; he wanted to make sure senior officers holding sensitive and influential positions would be loyal to him.
In the military’s case, Centino’s reinstatement was also unusual. There has never been an instance since Martial Law when a general was brought back to a position of power.
Centino’s case was unique. When Bacarro was appointed in August, Marcos forgot about Centino. He was not immediately retired and was put on floating status because his mandatory retirement was in February 2023.
Thus, Bacarro who was holding a three-star rank could not be promoted to the next higher rank until Centino retired. Bacarro, who was supposed to retire in September, was given a fixed three-year term under a new law. In short, what happened was Bacarro was extended for three months beyond his mandatory retirement.
There had been rumors in military circles that Bacarro would be replaced as early as in October after former executive secretary Vic Rodriguez was removed from his position. Bacarro was closely identified with the disgraced executive secretary.
Even if Centino was back in his old position, it was still uncertain if he would be given a fixed three-year term. He could retire next month when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56 years old.
If he goes to serve until January 2026, senior generals belonging to PMA classes 1989, 1990, and 1991 can kiss their chances to become chief of staff goodbye.
Marcos Jr.’s father had difficulty dealing with the military when he extended the tour of duty of non-PMA generals – Romeo Espino and Fabian Ver – as chiefs of staff in the 1970s and early 1980s.
It resulted in unrest that led to the formation of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), which spearheaded a mutiny that eventually toppled the dictatorship in 1986.
Bongbong cannot afford instability and unrest with the military and, in the police too.
Early on a Saturday, armored vehicles rolled into Manila’s streets in a display of strength. The police said it was not rehearsing a response to potential destabilization but against any contingency related to the Black Nazarene festival on Jan. 9.
The last destabilization attempt was nearly two decades ago and the police have not displayed its armor assets during the Black Nazarene procession in the past. During Noynoy Aquino’s term, mobile phone services were shut down for fear of a terrorist attack but armored vehicles did not roll out in the streets. There were also no massive checkpoints around the city. The police were overreacting.
The Marcos administration has to do a lot of explaining. The people expect an honest answer. Why was Bacarro really replaced? Why was Centino reinstated? Why was the courtesy resignation so sweeping if the intention was to remove a few police officers?
Bacarro was not accorded a proper sendoff. There were no military honors and parades at the general headquarters’ grandstand. There was an elaborate ceremony when he took over in August.
He quietly turned over command to Centino at the AFP Commissioned officers’ Club (AFP-COC). There was no prior announcement about the change of command.
The ceremony was in total secrecy. It was like a thief in the night.