The Joker Arroyo I Knew: “A Cut Above”

by Joseph G. Lariosa

CHICAGO (JGL) – Joker Arroyo was one of the hundreds of lawyers appearing before the Regional Trial Courts of Makati City housed in what is now the imposing, if not controversial, Makati City Hall Building II three decades ago.

But what caught my attention about Arroyo was that he was the only lawyer who appeared in court without notes.

He was always in the company of the two other human rights lawyers Rene Saguisag and Jojo Binay, whom I would call “Three Musketeers” fighting the well-entrenched Marcos Dictatorship.

I came to know that Joker was from my home region of Bikol when he tapped my shoulder, “Noy (a term of endearment to teenaged males from Bikol), Madya na mag-kakan kita. (Let’s have lunch.)” I am from Sorsogon City and he is from Naga City.

Surprised, I told him, “Why me? My stories about your brilliant prowess in court had no place in the Manila Bulletin?”

During martial law, no matter how good a story I submitted to the Bulletin desk was, it never saw print, especially if the Marcos government was getting a whipping or was being placed in an unfavorable light.

The Bulletin was only one of the three daily newspapers that had the imprimatur of the martial law government to circulate. The others were the Philippines Daily Express and the Times Journal, owned by the Romualdezes. As such, the Bulletin cannot come out with stories critical to the Marcos martial law regime, unless it wants to cease publication.

“It’s fine, let’s have some lunch anyway.” Joker said as we repaired to a turo-turo restaurant, where customers point to delicacies of their choice inside glass encased panels in the absence of labels. It is being patronized by lowly paid workers. The restaurant was located on the ground floor of what used to be Makati’s Justice Center, housing both the RTC and the Makati Fiscal’s offices.


That was the first and only time that I had a close-up look and personal conversation with Arroyo, who died last Monday (Oct. 6) of heart attack at the age of 88. But that conversation was so remarkable because he was able to expertly predict the end of the Marcos martial law regime. It was probably less than four years before the Marcos martial law government came crashing down.

I was having some misgivings about his prediction though at the time because there was no compelling reason to bring it about. Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was still jailed in the nearby heavily guarded stockade in Fort Bonifacio, which is now part of the glitzy Global City to the east.

I apologized to Joker that although I always wrote about his court exploits when he won human rights cases one after the other, the Bulletin had not carried them. “I understand,” he told me, “your newspaper just wants to survive. But what is important is that we remain friends.”

Most of the cases Arroyo, along with Saguisag and Binay, handled were filed by the Marcos rightist government against alleged violators of now outlawed Anti-Subversion Laws leveled against suspected members and sympathizers of Maoist’s New People’s Army (NPA’s).

Because of the numerous cases that he handled, Arroyo must have already memorized all the laws and arguments pro and against his clients that he did not find a need to carry any notes, not even an attaché case.


Among the cases I covered in the Makati Regional Trial Court were the graft cases filed against Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, who was accused of corruption for the questionable acquisition of Sikorsky helicopters, and the annulment of the marriage of Imee Marcos to popular golfer Tommy Manotoc. The judges on these cases were so intimidated by the Marcos government that the clerks of court gave me every reason in the book to deny me access to the records.

I don’t know but I had a feeling that even if the clerks of court would have given me access to the files of Enrile and Manotoc cases, my stories would only end up in the trash. But my insistence of obtaining those records was like a Pavlovian force of habit.

When I was denied access to the records, I still considered it part of my job because I got paid even without turning in my story.

In hindsight, the judges should not have been too circumspect and paranoia to deny me access to the records. After all, the chances of my Bulletin editors using my stories are a big fat zero.

I just wonder if the judges of these cases were ever promoted for doing obeisance to the Marcos government.

On the other side of town in Pasay City Regional Trial Courts, the late Pasay City Fiscal Ernesto Bernabe, egged on by General Ver’s diminutive surrogate, Col. Diego, who was also a lawyer, Arroyo and his fellow Musketeers ended up in the losing side in many cases while defending human rights defendants.

Although, I was the only reporter covering the cases because my colleagues from the Express and the Journal did not give a damn to cover them, I ended up cheering up and bonding with Arroyo, Saguisag and Binay.

At one time, I was attending a Catholic mass in Palanan, Makati when Saguisag approached me, “Dito ka rin pala nagsisimba.” (So, you are also attending my parish church.)


At another time, when I saw Binay wandering in the Makati Justice Hall holding a tattered attaché case, I approached him from behind, and hit his butt with my open palm so hard, it caused him to turn around. And I shouted at him, “Mayor.” I was probably the first one to anoint him the next mayor of Makati at the time. And a surprised but very pleased Binay could only mutter, “Bagay ba? Bagay ba?” (Do I measure up?)

Before coming to America, I tried to seek audience to say good-bye to Binay, who was later appointed by President Cory Aquino to become officer-in-charge of Makati. But for some reason, he never got the chance to look at me as he was animatedly talking to award winning journalist Joe Burgos of Manila Times.

I would have wanted to tell Binay “I told you so” that he would become mayor of Makati someday.

I’m sure if I sought an audience with Arroyo and Saguisag when they later became both senators, perhaps, I could have reminiscenced with them their experiences in their fight against human rights abuses before the Makati and Pasay Regional Trial Courts but I never had a chance.

I think Saguisag still remembers me because he mentioned my name in one of the stories (the background of U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton) I filed in the Philippine Star when he wrote a column ( in Manila Times about it. If I return to the Philippines one of these days, I will try to call Saguisag and say hello.

In the case of Arroyo, who later became Executive Secretary to President Cory, it would now be too late for me to have a reunion with him. He was a fellow Bikolano, a freedom fighter and civil rights advocate, who never touched his pork barrel (Disbursement Acceleration (DAP) and Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) with a ten-foot pole that snared his three fellow senators to jail.

I can only say, “Goodbye, Joker.” Thank you for fighting and helping end martial law! “You are a cut above!”


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