MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO learned to take charge early in life. As a precocious child
and the eldest of seven, she was running the household well before she was out of grade
school. Her mother was a career woman who eschewed housework, so responsibility for the
daily marketing, for supervising the family's untrained village maids, and for organizing
her younger brothers and sisters to do their chores devolved upon her. She also saw to it
that the Defensor brood arrived promptly and well-scrubbed for weekly catechism classes
and Catholic mass. Discipline was her mother's watchword, and young MIRIAM came to accept
her authoritarian, achievement-oriented environment as "the natural working of the
In the central Visayan port city of Iloilo, where MIRIAM was born on 15 June 1945, the
Defensor family enjoyed high status but little wealth. Her father, Benjamin Defensor, was
a lawyer and trial judge; her mother, Dimpna Palma, was a locally prominent educator. They
circulated socially among Iloilo's elite, but the family budget had to be managed
carefully to make ends meet, and, until MIRIAM was nine years old, the family occupied a
modest house with a nipa (palm frond) roof. MIRIAM'S playmates were equally poor;
together they fashioned homemade toys from sardine cans and bottle caps and played happily
in the sand. "We enjoyed the luxury of filth," MIRIAM says looking back.
MIRIAM DEFENSOR was enrolled in the kindergarten of Lincoln School, later called Lincoln
College, the private school where her mother was dean. She quickly demonstrated her
insistence on fair play. When her kindergarten teacher's niece teased her one day by
repeatedly erasing her work from the blackboard, MIRIAM lost patience, grabbed the girl's
hair, and wrestled her to the floor. "My teacher never forgave me," she says,
explaining why she graduated only sixth in her kindergarten classone of the few
times in her school career when she was not first.
MIRIAM continued in Lincoln until her mother quarreled with the school president and
resigned. At grade five, therefore, MIRIAM entered La Paz Public Elementary School. There
she took her turn minding the canteen at recess time. Students who did so were permitted
to select one food item in lieu of pay; this delighted MIRIAM, who had no money to buy
school snacks. As her reward she always chose banana cake, "because for me," she
says, "it was the height of luxury."
DEFENSOR was a voracious reader and, unable to afford books of her own, became a frequent
patron of the United States Information Service (USIS) library in downtown Iloilo. Her
deepest childhood anxiety, she says, was that "the world's book supply would run out
and I would, in my middle age, have nothing left to read."
She also excelled at writing and, in the fifth and sixth grades, was student editor of the
elementary school newspaper. When she entered Iloilo National High in 1957, she
immediately bested all others in the examination to be editor of its paper, The
Ilonggo. She held this post for all four high school years. The literary pages were
also filled with her work, and as a freshman she won a school-wide spelling contest.
DEFENSOR's precocious talents made her an instant high school celebrity. This was probably
a good thing, she thinks, since it permitted her to stand out without arousing the
jealousy of her friends"it habituated them to the things I would do
later." The latter included graduating as valedictorian and receiving the
Her mother had long since instilled in MIRIAM a drive to fill every moment with worthy
activity. This drive propelled her into a life of super-achievement. But alongside her
brilliance in school, and her diligent management of household and siblings, MIRIAM
DEFENSOR began to develop a deep spiritual life. This she did quite on her own, since
neither parent was devout, and her father had virtually abandoned the Roman Catholic
Church in anger over the high-handed behavior of some Spanish priests.
At Lincoln MIRIAM had been inspired by the serene voices and ethereal personalities of the
teaching nuns. For a while she yearned to be one herself, but she remembers her father
telling her, you wouldn't be serving God very much that way." She abandoned the idea
but in high school began a lifelong habit of going to mass daily; she had, as she says,
"the gift of faith."
In 1961, at age sixteen, DEFENSOR entered the University of the Philippines, Iloilo campus
(UP Visayas). Here she began to prepare for the study of law, since her father had advised
her that she would never be able to support herself with literary pursuits. Political
science the usual pre-law curriculum, was "embarrassingly easy,"
She found. She speeded through the four-year curriculum in three-and-a-half years so that
she could devote her final semester to her love, literature.
As a college student, DEFENSOR studied so efficiently that she had plenty of time left for
other activities. From her freshman year onward she edited the college monthly magazine.
She also competed in debating and, in summers, took outside courses in journalism and
stenography. Having decided that she could write better stories than the ones she was
reading, she proceeded to do so and began selling them to national magazines. In
everything, she was brilliantly successful. She won award after award. For example in 1963
she won first prize in the university competitions in orator poetry, short stories, and
essays. All the while she maintained excellent grades, so that when she graduated in 1965
she did so magna cum laude.
Early in her college career DEFENSOR had undergone a prolonged, debilitating illness. From
a stubborn case of amoebic dysentery, she slid into a serious bout of depression: "I
felt that my physical energy were totally exhausted and that I had nothing left to
give." Having been taught by her mother always to be doing something useful, she
believed herself to be utterly worthless, and lay in bed for weeks on end and wept. She
attributes her recovery to her maternal grandmother who patiently and lovingly nursed her
back from the depression. By the time she recovered MIRIAM had missed all but one month of
the school semester and was still so weak that she had to write holding her pencil with
both hands. With gritty determination she took her final examinationsand earned the
highest average in the college.
After university graduation DEFENSOR went directly to the UP College of Law in Quezon
City. In fact, she acknowledges, she studied law mainly "out of a sense of filial
duty." At UP she found the law courses tedious, and she became scornful of the
approach of most the professors, who simply "spoon-fed" the students, pointing
out necessary readings, probable issues, and correct responses.
This was a boon for DEFENSOR, however. Her superior memory made the courses relatively
easy. Still, she studied industriously. While others students read their law books once or
twice, she read hers five times. Even so, she recalls, "it didn't take that much
intellectual energy." Once again she found lots of time for other things.
DEFENSOR was a sparkling success at UP, thereby breaking ground for other women students.
She was the first female to win the Ferdinand Marcos Gold Trophy in debate and the first
female editor-in-chief of UP's Law Register. In 1968 she became the first female
editor-in-chief of the hallowed and influential Philippine Collegian as well. She
was chosen corps sponsor for UP's Reserve Officer Training Corps and, in both 1968 and
1969, won the prestigious Vinzons Achievement Award for leadership. She also managed to
find time to write short stories for the nation's leading weeklies. The money she earned
from writing supplemented her competition-won scholarships so that she was virtually
self-supporting in law school. One journalist referred to her as, "Super Girl at the
The mid-to-late 1960s were days of great political ferment at UP. A campus leader of high
profile, DEFENSOR nevertheless shunned the radicalism popular at the time in favor of the
more moderate stance of the UP Student Catholic Action. "I never could really bring
myself to hate the Americans as much as my rabid friends did," she says, attributing
this to her childhood gratitude for the USIS library in her hometown. "The radical
leftists always criticized me for being wishy-washy, but I just stood my ground."
However, DEFENSOR did join in objecting to Philippine military participation in the war in
Vietnam and, as editor of the Philippine Collegian, she exposed UP involvement
with the Dow Chemical Company in Vietnam-related chemical weapons research. Based on
purloined university documents given to her secretly "in the dead of night," her
editorial, "Dow is Here," revealed that the company had leased research
facilities at the UP College of Agriculture at Los Baņos. The editorial was reprinted
verbatim in a popular Manila daily. Embarrassed, UP President Carlos Romulo tried to
persuade DEFENSOR to reveal her midnight source. She refused.
As an honor student at UP College of Law, DEFENSOR was courted by Manila's most
prestigious law firm, the law office of Alexander Sycip. Sycip entertained her in his
lavish home, but he warned her that in his office one often had to work all night and
through the holidays. Far from being put off, DEFENSOR was impressed. But in the end she
declined his offer. As the recipient of a largely state-funded education, DEFENSOR felt
obligated to repay the public's investment, and "the best way I could do it,"
she says, "was to work in government."
As it happened, she had also been approached by Secretary of Justice Juan Ponce Enrile.
Upon graduation in 1969, she became his special assistant. When Enrile moved to the
Defense Department DEFENSOR stayed on under the new secretary of justice, Vicente Abad
Santos. Abad Santos had been dean of the College of Law at UP, although DEFENSOR had not
known him there. For the next several years she would work in daily contact with Abad
Santos, and he became her professional mentor.
MIRIAM met the man who would become her husband, Narciso Santiago, Jr., at law school but,
as she says, law school was about all they had in common. She was from an established, but
not well-off, family from the Visayas; he was the son of a newly rich family from Luzon.
She was a diligent honor student who always sat in the front of the class; he was an
indifferent student who sat in the back.
They met one day when DEFENSOR, arriving late to class because of a meeting with President
Marcos, slipped quietly into the back of the room. There sat Narciso with his friends,
gambling and rating the legs of their women classmates. "I was absolutely
flabbergasted," she remarks, "because I always thought all students were like
me, terrified of the professors . . . in his case, he was having a grand time." Their
romance was a case of the attraction of the opposites. Although she had many other beaus,
Santiago was especially ardent. After finishing law school MIRIAM agreed to marry him. On
14 June 1970 their wedding took place. Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., a friend and
provincemate of Narciso, was a sponsor.
"My husband had very flexed ideas about marriage," MIRIAM recalls. "He
believed that a marriage must produce a child. So I accommodated him and my mother-in-law,
who gave me a cash reward for my efforts. Their first child, a son, Narciso III, was born
13 April 1971. DEFENSOR SANTIAGO, who had added her husband's name to hers, took two
months' maternity leave and then plunged back into her work at the Justice Department.
As special assistant to the secretary, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO now found herself very close to
the center of her country's political life. Ensconced in a little room beside the
secretary's office, she was assigned to do everything his regular staff members could not
do, or could not do quickly enough. She researched materials, drafted speeches and
memoranda, and prepared him for television interviews. Moreover, she often drafted
speeches on law and justice for President Marcos.
Abad Santos monitored her work closely and, in academic fashion, graded it, noting
"good," "very good," or "excellent," as the case might be.
From Abad Santos DEFENSOR SANTIAGO acquired her own, now famous, management style, which
she candidly calls "headbashing." MIRIAM, herself, was spared Abad Santos's
tantrums, however; in fact, he had the much appreciated habit of complimenting her in
DEFENSOR SANTIAGO was not content to meet the demands of a full-time job, marriage, and
motherhood. (In one of her short stories written about this time, a young lawyer says of
herself, "Adrenalin runs in my veins.") In 1971 MIRIAM accepted an evening
teaching position at Trinity College in Quezon City and also began to write law articles
and legal textbooks.
Her most sensitive assignment as special assistant to Enrile had been to prepare a
confidential memorandum for President Marcos on the advisability of declaring martial law.
Locked away in a room, she and three others pored over their law books. "Our
conclusion," she recalls, "was that the president was better advised not to
avail [himself] of this drastic measure. We felt that the many crises that had surfaced at
that time did not yet suffice to mandate such a dramatic action."
Two years passed before Marcos decided that the time had come: he declared martial law on
21 September 1972. Congress was dissolved and many of the president's political opponents
were arrested. Abad Santos, who, like DEFENSOR SANTIAGO, was not personally in favor of
the declaration, managed to resolve his doubts in favor of the president and cooperated.
Following the lead of her mentor, MIRIAM "almost automatically adopted the same
attitude." Like many others at the time, she nourished the hope that the urgent
problems of the day could better be solved "in one bold stroke."
Marcos adopted a new constitution and declared it legal on the basis of a voice vote in
villages around the country. DEFENSOR SANTIAGO'S book, The 1973 Constitution, was
an analysis of the new constitution for students and lawyers. Bowing to the strict
censorship of the times, she refrained from expressing her doubts about the legitimacy of
the document in print. However, with her law students at UPincluding, at one point,
the president's sonshe held that the constitution had not been validly ratified. The
Supreme Court justices who upheld the constitution, she said, "were suffering from a
state of doctrinal confusion." Despite such reservations, she carried on as special
assistant to Abad Santos, who had become minister of justice in the martial law
By 1974 her Saturday morning writing had resulted in a scholarly study on "The
Archipelago Concept in the Law of the Sea" and a textbook entitled International
Relations. She was also writing regular columns for the Philippine Daily Express
on the subject of feminism. At that time she believed "there was an authentic need
for a women's liberation movement," since "women were generally oppressed by the
social and cultural system. Now that I am older," she says fifteen years later,
"I don't think it is relevant or that it is cost efficient . . . you alienate more
people than you win over."
In the fall of 1974, with the blessing of Abad Santos, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO took a leave of
absence from the ministry to study at the University of Michigan in the United States. She
and her husband and son moved to Ann Arbor where, as a Dewitt Fellow, she began work
toward a master's degree. (Her desire to study abroad dated from her disappointment with
the UP College of Law. At that time, she had wondered, "how could U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes have achieved such stature if he went to a law school like
At Michigan, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO enrolled under Professor William W. Bishop, a distinguished
legal scholar of international law. Under his rigorous but kindly tutelage, she honed her
analytical powers and, for the first time, enjoyed law as an intellectual discipline.
"Michigan is where I really went to school," she says. "It was like
graduating from a fishbowl into the ocean." Bishop encouraged her to work for a
doctorate, which she achieved by disciplined study during the academic year 1975-76. Her
thesis was published in 1977 as Political Offenders in International Law,
followed over the next decade by seven other articles on mayor legal questions.
In Ann Arbor, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO and her family joined in the social life of the local
Filipino community. For parties she cooked rellenong bangus, a stuffed fish dish
requiring painstaking preparation. Normally, she recognized, someone in graduate school
did not take the time to do that, but her perverse streak compelled her to prove she
The Santiagos returned to the Philippines in 1976 and MIRIAM joined Abad Santos at the
Ministry of Justice. When he moved to the Supreme Court three years later, she stayed at
the ministry but, on occasion, helped him draft decisions. But when later in 1979 she was
offered the post of legal officer with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees
(UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland, Abad Santos encouraged her to accept, and she did. Thus,
with her son and "most competent maid," DEFENSOR SANTIAGO moved to Europe, while
her husbandwho was not permitted to work under Swiss lawremained in Manila.
Her duties involved planning and attending conferences on refugee law and analyzing draft
treaties affecting refugees. In 1980, however, her father developed terminal cancer and
she returned to Manila to care for him; he died six months later. Nevertheless, she
remained in Manila and became consultant to the UP Law Center. On 2 October 1981, her
second child, Alexander, was born.
The young lawyer was then invited to become legal consultant at the Philippine Embassy in
the United States, where President Marcos's brother-in-law was ambassador: "that was
an invitation I couldn't refuse," she notes. When she reported for work, however, she
found she had little to do but attend cocktail parties.
On leave in Manila a few months later, ostensibly to arrange to move her children and
husband to Washington, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO learned of an impending nationwide reorganization
of the judiciary. She seized the opportunity to fulfill a deathbed pledge to her
father"that I would do my best to serve my country as a trial judge, as he
had." She sought an appointment as regional trial judge in Quezon City, the part of
Metro Manila housing the legislature of the Philippines and many of the government
This was considered a plum post. Appointments to trial judgeships anywhere in Metro Manila
were generally awarded only to those who had served in the provinces for seven to ten
years. In her case, she had not seen a courtroom in her entire adult life.
With characteristic forwardness, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO went directly to the chief justice of
the Supreme Court, Enrique Fernando, who had once offered her a judgeship on Mindoro
Island, and asked to be nominated for Quezon City. She requested Quezon City, she told
him, so that she could continue teaching at the UP College of Law. ("Fernando was
known to be very, very partisan in favor of UP.") Her mentor (now Associate Justice)
Abad Santos was also enlisted to support her candidacy. Leaving nothing to chance, she
sought the help of Juan Tuvera, an old, personal friend, who was President Marcos's
executive assistant. It was Tuvera who approached Marcos with the appointment letter and
who stood by and watched as the president signed it.
As a regional trial judge, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO heard major cases in criminal and civil law
and handled special proceedings. In any given week, she might hear criminal cases ranging
from bad checks through drug dealing, robbery, rape, and murder, and civil suits involving
adoption, probate, or large claims between competing businessmen. The Philippine judicial
system follows the European system in eschewing jury trials: the judge determines guilt or
innocence and metes out sentences.
DEFENSOR SANTIAGO assumed her new post, determined to redeem the reputation of her
country's judiciary. Philippine judges were then widely perceived to be corrupta
perception she believes to have been all too accurate. She was determined "to prove
that a party could go before me and rest assured that I would decide the case on the
merits, that I would never receive a bribe to decide a case."
To emphasize this position, she established strict procedures limiting access to her
chambers by litigants: "You can always tell me everything you want to tell me . . .
in the courtroom when the other party is present," she announced. Those who tried to
bribe her, she threatened with citations for contempt of court. To make the point, she
sent some immediately to jail, ordering them released, relieved but shaken, shortly
thereafter. She admonished her staff against accepting or forwarding to her any gifts from
interested parties. In a procedure manual she wrote, now used widely by other judges, she
stated: "The first rule of this courtroom is no bribes, no extortion." To a
judge who sent her unsolicited advice about one of her cases, she replied through his
messenger that, "if he wants to decide my case, then I should take steps to have the
case transferred to him." Rebuffing influences from all sides, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO
eventually got her message across. After six months people stopped trying to influence her
DEFENSOR SANTIAGO'S most famous case pitted her stubborn independence against the
government forces of Ferdinand Marcos. By presidential decree, criticizing the government
in a public assembly was an offense punishable by death. And, as she points out, "an
illegal public assembly was defined as a gathering of two or more people."
Following the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr., in August 1983, rallies,
demonstrations, and strikes against the Marcos government proliferated. The government
made selective arrests. During a military rally on the occasion of a jeepney driver's
strike in 1985, several speakers who criticized the governmentand in particular the
First Ladywere rounded up by the police and military. They were held under a
Preventive Detention Action Order issued by the president himself. Those arrested included
film director Lino Brocka. When he and his companions requested release on bail, DEFENSOR
SANTIAGO faced the question: "In a martial law situation, can a mere regional trial
jury overrule the president of the republic?"
Judges in the past had prudently sustained such arrests a denied bail. DEFENSOR SANTIAGO
now experienced indirect intimidation from military men and anonymous death threats. She
knew that a decision against the president might place her in jeopardy assassination
("at that time people had a mysterious habit of getting killed in vehicular
accidents") or of being detained herself. Having scrupulously examined the issues,
however, the judge ordered Brocka and the others released.
In the severely repressive climate of the times, her decision was sensational. Because of
it, she became a hero to those opposing the Marcos regime, and she welcomed the publicity
because "it represented an opportunity for me to demonstrate that the judicial system
was working, that it was intellectually honest."
Aside from restoring integrity to the judiciary, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO was eager to restore
efficiency. Among the problems she found was interminable delay. Delays occurred, in part,
because there were too many litigious Filipinos. But aside from this, there was the habit
of postponement of cases. Lawyers routinely appeared in court on their appointed days,
only to request postponement, usually pleading "diarrhea" on the part of
themselves, clients, or witnesses. (Lawyers were paid by clients whenever they appeared,
even though the case was not brought to trial.) In many courtrooms this habit was so
entrenched that the vast majority of cases scheduled to be heard on any given day would be
The young judge moved decisively to break this habit, refusing to grant postponements
without real cause. In so doing, she says, "I created my own monster." The
faster cases were tried, the sooner her decisions had to be rendered. She had to work
doggedly to prevent a backlog and was under great personal stress. Nevertheless, she had a
case disposal rate of fifty per month, one of the highest in Metro Manila. What is more,
her meticulously constructed decisions were rarely appealed; three are pending before the
Supreme Court. During this period, she received four major awards: Outstanding Woman in
Iloilo in 1984, and in 1986 the National Police Commission Distinguished Achievement
Award, the Lion's Club Award to Outstanding Women in the Nation's Service, and the
prestigious Jaycee TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) Award, opened to women the previous
As the crisis attending the later years of the Marcos regime deepened, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO
carried on her personal battle for judicial integrity in her courtroom and addressed
constitutional issues in her classrooms. But she adhered strictly to the prohibition
barring judges from taking part in partisan political activities. Privately, she came to
feel that the downfall and disgrace of Ferdinand Marcos was inevitable, but also rather
sad. In her years in the Justice Department she had come to admire him as a truly gifted
Filipino, "a man with the law at his fingertips . . . and a masterful
By the time of the February Revolution of 1986, however, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO was seen as an
exception in Marcos's corrupt government. She seemed to represent the spirit of integrity
that many Filipinos hoped to see restored under the new president, Corazon Aquino.
Although President Aquino's husband had been a sponsor MIRIAMs wedding, the two
women had never met. DEFENSOR SANTIAGO first came to the attention of Aquino as the Judge
who stood up Marcos in the Lino Brocka trial. The president offered her several positions,
but DEFENSOR SANTIAGO declined them all so that she could continue to work close to her
home in Quezon Cityshe treasured having lunch with son Alexanderand to the UP
campus where she was still teaching. Finally, faced with finding a new chief for the
country's notoriously mismanaged Commission on Immigration and Deportation (CID), Aquino
made a special appeal to DEFENSOR SANTIAGO to accept. MIRIAM likes to say that her first
instinct was to say, "insanity does not run in my family!" But in a
heart-to-heart talk with the president she relented, although not before express) her
preference for a Supreme Court justiceship. "I told her . . . if you think this is
the best way for me to help you, so be it. It's my duty to accept." On 4 January
1988, "the fighting judge of Quezon City took charge of the CID.
Under Philippine law, the CID has two broad responsibilities: (1) admit, register, and
monitor desirable aliens; and (2) to exclude or deport undesirable aliens. At the time
DEFENSOR SANTIAGO assumed her post the CID performed neither of these functions well. Its
mandate exclude and deport undesirable aliens was thoroughly undermined by corrupt
practices in which CID employees themselves were deeply involved. These practices had made
it possible for hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens to enter and to remain in the
Philippines illegally and had created a climate in which dozens of alien criminal
syndicates freely traded in fake travel documents, drugs, guns, prostitutes, and even
infants. Routine procedures for acquiring visa extensions and travel documents by
foreigners were also riddled with corruption. All too often, otherwise legal transactions
involved paying bribes to CID officers and clerks, as well as fees to illegal
"fixers" who loitered on CID premises and "interceded" with its
employees on behalf of clients seeking service. DEFENSOR SANTIAGOs mandate from the
president was "to clean up" the commission.
She attacked on all fronts at once, making bold strikes against criminality and corruption
and moving decisively to streamline the CIDs overly bureaucraticized system.
Rapidly revitalizing and strengthening the CID's intelligence division, she struck swiftly
against alien criminal syndicates. Raids and arrests began in her third week in office and
continued at a steady rate thereafter. Supervising her agents personally, she sent teams
to arrest Pakistani, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, and Malaysian passport forgers; Indian loan
sharks; Australian con men peddling phony insurance; and Japanese, Taiwanese, and
Singaporean gangsters. Her men rounded up illegal aliens running brothels and peddling
drugs. They uncovered a ring of swindlers posing as diplomats from the "Maori Kingdom
of Tetiti"a fictitious countryand Japanese and Taiwanese smugglers.
Syndicates trading in mail-order brides and Filipino babies were put out of business. And
in a daring raid on a tourist lodge outside Manila, CID agents captured twenty-two
European and American pederasts engaged in sexual acts with Filipino boys.
In eight months the newly aggressive CID teams arrested 323 criminal aliens, 241 of whom
were promptly deported following their hearings before Boards of Special Inquiry. This was
a 474 percent increase over a similar period the year before! The commissioner made
certain her dramatic raids gained maximum publicity in the press. Photographs of the
criminals, often covering their faces in shame, appeared on the front pages of newspapers,
along with pictures of her. Soon everyone knew who "MIRIAM" was. This publicity
served to dramatize the government's no-holds-barred response to criminal activity, and at
the same time, by making her a visible public figure, it gave the commissioner leverage
against her powerful enemies. During this period she was receiving as many as three death
threats a day.
Simultaneous with her frontal assault on alien criminal syndicates, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO
began tackling what she called the "widespread, deeply roofed . . . culture of
corruption" among CID employees. The "cost" for alien documentation, she
discovered, involved bribes ranging from one thousand pesos (U.S.$50) to over fifty
thousand pesos per person. Nonofficial fixers moved freely in and out of CID offices,
easing their way with bribes to security guards, clerks, and even officers. At the
airport, document checkers and intelligence agents made "fortunes in day,"
facilitating the entry of aliens without proper papers and ccepting gifts in return for
not harassing legal arrivees. The more brazen CID employees flaunted their ill-gotten
gains by wearing ostentatious gold jewelry and habituating posh clubs and restaurants.
The commissioner attributed the pervasive corruption at her agency in part to salaries too
low to enable a person to support a family. This made bribe-taking hard to resist, and all
the more so because for many years Filipinos had enjoyed few examples of morality among
their leaders. DEFENSOR SANTIAGO also blamed what he called "the tribal system of
political protection," under which individuals with the highest connections were free
to be the most corrupt. Thus rampant poverty and lawlessness in the land, as well as red
tape and inefficiency in government, contributed to making corruption a way of life.
Moreover, "the Filipino thinks that anything legal must be necessarily inconvenient
and difficult," DEFENSOR SANTIAGO notes, "and anything illegal must necessarily
In seeking to break the patterns of corruption in her agency, the commissioner emphasized
visible moral leadershipher own and that of President Aquino. She also set about
rationalizing CID's procedures introducing reforms to reduce or eliminate inefficiencies,
bottlenecks and lax supervision. CID rules and regulations were posted on big signs at
headquarters and published in convenient pamphlet form; new plain-language manual
explaining the regulations to employee was also published. After studying processing
centers abroad, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO redesigned the physical aspects of the registration
center Before, it was easy for aliens and fixers to mingle casually with processing clerks
and officers; now, processing clerks are insulated from the public behind counters and
glass windows. The floor plan now provides for easy movement from one stage to the next,
and there is a special waiting area. The registration center is also bigger and can handle
five hundred applicants a day.
In all of this change, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO strove to make the CID "user friendly."
For example, she established a hotline at the airport for departing passengers detained by
CID inspectors. To expedite requests for speedy service at headquarters, she set up the
Express Lane Service where, for a fee, individuals can have their paperworked completed in
one day's time. By April 1988 the express lane were processing some fifty-seven hundred
applications a month, bringing in over a million pesos (U.S.$250,000). This money is used
to provide overtime pay and bonuses for CID employees.
At the same time, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO began evaluating her employees, transferring suspected
bribe takers from lucrative sinecures and subjecting egregious violators to administrative
proceedings. In March, for example, she padlocked CID's visa extension office and
suspended its twenty staff members, including the section chief, pending administrative
hearings. In July, forty-five airport employees were replaced and moved to the main
She also introduced training. The new CID staff of the International Airport's Travel
Control Service were among the first graduates of her reorientation seminars, which
included courses on values and role responsibility, as well as identification of fake
travel documents. In one month the number of arrests at the airport nearly doubled.
CID employees whose illegal incomes were threatened by DEFENSOR SANTIAGOs reforms
obviously resented the personnel changes. Some of them fomented work stoppages and
protests against the new commissioner's "feisty" ways. On the other hand, the
CID's honest employees at last had a champion of their own. While scrupulously honoring
the procedures protecting the civil service, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO has continued to move her
cleansing operation forward.
The problem of illegal aliens includes foreign visitors whose once valid visas have
expired, as well as aliens who entered the country legally. By the commissioner's rough
estimate, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens now reside in the Philippines. Large
numbers of them are of Indian and Indonesian nationality, but most are Chinese. Fearful of
arrest and deportation, many protected themselves by paying off CID case officers who
periodically "shook them down" with mock arrests. Others simply melted into the
local population, hoping never to be discovered. The vast majority are engaged in no
illegal activity per se.
DEFENSOR SANTIAGO'S approach was practical: "obviously I could not arrest and deport
five hundred thousand illegal aliens," she pointed out. On her first day in of office
she declared a temporary visa extension; people coming forward voluntarily would be
granted a three-month extension automatically, time enough to settle their affairs.
Subsequently, she proposed an alien legalization program whereby those ho had entered the
Philippines before 1 January 1984, and were without criminal record, could qualify for
status as permanent residents. Under her scheme these residents would be documented,
monitored, and, for the first time, taxed. Moreover, the application fee of fifty-one
thousand pesos (U.S.$2,500) would enrich state coffers instead of bribe takers and fixers.
In April, President Aquino approved the commissioner's plan in an executive order, and
legalization began August. In the first month, over five hundred people applied.
DEFENSOR SANTIAGO has had the personal backing of the president, for whom she works
directly. Her decisive style and self-confident ways have not endeared her to everyone in
the administration, however, nor to other powerful members of government. In a move that
socked many people in her first month in office, she lifted a "hold order"
banning exit from the Philippines of several hundred relatives and associates of former
President Ferdinand Marcos. Adhering strictly the constitution and to immigration laws,
she defied any government official to show her a law authorizing such an order. A few
months later, adhering strictly to constitutional provisions guaranteeing public access to
government information, she released the names of several prominent elected politicians
who were registered as aliens, most whom were "permanent residents" of the
United States despite their Philippine birth and citizenship. To thoseusually her
victims who claimed she was overreaching her authority, she insisted on her legal
Some members of the government faulted her for not being a team player, and she was
roundly criticized for poor judgment and lack of delicadeza (delicacy). But she stubbornly
defended the stands she took and responded flippantly to expressions of outrage by saying,
"I am one of those people who was born to raise hell." In a landmark decision in
June 1988 over the arrest and deportation of Western pedophiles, the Supreme Court upheld
After eight months in office, Commissioner DEFENSOR SANTIAGO could not claim to have
wholly cleansed the CID of corrupt employees. Some 10 percent of CID's workforce, she
believes, are incorrigibly criminal. Nor has she fully solved the problems of overstaying
aliens and criminal syndicates. (She does note that the price of a fake passport has
doubled since she took over.) Her "Accomplishment Report," nevertheless,
documented her main achievement as winning public support.
Public support is important because there remains an urgent need for new policies and
procedures. The commissioner has proposed replacing the 1940 Philippine Immigration Code
with one that addresses the realities of the late twentieth century, e.g., a preferential
system for granting immigration status on the basis of nationality and the exclusion of
aliens for engaging in activities such as homosexual prostitution and trafficking in
More sweeping still is DEFENSOR SANTIAGOs recommendation, submitted as a bill to
both houses of Congress in August, calling for the abolition of the CID and its
replacement by a Commission on Immigration and Naturalization. This bill would revamp the
structure of the service to respond to modern needs and problems. It would terminate all
present employees, starting with the commissioner, in order to make way for a streamlined
personnel structure. (DEFENSOR SANTIAGO emphasizes that the proposed reorganization
provides for the "reappointment of the great majority of the employees who show
willingness to cooperate with the program of reforms and against whom there is no serious
At first the commissioner assumed that her term at CID would be brief. Moreover, her early
successes and positive public image quickly led to her being proposed for higher public
office. She soon realized, however, that institutionalizing the needed reforms would take
a long time. She now says, "I will stay as long as necessary to impress the public
mindboth the minds of those against and those for methat the reforms are
long-standing." This will take two years, at least, she estimates.
In explaining why she has succeeded where others have failed, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO points to
the positive value of novelty. She is a female in a traditionally male-dominated office,
and she is young; these facts add drama to the situation, she says. So also does the fact
that, despite threats against her life, she remains publicly active and vocal: "They
can see me on almost a daily basis, on TV or in the newspapers. I'm still slugging
away." And, she adds, she is willing to do things others are not; most people prefer
to let someone else do the dirty job.
On the negative side, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO points out that she has had to learn to think like
a criminal, an ironic situation for someone with her deep religious faith and piety. Even
in her whirlwind life as commissioner, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO continues to go to mass each day,
rising at 5:30 A.M. in order to do so. Her strong beliefs buoy her in the midst of public
criticism and danger. "I believe there is a God," she says, "that he is
good, and that he will ensure that eventually good will triumph over evil."
Corruption, she believes, is evil; her public crusade for good government is characterized
by very simple messages. As she told the 1988 graduating class of elite Maryknoll College:
"There is always a need to remember the eternal verities. It is a sin to tell a lie.
Honesty is the best policy. It is wrong to steal other people's property."
Thus, no matter how complex and seemingly overwhelming the problems of her country may
be"the culture of poverty, the culture of lawlessness, the culture of
corruption" MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO asserts emphatically that the "force of a
moral example should never be underestimated."
Acosta, Omar M. "German Women Held for Selling Infants." Philippine Daily
Inquirer, 25 June 1988.
______. "Nine Suspected 'Bamboo Gang' Men Nabbed." Philippine Daily Inquirer,
2 July 1988.
Barrameda, Nes. "Santiago Defends Airport Revamp." Manila Times, 5 July
______. "Santiago Defies Order of Justice Secretary. " Manila Times, 13
Callo, Kathleen. "Death Threats, Armed Guards Easy Parts of Miriam's Job." Philippine
Daily Inquirer, 10 February 1988.
"Child Prostitution Network Busted." Philippine Daily Inquirer, 28
"CID Chief Hurls Chairs at Erring Employees." Manila Chronicle, 25 June
"CID Names Government Officials Listed as Aliens." Business World,
(Manila), 24 March 1988.
Defensor Santiago, Miriam. The Archipelago Concept in the Law of the Sea Problems and
Perspectives. Makati: Development Academy of the Philippines, 1982.
______. The Archipelago Concept in the Law of the Sea." Philippine Law Journal 49
______. "The Culture of Corruption." Outline of extemporaneous speech delivered
before the Manila Rotary Club, 14 January 1988. Typescript.
______. "Fighting Graft and Corruption in Government." Paper presented at
Awardees Forum, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, 1 September 1988.
______. "The Infinite Intelligence." Manila Times, 21 April 1988.
______. International Relations. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1974.
______. Interview by James R. Rush. Tape recordings, September 1988. Ramon Magsaysay Award
______. The 1973 Constitution. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1973.
______. Political Offenses in International Law. Quezon City: University of the
Philippine Law Center, 1977.
______. Staff Manual. Regional Trial Court, Branch 106, Quezon City, 1983.
______. "The Supreme Court Applies 'Clear and Present Danger': But Which One?" Philippine
Law Journal 60 (1985).
______. "Suerdo." Philippines Free Press, 3 July 1971.
______. "What About This Women's Lib Thing?" Focus Philippines, 27
"Defensor Santiago Vows to Lead by Example at CID." Business World (Manila),
21 July 1988.
Estacio, Athle Wijangco. "Miriam Defensor Santiago: All Set to Dig in Her Heels at
the CID. " Sunday Times Magazine (Manila), 3 January 1988.
Flores, Jamil Maidan. "The Wages of Virtue." Philippine Panorama, 3
"Immigration Men at Airport Reshuffled." Manila Times, 2 July 1988.
Mangaser, Lito. "Miriam Loses Temper." Manila Chronicle, 7 July 1988.
______. "Santiago Eyes Legalization of 300,000 Aliens." Manila Chronicle,
17 June 1988.
Manlogon, Melanie. "The Lady Is a Tiger." Midweek. 6 April 1988.
Paunlaqul, Milagros D. "CID Boss Cracks Down on Corrupt NAIA Personnel." Journal
(Manila). 23 June 1988.
______. "CID Busts International Swindling Ring." Journal (Manila), 20
Pelaez-Marfori, Berry. "I Was Born to Raise Hell." Chronicle on Sunday (Manila).
8 May 1988.
Republic of the Philippines. Commission on Immigration and Deportation. Accomplishment
Report. January to August 1988.
"SC Upholds CID on Pedophiles." Manila Bulletin, 20 July 1988.
Severino, Horacio. "The Wrong Way to Fight Aids." Chronicle on Sunday
(Manila), 10 April 1988.
"Tough Job, Tough Lady." Asiaweek, 1 April 1988.
Various interviews with and letters from persons acquainted with Miriam Defensor Santiago
and her work.