“Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”
By Alex P. Vidal
Twenty five years ago, the regional Narcotics Command (Narcom) headed by Capt. Eduardo Bianzon uprooted and burned what they believed to be some 1,000 coca plants in Agho island, located off the coasts of Concepcion, Iloilo and allegedly broke open the mini-laboratory reportedly owned by Australian couple Tom and Terry Kurt.
Bianzon described the mini-laboratory as “a complete factory for cocaine” after the raid on August 25, 1988.
According to a report by then Daily Times editor Manuel P. Mejorada, the Kurt couple “have been gone for almost two years now. Perhaps they were alarmed when the operations of the monkey farm in San Rafael, Iloilo owned by Jack Vacek was busted and packed their things for other destinations.”
Mejorada was one of the only two Iloilo journalists allowed by the Narcom (now Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency) to board one of the choppers that flew to Agho island from the Iloilo airport in Mandurriao district on August 19, 1988. The other one was Bombo Radyo’s Rodel Fullon Agado, who is now Iloilo City councilor.
Mejorada described the island as “one of those tropical hideaways which provide an ideal retreat for the busy city dweller. Wedged between two bigger islands, Agho is a tiny dot from the air, surrounded by blue, pristine waters. The place is perfect for a weekend of swimming, snorkeling, sailing and other water sports.”
To recap the event that transpired in Agho island, this was how Mejorada narrated the story in the August 20, 1988 issue of the Daily Times: “That–the picture of sea-loving tourists here to enjoy the country’s scenic spots–appears to be the cover conceived by the couple Tom and Terry Kurt when they first came to the island way back in 1981.
“The Kurts told the local folk they were looking for a place where they could commune with nature, to be far away from the hectic life in the cities.
“Thus, nobody suspected that the couple were up to something when they began building a cottage on a hill which offered a vantage point over the entire area. They hired local laborer and paid well. Leonard Villaris, 55, told the Daily Times that he worked on the island for three months. ‘I helped Kurt build his cottage,’ he said.
“Fishermen from neighboring islands were also free to cast their nets in the waters surrounding the island. Restituto Ciriaco, 34, recalls that he supplied the couple with a daily supply of shrimps and fish. ‘They were kind to me,’ he said. ‘In fact, Mrs. Kurt even volunteered to teach the women in the nearby islands special skills like embroidery.’
“Things started to change, however, just when Kurt finished the construction of a small building and landed laboratory equipment in 1981. He had already installed a generator to provide electricity for the cottage and the other buildings. Soon a ‘no trespassing’ sign was put up. Doberman guard dogs suddenly turned up at the island to discourage unwanted visitors from straying into the area. To enforce this warning, an armed guard kept a sharp eye for intruders on a 24-hour basis. Visitors had to ring a bell at the dock area and wait for the ‘household’ to allow them into the island.
“‘I became suspicious at once,’ Barangay Captain Magno Bordan said. ‘The hospitable Kurts suddenly declared the island off-limits for no apparent reason.’ Bordan said that even fishermen who tried to fish in the waters near the island were shooed away. ‘Nobody really knew what was going on in the island from that time on,’ Bordan said.
“Unknown to the native islanders, Kurt had found that the soil conditions on the island was ideal for growing the coca plant. He brought in coca seedlings and planted these on a hilly portion of the island just below the cottage. To camouflage the coca plants, he inter-planted them with a local plant which is very similar in appearance.
“‘Absolutely nobody from the neighboring islands were allowed to work there anymore,’ Bordan said. ‘The laborers came all the way from Cebu.’ Apparently, Kurt didn’t want the local residents to poke their nose around and stumble into his illicit operations. By keeping them out, he was assured that nobody was going to disturb him for a while.
“That continued for the next five years. The people from the neighboring islands were kept in the dark as to what was going on during all that time. It was only last week when agents from the Narcotics Command stormed the island armed with a search warrant, that they came to know about the tale of the intrigue and mystery that filled the island’s recent history.
“‘It’s amazing how they were able to escape notice this long,’ Bianzon said, who credits the vigilance of local officials like Concepcion mayor Betsie Salcedo, Governor Simplicio Grino and the provincial commander, Lt. Col. Jesus Almaden Jr. for the successful operation. Bianzon found evidence that the Agho plantation is linked to the San Rafael monkey farm; the guard on the island is the same person who worked as security man for Vacek when his farm was raided two years ago.”
A week after the raid, however, Mayor Salcedo belied the claims of the Narcom. The Philippine News Agency (PNA) quoted Salcedo as saying that “there was no official confirmation of reports that the wild plants discovered in Agho island are really coca plants.”
The plants uprooted and burned by Bianzon and his men were the “opathalo” plants which are used as firewood by island residents.
Salcedo’s view was shared by then US Consul Franklin Huddle Jr. who said that there was really no laboratory test on the wild plants taken from the small island to confirm if it is really the coca plants, reported the PNA.
Huddle reportedly based his observation “on media reports” about the discovery. Bianzon earlier reported that the raid on Agho island was conducted after a laboratory test made on samples taken from the place positively confirmed that these were wild coca plants.
A similar raid conducted on another farm in San Rafael a few days after the Agho island discovery also resulted in the seizure of several coca plants which Australian and U.S. drug agents confirmed to be the “real” thing, according to Bianzon.
The PNA said Salcedo herself was present when Brig. Gen. Pantaleon Dumlao and other military officials visited the island to destroy the wild coca plants uprooted there.
The PNA reported that “Bianzon was not immediately available to comment on these contradictory observations aired by Mayor Salcedo and the American diplomat.”