A self-proclaimed contract gunman who said he was commanded to kill Philippines opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr. was arrested in Los Angeles a month ago during an undercover police sting operation and was handed over to immigration authorities for possible deportation, authorities said Wednesday.
It was unclear whether Jose Santos, 36, really was a major league hit man who took part in more than 50 murders ordered by the Philippine government, as he claims, or whether he was a common street hoodlum, as officials in his homeland contend.
In either event, Santos--his request for political asylum voided and having been ordered deported because he failed to appear at a hearing three months ago--is being held in Oakland pending further proceedings.
Although Santos claimed last year in sworn statements to a congressional committee and to a Philippines investigative panel that he formerly belonged to a hit squad called "The Monkeys," who carried out executions at the direction of the Philippine military, a spokesman for the Philippine Embassy in Washington said Wednesday that Santos is wanted for "ordinary common-crime murders," rather than political assassinations.
Ray Naval, the embassy spokesman, said Santos "is only one of several people who have claimed they were given orders by the government to kill Aquino. His claims are obviously fantastic."
Aquino was assassinated in August, 1983, as he arrived in Manila to muster opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos. Santos testified in Los Angeles before an official Philippines fact-finding board last June that a general ordered him to kill Aquino, but that he did not return to get the details and did not take part.
Series of Raids
The March 1 arrest of Santos was revealed Wednesday after Robert Carbrera, described as a Santos associate, was apprehended with 17 others in a series of raids throughout Los Angeles County to stem the illegal trafficking of stolen credit cards and other stolen property.
Los Angeles Police Cmdr. William Booth said Carbrera was arrested for investigation of various charges, including illegal possession of automatic weapons and phony $100 bills and legal resident visas, the so-called "green cards."
Santos was not involved in any of the alleged illegal activities uncovered by the sting operation, Booth said, but was "taken off the street because of his violent history in the Philippines."
Police officers took Santos into custody after learning that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had issued a warrant charging him with being in the United States illegally.
According to INS spokesman John Belluardo in Los Angeles, Santos entered this country Jan. 16, 1984, on a non-immigrant visa good for one month, but remained here and turned himself into INS officials in San Francisco last April 24 after being declared an illegal alien.
The INS held him without bond, but an immigration judge ordered him released on $5,000 bail. The INS appealed on the grounds that he was a dangerous man and would not stay in touch with officials while his status was being decided.
He applied for political asylum, and insisted that his life was in jeopardy if he returned to the Philippines, Belluardo said.
Last October, an immigration appeals board overturned the judge's decision and ordered Santos arrested. But he had disappeared and was declared a fugitive.
Last Jan. 8, when he failed to appear for an immigration hearing, a judge voided his request for political asylum and issued a warrant for his immediate arrest. It was on that warrant that Los Angeles police apprehended him March 1 after having had him under surveillance during the sting operation.