49 years ago, on the early morning of 15 January 1973, an 8-man firing squad shot the convicted Chinese drug lord Lim Seng at Fort Bonifacio. The event marked a historical first in the country’s penal history as being the first and only public execution during Martial Law. Around 5,000 people witnessed the execution, including journalists and broadcasters.
Lim Seng, alias Gan Suo So, owned a restaurant, a printing press, mining interests, and other legitimate businesses to cover his illegal activities. He became Metro Manila’s version of Walter White during that time. If you know Breaking Bad, you know what I mean.
According to reports, he sourced the raw materials from the Golden Triangle, a large area in Southeast Asia that produces opium and heroin. The raw materials were delivered to Lim in his Manila Hotel suite and then to his laboratories located in rented mansions in Caloocan and other areas in Metro Manila. There, morphine was processed and refined into high-grade heroin. Lim Seng produced about 100 kilograms of heroin a month, 90 percent of which was exported to Thailand, Singapore, and the US West Coast.
On 27 September 1972, a few days after the declaration of Martial Law, he was arrested and found in his possession 34.75 pounds of heroin. Lim Seng pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment on 18 October 1972. However, in a Presidential Decree dated 7 November 1972, President Marcos approved the sentence but increased the penalty to death by musketry to be executed on 15 January 1973 at 6:00 am at Fort Bonifacio.
Lim Seng woke up a few minutes before 4:00 am in his cell at Camp Crame. Lt. Col. Simplicio Quano read his execution order in English. In an available YouTube video, Lim appeared calm probably because he couldn’t understand English. According to reports, it was only when Quano explained in Filipino the significance of the execution order that Lim fully comprehended what was to take place.
Later on, Lim talked to his mother, his wife, four of his five children, and his brother who have been waiting to see him from a nearby office. After a few minutes, the family members left for home. Lim requested that no photograph of his family be taken.
At 5:55 am, the military convoy that escorted Lim from Camp Crame arrived at Fort Bonifacio. The handcuffed Lim Seng went out of a black car escorted by two members of the Philippine Constabulary. Lim’s head was not shaved like those who were executed in Muntinlupa. He refused a last meal. He wore a light blue sports shirt and dark blue pants as he also refused to wear the required execution garb of black pants and shirt.
At 5:57 am, the military policemen strapped Lim Seng to a wooden post with a concrete base. He was propped up by a black strip of cloth around the chest.
Lt. Col. Florentino Marpa, an AFP doctor, took his pulse and blood pressure. The check revealed that Lim’s pulse rate was rapid and his blood pressure high, betraying the stoic stance he had been showing since the execution order was read to him.
After that, the military policemen put a blindfold made of a thick black strip of cloth to cover Lim’s eyes. His legs were bound with white rope.
Then, the drum roll began, and as it faded, Lt. Jose Agawin, Jr. gave the order in Filipino: “Handa, sipat, putok!” (Ready, aim, fire!). A valley of gunfire shots from eight M-1 rifles broke out and sent seven .30-calibre bullets into his chest. Lim’s head slightly jerked and remained motionless for a few seconds. Then his head slowly slumped.
Lt. Col. Marpa and two military policemen approached Lim’s body to examine the body. At 6:06 am Marpa approached then Philippine Constabulary chief Brig. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos (who in later years became the 12th President of the Republic of the Philippines) and declared Lim dead.
Ramos then lifted the telephone hotline to Malacañang and reported, “It is all over.”
Lim’s body was unstrapped from the post and placed on a stretcher and carried away. The crowd surged forward to the post for a closer look at it. It was 6:08 am.
The open field execution was witnessed by a crowd estimated at 5,000 with another 10,000 more waiting at the gate. Barely one-tenth of the total number of people who came actually “saw it”. The others had to be content with the sounds that mattered most: a muffled drum roll and the volley of shots. Several minutes later, witnesses saw a funeral car whisked away the body covered with black sheets.
Everything happened in just less than ten minutes.
Most people at the time believed the propaganda that Lim Seng’s death would end the drug problem in the Philippines.
This event became an urban legend as I was growing up. One elder told me that possessing a single stick of marijuana cigarette would put you in the firing squad just like Lim Seng.
Lim Seng’s death should remind us that there might be another solution to the drug menace aside from killing drug pushers. Come to think about it, he was the only drug lord executed by a firing squad during the 14 years of Martial Law and no one came even close after that. His execution became a campaign for law and order during Martial Law but that later spiraled into other killings and unexplained disappearances (deseparacidos). It was an attempt to set a good example that would serve as a deterrent against the growing drug problem but went all in vain.
I was only 4 years old when Lim Seng died and I still have these questions in my mind as I’ve read my sources:
- Why did Lim Seng face a military trial when he was not even a military personnel? Was it because it was Martial Law?
- How come Lim’s sentence of life imprisonment became death by musketry? What made President Marcos change his mind?
- He was arrested on 27 September, sentenced on 18 October, and executed on 15 January the next year. Was it really that fast? Was there really a due process?
- According to reports, there were seven bullets that entered his chest. If there were 8 riflemen, where did the 8th bullet go? Or better yet, who among the 8 riflemen failed to shoot him?
- Is his death a good example to end the drug problem? Or is capital punishment the answer?
Since the Philippines doesn’t have the death penalty nowadays, we will never see public execution like this. However, it is sad to think that extrajudicial killings (EJK) committed by law enforcers try to replace drug-related executions.