Remembering Alfredo Lim, the Manila cop they called 'Dirty Harry'

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In this October 2007 profile on the former Manila City Mayor Alfredo Lim, writer and editor Erwin Romulo spend time with the mayor they called “Dirty Harry.” They discuss his vigilante style of crime-fighting and no-nonsense approach to governance. Photo from ALFREDO LIM/FACEBOOK; Illustration by JL JAVIER

Former Manila City Mayor Alfredo Lim passed away on Saturday afternoon, his daughter Cynthia Lim confirmed. He was 90.

Metro Manila (October 2007) — July 30, 1958, sometime past 2:30 in the morning. Putting down the phone after making the routine call back to the desk, Det. Victoriano Gandia informed the rest of the team — Det. Alfredo S. Lim and Pat. Federico Jaymalin — about a suspicious-looking blue jeep with a TPU license plate cruising around the area of San Nicholas. Inside the vehicle were about five men.

From the Gagalangin area, they rushed to check out the scene, slowing down only as they neared. At night, the dimly lit streets of Manila forced the darkness to congeal in corners while the susurrus of the empty thoroughfares, the sound of a city asleep, only served to amplify the beating in their chests.

The team made a right turn from Jaboneros to Alcaicera — just then they spotted a jeep parked at the corner of San Fernando. There was a man in the driver’s seat; the motor’s engine could be heard. Along the sidewalk, there were four men huddled together.

At the wheel, Gandia drove slowly towards them. But as soon as the light hit the group they began to disperse. “Pulis kami!” shouted Gandia and that was when the veil of pretence was ripped apart. Shots rang out, missing Lim only by a few inches. The jeep sped off, leaving their three companions. One of them ran after the vehicle and was chased by Jaymalin; Lim and Gandia concentrated their fire on the other two. The gunfight that ensued between the two groups didn’t last long — the policemen cutting down their targets quickly. But no sooner did the second man slump to the ground when Lim followed his colleague to chase after the last man. As he ran, the fugitive fired back at the policemen, but the two charged on, firing back until the third man lay in a pool of his blood in the middle of Calle Alcaicera. His companions lay in theirs a few meters away.

“If someone accuses me of wrongdoing, I’ll be the first to demand an investigation,” says Mayor Alfredo Lim to a group of students from different schools in the city. About the current ZTE controversy surrounding the First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, he says that he’s dismayed at the non-appearance at the first committee hearing on the issue by the department heads summoned to appear. “You seize the bull by the horns,” he says in that distinctive monotone of his, grabbing the air as if taking hold of the animal itself at that very moment. “Parang torero, dapat mabangis ka — hawakan mo ‘yung sungay at tatanungin mo, ‘Anong sinasabi mo?’”

We’re at the conference room a few meters away from his office in City Hall, and Lim is holding this audience with staff members of their respective school organs. He invites them to ask him anything. He means it, too.

A major part of his platform during his campaign stressed transparency and accountability in government, and today he demonstrates what he means. Accompanied by their teacher, the students bring the matter of their unfinished facilities due to claims by the contractor of insufficient funds to his attention. Lim summons the city engineer at once and — after firing several questions at him — tells him to “get to the bottom of it.” The mayor then declares that he will find funding and make sure everything will be finished at the latest in January.

Cheers and applause greet this pronouncement. There will be several in the course of the afternoon.

As if on cue, a student asks if this will be ready by their Junior-Senior prom or even their graduation.

The mayor asks what month they hold their prom. “February.” “Di ba sinabi ko January?” smiles Lim. The room erupts yet again.

The Mayor accepts the praise stoically but not indifferently. Lim is still not quite the politician, but it’s notable how much he’s developed since the first time we met, barely a month after declaring his intention to run for President. Unlike before, he’s learned to use his spare dialogue and deadpan delivery to his rhetorical advantage. In 1998, he lost that campaign way before any ballots were cast.

Then, Lim couldn’t at all be accused of playing to the crowd — he remained defiant despite many protests to his “shame” campaign, spray-painting warnings on the doors of houses of supposed drug-pushers and quipping that he was only painting on their job descriptions, the way other professionals like doctors or lawyers do. The joke — if indeed Lim was making one — was lost to many of the voting public; but to his political rivals, its damaging potential wasn’t.

News teams investigated Lim’s targets and found that one of them was an elderly woman. She was interviewed and belied any claim that she was a drug dealer. No doubt her appearance didn’t fit the image of Lim’s menace. In full view of the cameras, she would break down in tears, damning Lim and his campaign. The coup de grace of the piece would be footage of interviews with the old lady’s neighbors, each coming forward to speak against the Mayor’s actions. But the most cutting remark came at the tail end of the report, uttered by the neighborhood maton. Broadcast nationwide, it would be the last thing anyone who watched the segment would remember. “Intsik!”

The former Manila City Mayor hoped to make a comeback in 2015, running for the same post under the li

Lim began his career as a policeman in 1951. His first beat was as a patrolman in San Nicholas. In Nick Joaquin’s biography, “May Langit Din Ang Mahirap,” he quotes Lim saying how “if you were given a beat, you pounded that beat on foot.” No cars or walkie-talkies, he walked every inch of the block he was assigned to. “You began your beat, say, at the southern outermost street. You walked it from one end to the other, where you made a U-turn into the next street, which again you walked from end to end, U-turning into the third street, and so on.” The system had built-in checks and balances. “If you arrive at the northern outermost street in very much less than an hour, you could be accused of skipping several streets on your beat. Or if you arrive at the northern outermost street in very much more than an hour, you could be suspected of having abandoned your post for half an hour or so.”

“Black is black; white is white,” he’s always fond of pointing out. “You have to know what’s right or wrong — and then you act accordingly.” It’s ironic that, for someone who sees the world in such clear delineations, his own story wasn’t so clearly defined up until recently. Even in his komiks, his place of birth is identified as Bulacan. Indeed, his mother was a Siojo and had many relatives specifically in San Miguel. However, this isn’t quite true.

According to close friend and consultant Zenaida Flores, the Mayor was born in the Ospital ng Maynila and after was left to grow up in Hospicio de San Jose orphanage. It was only when he was seven years old that his maternal grandmother sought him out and took him in at their house in Calle Alfredo in Dapitan. “I have no recollections of my father,” Joaquin would quote Lim in his book. “When he died, my mother entrusted me to her parents and then moved to Benguet with her second husband, a teacher.” He did visit her from time-to-time, confides Flores. After her death in Baguio, Lim reportedly claimed and buried her body in Manila.

Though he is hailed today as an outstanding native of Bulacan, the young Lim never really called it home. The prevailing attitudes of that time had an ingrained racism that many counter wasn’t unique to the province. “Wala ka mahahanap ng tindahan ng intsik dyan,” says Flores, giving example to an ugly fact. Yet, as has been pointed out, it was not uncommon — nor does it belong to the distant past.

In 1998, two groups — including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines — filed motions to disqualify Lim as a presidential candidate on the grounds that he was not a natural-born Filipino citizen. His birth certificate was brought as evidence; in it, his father is listed as Chinese Mestizo. The reason given was to avert a constitutional crisis if ever he should win without resolving the issue of his nationality. More than the political setback, Lim took it as a personal affront and an insult to the several decades of public service he’d served. Appearing in the late Teddy Benigno’s program, he broke down in tears, revealing that he was born out of wedlock and other details of his childhood. Once again, Lim found himself an outsider.

“If someone accuses me of wrongdoing, I’ll be the first to demand an investigation.”

Lim often calls the criminals he goes up against as operating outside the law. He says law enforcers, on the other hand, find themselves at a disadvantage. “Matching wits with criminals, you have to consider that they operate outside the law,” he says to his audience of students. “Kaming mga pulis — we have to fight them with one hand tied to our back, within the parameters set by the law.”

Although he fits the mould of Sergio Leone’s reticent gunslinger, the Mayor’s not one to back down from saying his mind — in fact, it’s stopping him once he’s started his charge that seems to be the more formidable task. It’s probably something he shares in common with another character played by Clint Eastwood, with the knack for talking tough and a knack for getting away with it. It’s something he’s asked about today actually.

A student asks him why he’s been dubbed Dirty Harry.

His answer is curt but not without a hint of a snicker. “You can call me anything. I don’t care,” he says. "Naliligo naman ako tatlong beses isang araw."

Kidding aside, he says that it was a movie based on the life of a real-life detective named Harry Callahan. (As far as I know, the character is fictional.) According to Lim, the city of San Francisco was being inundated by lawsuits from those being arrested by the police. “The colored guys pag sinisita would claim damages that went up to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Lim, “so the city office told the officers to go slow or else the city would go bankrupt.” By this time, the parallels between the Mayor and his fictional counterpart become apparent. “Harry would tell the city officials: ‘you gave me a badge and a uniform and the authority to enforce the law — I’ll go after them!'”

In Lim’s own view, he says that, “the language known by criminals and law violators is force and violence. You cannot be soft to them."

This has certainly characterized Lim’s career as a police officer, and this was certainly the case on April 19, 1968. A group headed by one Brigido Patungan, alias Viring, was found to be in possession of a .45-caliber automatic pistol, a big bolt cutter, and screwdrivers. They were booked and jailed for illegal possession of firearms and suspicion of burglary. At around 2:30 in the morning of that day, the group staged a jailbreak. The ensuing gun battle got the attention of a passing taxi, and the driver immediately brought it to the attention of Capt. Lim who was in a nearby jeep. Without hesitation, he charged into the precinct along with a team of five men to subdue the five felons. It was over in a matter of minutes — the last remaining prisoner, 21-year old Juanito Villegas, would lie dead at the foot of the toilet.

“Dirty Harry na puro dirty things ang pinanggagawa?” scoffs Lim. “Kalokohan 'yon.”

One of the most trying times in Lim’s life was when he found himself cast out in the cold. Many of his stellar achievements and promotions came under the administration of Mayor Antonio Villegas. This was in the late 1960s, and it was during this time that Lim was awarded the Jaycee Presidential Merit Medal for being named one of the Top Outstanding Policemen of the Philippines consecutively for five years from 1967 to 1971. It was Villegas who signed his promotion to lieutenant, using his Parker 61 fountain pen. But then Villegas lost to Ramon Bagatsing, the Mayoralty of Manila.

“On December 31, 1971, we had a flag retreat here at City Hall at five o’clock in the afternoon. It was the last day of Villegas as mayor, and he was present during the flag ceremony, which served as his farewell,” recounts Lim to Joaquin. “Immediately after the flag retreat, he proceeded to the airport: he was leaving for San Francisco with his entire family. “I accompanied him to the airport. He climbed the stairs to the plane and, before stepping in, he looked around and waved to the crowd. I saluted him and he saluted me back. That last courtesy between us was snapped by the camera of newsman Ruther Batuigas. Next day, the front pages carried a picture of Mayor Bagatsing taking his oath of office side by side with pictures of me saluting departing mayor Villegas. The juxtaposed photos could not have been pleasing to the new mayor.”

Retribution was swift and brutal. Bagatsing dissolved him of his precinct and his assigned police car was withdrawn. He was put in a headquarters detachment along with other officers also associated with the former mayor. In short, they were put in the freezer.

“One of my duties was to look after the parking lot of our headquarters on UN Avenue,” Joaquin quotes Lim. “In other words, I became a parking attendant.” He describes his other duties as akin to that of a “super-janitor.” At the time, Lim was already a police colonel.

He would be humiliated further. Dressed in full uniform, Lim was ordered to direct traffic in front of City Hall. “Sometimes I was assigned to Plaza Lawton, in front of the Metropolitan Theater,” says Lim, “and sometimes to UN Avenue, right in front of our headquarters.”

“You seize the bull by the horns. Parang torero, dapat mabangis ka — hawakan mo ‘yung sungay at tatanungin mo, ‘Anong sinasabi mo?’”

Columnists like Benedicto David would ask on January 14, 1972 in the Daily Star: "We wonder how the Jaycees feel considering that Lt. Col. Alfredo Lim who was chosen Outstanding Policeman for five years running by five different boards of judges has been made some sort of security man and parking lot attendant and receptionist at the Manila Police Headquarters?”

Another journalist Teodoro Valencia would praise Lim as well. “If he were a politician, he’s the kind who does not change parties nor turn against his party after it loses an election.”

To add further insult, his name was submitted to President Marcos as an “undesirable.” Martial Law had been declared. Under Marcos’ directives, names of government officials to be dismissed were submitted, and someone leaked to Lim that he was one of those listed. This time, he reached breaking point.

Upon hearing that he had been listed as an “undesirable,” Lim lost his temper and wanted to confront his accusers in City Hall. His gun packed, he was about to leave when his family prevailed upon him to reconsider. It was fortunate he did.

Along with Gen. Fidel Ramos’ recommendations, it was Bagatsing himself who finally called Lim back into action. The mayor needed somebody who was unafraid to go against certain power brokers in City Hall, to act as head warder of the city jail. Asking aloud, he heard no name that fitted the requirement. Then, someone said that he knew someone.


“You won’t like it.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Fred Lim.”

When asked why he's called Dirty Harry, Lim answered, “You can call me anything. I don’t care. Naliligo naman ako tatlong beses isang araw."

“I always analyze a problem, study its ways and means, and if I’m convinced that it is in accordance with the law, come what may — I’ll do it,” says Lim to the gentle applause of the students.

Asked about what it takes to be a leader, he tells them that, “leadership is simple — you should know how to distinguish what is right from what is wrong.” He tells them that it is essential to have strength of character, to stick to your convictions. After reciting a litany of commandments ("Wag kayong magnakaw, wag kayong magsinungaling . . .”), he caps it off by stating, “TRUTH, FAIRNESS, and JUSTICE.” (I chose to put the words in capital letters to best approximate the largeness of the concepts he was trying to convey at that moment.)

He then gets asked other current affairs questions and answers.

Why did you close the Baywalk?

“They had no building permits; no payment of debts to the city government; loud, blaring music; and prohibition of selling liquor in public places.”

What are your plans for the Metropolitan Museum?

“It’s under the GSIS still. The President gave 50 million last year for its rehabilitation — but to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) — not to the city government. It’s been reported only 18 million is left.”

Do you now regret your "Shame campaign”?

“No, it was successful. The pushers would pack up and leave right after. Sabi nila para akong Hitler dahil katulad daw ng branding ng Jews. Hindi pa daw convicted. Pero ‘pag meron kayong asong mabagsik at nangangagat lalagyan nyo ng 'Beware of Dog.’ Warning — ano bang masama dun?”

Again, the ZTE scandal . . .

“Silence is an admission of guilt. “ He’s also asked about his favorite food. (“Simple lang. Nothing ostentatious. Happy na ako sa dalawang ulam: nilagang talong, suka at bagoong, itlog na pula at kamatis, bulalo. . . pero once-a-week lang.”)

The audience draws to a close, and most of the students crowd around the mayor to get pictures with him. One, in particular, asks him if he’s willing to pose for a photograph for her thesis.

“Anytime,” he says, smiling. “Pwedeng gamiting panakot sa daga.”

Everyone laughs at the joke. “To Pareng Fred, To the Best Mayor Manila ever have (sic). Carry on the good work . . .”

The signature is Joseph Estrada’s, whom he lost the presidency to in 1998. Erap named Lim his DILG [Department of Interior and Local Government] secretary during his administration. Although he briefly allied himself with the EDSA 2 forces by showing up, he has since remained a steadfast supporter of the ex-president. After Estrada was convicted of plunder, Lim came out with his own verdict of not guilty.

On the wall of his office, Lim has the picture of Pres. Arroyo. “She’s the president,” he tells me, “and it’s my duty to respect her position.”

In the background, the voice of newly-elected Sen. Francis "Chiz" Escudero can be heard on the T.V. It’s the second round of the senate hearings on the allegations of Joey de Venecia regarding the ZTE scandal, and this time the department heads have chosen to show up. Lim is hooked to the program, and leaves it blaring throughout.

I tell him that I still remember visiting his house. Back in ’98, I was doing a story for The Philippine Star about Lim when I heard about the Spartan-like living conditions he favored. In the words of a friend, it looked like a “safe-house.” Allowed access, I went to his apartment building along Roxas Boulevard. No matter what I’d been told, I didn’t expect it to live up to its hyperbole. It was Spartan all right: it wasn’t dirty or messy, but it certainly wasn’t fussy about its interior decorating either. The dining table, which seemed ill fitting for the room it was in, was surrounded by various chairs — all different in style. Not even the monobloc ones matched. In his room, which was sparse and utilitarian, his boots were lined up against a wall and a small table. To think he was a strong contender for the presidency at the time. Of course, being a widower, there would have been no First Lady.

Asked about what it takes to be a leader, he tells them that, “leadership is simple — you should know how to distinguish what is right from what is wrong.” Photo from ALFREDO LIM/FACEBOOK; Illustration by JL JAVIER

“Napabayaan ko nga ang pamilya ko,” he admits, “but it was a sacrifice I chose to make.” In 1980, Lim’s wife, Amalia, and children started the move to the United States. Given the number of death threats he was receiving, it was only prudent.

I ask him about the lax security of his office. Hanging around here for the past several days, I discovered it was probably the easiest office of a public official to get into. No one does anybody or bag searches — and even those without appointments manage to see the Mayor. It may also help that he seems to have the most courteous staff to meet his constituents. By the time any would-be assailant can reach the Mayor, they could be too charmed to cause any trouble.

“I’m not afraid,” he tells me, “I’m ready.”

Naively, I ask him about his first encounter in the early hours of July 30, 1958 that led to the death of three men on Calle Alcaicera — the first time someone had probably died by his hand. By his own estimate, over the course of his career, he’s probably killed 11 people in the line of duty, but further thought on the matter and he confesses to be unsure. “Madami kasi kami,” he says. "You can’t be sure kung sino'ng naka tama.”

What do you aim for in that situation? “The chest area.” Not the head?

“Masyadong maliit. At fatal.” What was your gun at the time? “.38 caliber.” I ask him about one of the cases cited in Joaquin’s book under the chapter of “The Case of the Rogue Bridegroom” wherein the culprit confessed because he was “being haunted by the man I killed. I kept dreaming of him.”

I ask him if he ever feels haunted by those that may have died by his hand.

“My conscience is clear. We never engage first. It’s either you or him. By law, you have to defend yourself.”

But is that already shoot-to-kill? “In that situation, yes.” Do you feel remorse? “No, I do not feel remorse.” With that, I get the Mayor to sign my copy of Joaquin’s book and leave. In 1998, I voted for Lim as my candidate for President. I still wonder what would’ve happened if he had won.


This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Rogue Magazine