MANILA, Philippines — Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año confirmed yesterday that police Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido is included in President Duterte’s narco list and will be investigated for possible links to the illegal drug trade.
Año was asked to confirm reports that Espenido, who has been relieved of his post, is among 357 police officers included in the government’s drug watchlist.
“Yes, that’s true, and he will also undergo validation and possible investigation,” Año said in a Viber message to The STAR.
A source, who requested anonymity, said Espenido and two one-star generals are among 357 police officers who have been relieved from their posts and are now under investigation for illegal drugs.
Año could not recall when Espenido’s name was included in the list but said the police official belongs to the second batch of personalities with suspected links to illegal drugs.
He added that Duterte has long been aware of Espenido’s inclusion in the watchlist.
It is unclear, however, whether or not the President knew this when he heralded Espenido’s appointment as deputy chief for police operations in Bacolod City in October last year.
Espenido was the police chief of Ozamiz City when the bloody anti-drug operation in July 2017 was launched against members of the Parojinog family and their associates, who had long been suspected of running an illegal drugs trade.
Then mayor Reynaldo Parojinog Sr., his wife Susan, brother board member Octavio Parojinog Jr. and sister Mona were killed in alleged shootouts with policemen.
Espenido was also the police chief of Albuera, Leyte when its mayor, Rolando Espinosa Sr., was killed inside his detention cell in November 2016.
PNP chief slams news outfit
Yesterday, Gen. Archie Francisco Gamboa, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, said he would never again answer inquiries from journalists about Espenido’s inclusion in the President’s narco list.
Visibly irked during an ambush interview, Gamboa called out online news site Rappler for coming out with the story citing unnamed sources.
“I pleaded not for us to look into the personalities and you know the intention (behind it),” he told reporters at Camp Crame, Quezon City.
The PNP chief said he repeatedly refused to name the police officers under probe, because they are presumed innocent until their adjudication teams obtain strong evidence linking them to illegal drugs.
“I felt insulted with that,” Gamboa said of the online story and vowed never to entertain media questions because of that.
A Rappler reporter at the scene tried to pose a question, but was rebuffed by Gamboa.
Gamboa said he has already ordered the investigation of police officers in the narco list and that there are 15 of them who accepted his offer to go on early retirement.
Another 43 were marked AWOL (absent without leave) after snubbing a surprise drug test Gamboa had ordered.
By availing themselves of optional retirement, the police officers are still entitled to their benefits.
But the PNP chief had this warning: “Hindi ibig sabihin na off the hook na kayo (This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook).”
Gamboa said they could still be charged criminally if the PNP obtains evidence linking them to illegal drugs.
Espenido has said he will only talk about his inclusion in the narco list if Gamboa confirms it.
Meanwhile, the adjudication process for the police officers started yesterday and Gamboa expects the investigating committees to finish their evaluation in one month.
Gamboa will then submit their recommendations to the President, whom he said is the sole authority to decide on the fate of the police officers.
“It will only go two ways. Either he approves it (the recommendations) or not,” he said.
Gamboa likewise downplayed Duterte’s statement that ninja cops or police officers involved in the recycling of prohibited must be killed.
“You should know the President by now,” he told reporters about the President’s harsh pronouncements.
Palace backs Gamboa
At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said nothing was wrong with Gamboa’s move to offer police officers in the narco list optional retirement.
Panelo said the PNP chief’s call was a two-pronged strategy that would also implicate the tainted police officers once they file for early retirement, because it could be tantamount to an admission of guilt.
“It will be subject to prosecution, there’s nothing wrong there. It would be different if you give optional retirement and there is waiver of criminal prosecution… that’s a different matter. That will be unlawful,” Panelo said.
As to Espenido’s inclusion in the narco list, Panelo said he was unaware of it.
Espenido was placed on floating status after Gamboa recently implemented a major reshuffle in the police force.
Prior to the reshuffle, Espenido appeared to be getting strong backing from higher-ups after his role in neutralizing major drug traffickers in the southern Philippines.
De Lima reacts
Sen. Leila de Lima described as “ironically amazing” that Espenido is now in the President’s drug list.
Detained at Camp Crame on a drugs charge, De Lima released a statement saying: “Espenido must know a lot to make him a target himself. Has he lost his usefulness? Or is he now a threat to his top boss because of what he knows?
“Let’s see how this new mystery would unravel in the increasingly messy terrain we now have under an unstable leader. As I always say, this regime can never defeat or destroy the truth,” she added.
De Lima also maintained her innocence, saying: “I am certain that Espenido knows a lot about the lies thrown at me, particularly my alleged links to Kerwin Espinosa (a self-confessed drug trafficker).”
The senator said Espenido and Espinosa both lied when they linked her to drugs as a protector or beneficiary of the illegal trade before the Senate hearings.
“I was never in the so-called ‘blue book’ or ‘pink book’, or whatever it is,” she said. – With Christina Mendez, Cecille Suerte Felipe