A controversial officer tasked by Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte “to kill everybody” linked to narcotics believes he is “God’s instrument.”
Police Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido also sees himself as the chosen anti-crime avenger of a leader whose crackdown has killed thousands of Filipinos.
They’re the perfect team — the officer’s past assignments form a bloody map across central and southern Philippines.
Duterte told a business forum last week that he has ordered Espenido, a “relentless” hunter, to eradicate drugs from Bacolod, premier city of Negros in the central Philippines, that is already drenched with the blood of 80 farmers and activists.
“I said: ‘Go there and you are free to kill everybody. Start killing there,'” Duterte said.
Bishop Patricio Buzon of Bacolod called the president’s statement “irresponsible.”
Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos, who already struggles with scores of summary killings in his diocese, reminded Duterte that “the right to life is the first of all other rights.”
Espenido told the prelates to relax in a bizarre riff on fate. Bishops should just “trust in God’s will” and “pray harder,” he said.
The officer also described Duterte’s offending words as a “father’s guidance” amid the burdens laid on a son’s shoulders.
“Our life is owned by God, no one else owns it,” said the officer on television, speaking of himself in the third person.
“Espenido is just an instrument, maybe for arrests or for killing. God cannot come here to do the job himself,” he added.
Listening to Duterte and Espenido, you would be forgiven to think of the Philippines, Asia’s largest Catholic majority nation, as a blip in a grim Old Testament landscape that has yet to receive the grace of Christ.
There, a gray-faced, ailing patriarch, who wears an air purifier device around his neck for protection against germs, exults in the power he wields over life and death.
Even law enforcers in Bacolod were puzzled by Duterte’s judgment and directive. They have regularly scored big drug hauls and arrested sellers and users over the last six months — without having to mow down targets and bystanders.
But that does not impress a leader who once urged police to “kill and kill some more” after an overnight orgy of shooting killed scores north of the national capital.
Duterte, fond of cursing clerics all the way to Pope Francis, is called “Father” by his devotees, many of them Filipinos laboring in foreign hardship posts to wrest families from the grip of poverty.
He prefaces dire threats of bloodshed with claims of securing a brighter future for Filipino children.
Supporters greet every live-streamed speech with appeals for salvation — from drugs, from rapists, and from a corrupt, amorphous enemy elite strangely absent of the oligarchs around the president or the hand-picked men and kin now placed at the center of the drug trade he vowed to dismantle.
Those contradictions do not bother his instrument of vengeance. The devout Espenido asks staff to pray daily for peace. If it is the peace of the graveyard then it is so by God’s will, goes his gospel.
Nor does the sea of blood discomfit Duterte’s fervent believers, stranded as they are in a faith still pegged on fate rather than faith, in patronage more than mercy.
In 2017, Espenido led a raid on Ozamis City’s powerful Parojinog clan, believed to be lords of a vast crime network, killing a mayor on Duterte’s list of drug personalities, his wife and 14 others.
While aides of the mayor had fired back at raiders in the pre-dawn raid, witnesses claimed many of them were executed despite having surrendered.
“They deserved to die,” Espenido blithely explained the raids’ result. “Even if you’re bad, if God doesn’t like it, it won’t happen,” he said.
Espenido was charged with multiple homicide in another 2017 Ozamiz operation that killed six robbery suspects.
That did not stop a big group of local pastors form declaring him “heaven sent.” The officer believes his derring-do has the protection of “prayer warriors.”
Duterte frequently casts aspersions on matters of faith, especially when this runs counter to his worldview of governance by retribution against all those who do not bend their knees.
He likes Espenido because the latter is relentless and sees the voice of authority as the voice of God.
The right to life is “universal, absolute, inalienable, and inviolable” under Christian doctrine. But Duterte and Espenido listen to a unique, omnipotent voice that grants or takes away one’s coverage to that right.
The officer believes peace is all-dependent on God’s will. He advises the Negros prelates to “pray harder to God to let this end, to make it less bloody.”
It’s a clever attempt to saddle the bishops with guilt should his operations turn Bacolod’s alleys red.
Some senior clergy wail about Filipinos losing their way. But too few of them review the role Philippine churches of all faiths have played in shaping their flocks.
Father Wilfredo Dulay, coordinator-general of the Missionary Disciples of Jesus congregation, believes the country’s warped Christianity is a fruit of centuries of being under foreign rule.
When colonial masters controlled everything, the Gospel of Christianity became the “gospel of Cristendom,” compassion swept away by power.
The governed, facing the might of the Spaniards and then the Americans, might have absorbed admonitions that placed disobedience and critical thought on the route to hell.
The Philippines stops for Lent with millions offering sacrifices and penitential acts.
“Yet so many of them are diehard fans of the president, unable to parse his lies from what is real and true,” said the priest.
Duterte’s fans think he is an enemy of the elite. Reality is they flock around him, secure that transactional relations allow pillage to continue, hidden in the shadow of the powerful, charismatic politician.
Espenido as a favored son is no big puzzle. Fear is the best friend of the corrupt; they need people deaf, blind and dumb to keep them safe of accountability.
Duterte plays God to convince people that crumbs from corruption are his gifts and that the blood their kin and neighbors spill are the prize for some hazy paradise.
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.