What’s keeping Aquino from naming new PNP chief?

Bea Cupin
What’s keeping Aquino from naming new PNP chief?
Resigned PNP chief Alan Purisima, under fire for his role in ‘Oplan Exodus,’ continues to have the ear of his longtime buddy, President Benigno Aquino III

MANILA, Philippines – It was a cold and chilly weekend in Baguio City during the Philippine Military Academy (PMA)’s yearly alumni homecoming but discussions were heated. The buzz among PMAers in the City of Pines: Who’s going to be the next Philippine National Police (PNP) chief?

It’s been almost a month since a bloody police operation claimed the lives of at least 65 people, including 44 elite cops, and almost 3 weeks since Director General Alan resigned as chief of the 150,000-strong police force.

Still, President Benigno Aquino III doesn’t seem to be in a rush to name a new replacement for his controversial buddy Purisima, who faces at least 3 corruption cases before the Ombudsman and has been strongly criticized for his participation in the bloody “Oplan Exodus.”

Why the delay in announcing a new PNP chief?

It seems Purisima’s long shadow is among the reasons, according to several Rappler sources from within and outside the police force.

PMA classmates as contenders

Perceived top contenders are the most senior officials in the PNP: Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, who serves as the PNP’s officer-in-charge, and Deputy Director for Administration and Deputy Director for Operations and Police Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo Jr., the police force’s chief of the directorial staff.

Police Dir Gen Alan Purisima, Deputy Dir Gen Leonardo Espina, and Deputy Dir Gen Marcelo Garbo, Jr. during their days in the PMA.

Both are members of the PMA Class of 1981 or the “Dimalupig” class, where Purisima also comes from.

Other apparent contenders include graduates of PMA Class of 1982: Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief and Mamasapano probe chairman Police Director Benjamin Magalong and Directorate for Operations chief Police Director Ricardo Marquez, who also headed the PNP’s preparations for Pope Francis’ visit early in 2014. 

All the contenders have been vague and evasive when asked if they would be willing to take on the role of PNP chief. 

After all, to borrow Espina’s words, “it’s not their decision to make.”

Malacañang has been quiet about the hunt for the next chief, with Presidential Spokesman Herminio Coloma, Jr., only saying that the President will announce the next PNP “when he’s ready.”

Patuloy pa pong pinag-aaralan para makabuo ng pinakamainam na desisyon kung sino ang hihirangin dahil batid natin na mahalaga ‘yung pagtatatag ng matibay na pamunuan sa PNP lalung-lalo na pagkatapos ng naganap nitong nakaraang linggo at dahil na rin sa pagreretiro ng mga senior officials nito,” Coloma said in a February 17 briefing with reporters.

(We are still in the process of looking for the best candidate because we know how important it is to have strong leadership in the PNP given recent events and the retirement of its senior officials.)

But several Rappler sources said that as of last week, the race was limited to two contenders: Garbo and Police Director Juanito Vaño, Jr. (PMA Class 1983) who heads the Directorate for Logistics.

Garbo and Vaño represent a tug-of-war between two long-running factions of the PNP: the camp of Purisima and the power bloc associated with Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II who, as chairman of the National Police Commission, has supervisory powers over the PNP.

Ties of Garbo and Vaño

Garbo, perceived to have close ties with the ruling Liberal Party, is also closely associated with Roxas. 

It was Garbo who took on the challenge of facing Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia in 2012 when she refused to heed a suspension order from the Office of the President.

Vaño, meanwhile, is a name not known to many outside the PNP. But those in the know see him as a member of Purisima’s inner circle – his “Boy Friday,” according to a senior police official.

FIRST CHOICE? Police Director Juanito Vaño (right-most) during the 2013 Zamboanga siege. File photo by Leanne Jazul/Rappler

That Vaño is a strong contender only goes to show Purisima’s influence on President Benigno Aquino III, despite the police general’s numerous controversies – from corruption allegations to his alleged role in the Mamasapano operation. (READ: More questions for Aquino, Purisima on ‘Exodus’)

One senior government official however told Rappler that Vaño would be acceptable to Roxas because the police official “is a good soldier.”

But Vaño as PNP chief will ruffle more than a few feathers, especially within the PNP.

According to a senior police official, appointing Vaño might prompt some police officials to opt for “early retirement,” partly because of his perceived lack of command experience and mostly because of his close ties to Purisima.

Vaño was regional chief of the Zamboanga Peninsula during the 2013 siege of Zamboanga city by members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – his first command position.

Following the 2013 Zamboanga siege, Vaño was assigned to the plum post of logistics chief and later, accorded the PNP Service Medal Award.

MAR'S CHOICE? Police Deputy General Marcelo Garbo (right) with Director General Alan Purisima (left) during better times. PNP PIO file photo

Garbo is reportedly not Aquino’s first choice, thanks in part to Purisima, who is isn’t exactly fond of Garbo. 

Neither does the police general have the blessings of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, according to police sources.

He does, however, have the backing of the ruling party. Garbo once served as an aide of LP stalwart Senate President Franklin Drilon, who was among the first to call on Aquino to appoint a “full time” PNP chief in the wake of Purisima’s resignation.

Garbo and Vaño are set to retire in 2016, the same year Aquino steps down as president – Garbo in March 2016 and Vaño in May 2016.

How about Espina?
And then there’s Espina.

Officials in Malacañang and the PNP are aware of Espina as the popular “people’s choice.” The police general endeared himself to the public after an emotional message to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) about the “overkill” of the 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers in the Mamasapano clash.

PNP OIC Deputy Dir Gen Leonardo Espina. File photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

But he is turning 56, the mandatory retirement age in the PNP, 5 months from now – on July 19, 2015.

Does this rule him out as a contender for the top post? Not entirely, going by recent history.

Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo extended the tours of duty of police chiefs during her 9-year term as president. Former PNP chiefs Edgardo Aglipay and Leandro Mendoza’s terms were extended by Arroyo by 6 and 9 months, respectively.

Will Aquino follow the ways of his predecessor?

Appointing Espina at least until July 2015 – or possibly beyond – would be the “safe” choice for Aquino, one senior police official admitted, since it would both appease the public and maintain the status quo in the PNP.

It might even endear Aquino to the public, following the backlash for his perceived inaction in the Mamasapano operation and lack of empathy for the families of the slain cops, said the police official.

It also buys time for Aquino to look for a PNP chief more to his liking.

Petrasanta: Dark horse

A dark horse in the race is suspended Chief Superintendent Raul Petrasanta, who is known to have very close ties to the Aquino family.

Like Purisima, Petrasanta is a former Presidential Security Group member who was once tasked to protect the Aquino family under the presidency of the late Cory Aquino.

“[Former president Cory Aquino, the current president’s mother] loved Raul [Petrasanta] more than [she did] Noynoy,” joked another police official. The President himself is said to trust Petrasanta like he trusts Purisima.

But Petrasanta is currently serving a preventive suspension order over missing AK-47s that supposedly ended up in the hands of communist rebels and over an allegedly anomalous deal between the PNP and courier company Werfast.

Petrasanta was chief of the Firearms and Explosives Office when the firearms went missing and when the Werfast deal was inked.

Petrasanta’s suspension lapses by the end of June 2015.

Both Espina’s and Garbo’s lips have been sealed shut when it comes to the race for the next PNP chief. Not even their mistahs (classmates) in the PMA are privy to what’s going on in the two officials’ minds, said one member of the PMA ’81.

Espina as PNP OIC has limited powers: he cannot appoint full-time or even acting officers. As a result, many of the PNP’s key positions are either unfilled of have mere OICs in them.As opposing parties quietly but surely lobby their own bets for the PNP chief to the President, the PNP continues to be in a limbo.

OICs of PNP officers, compared to an acting or full-time chief, have very limited powers.

Not having a full-time chief also means promotions are held in abeyance.

It’s a tense and tough time for the police force, several officials told Rappler. The President can choose to ease the situation now or prolong it further. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.