Espinosa probe: When denials rule the day

ESPINOSA PROBE. Senator Leila de Lima, who has been accused of getting drug money from Kerwin Espinosa, at the Senate probe into the death of the late mayor Espinosa. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

ESPINOSA PROBE. Senator Leila de Lima, who has been accused of getting drug money from Kerwin Espinosa, at the Senate probe into the death of the late mayor Espinosa.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The December 5 resumption of the Senate probe into the killing of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr failed to pin down anyone as those accused either of murdering him or receiving protection money from him stood by their denials.

As more testimonies and claims come, a clear narrative seems harder and harder to come by. 

Here’s a wrap of the Monday, December 5 hearing for those who haven’t quite kept up:

Did Supt Marcos have Espinosa killed?

Mayor Espinosa is the father of alleged Eastern Visayas drug lord Kerwin Espinosa, who was arrested in Abu Dhabi in November 2016 before being deported back to the Philippines. The Espinosas were among the first drug personalities publicly named by Duterte in his war on drugs. Back in August, Duterte called on the two to surrender – despite the absence then of an arrest warrant. The mayor promptly presented himself to Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa.

After several days in Camp Crame, Espinosa flew to Cebu and then back to Albuera, where he put himself under the protective custody of the town police chief, Chief Inspector Jovie Espenido.

While under custody, a court issued an arrest warrant against Espinosa for violating the country’s firearms and illegal drugs laws. He was subsequently detained at the Leyte sub-provincial jail but not before he issued two affidavits wherein he named at least 50 people with alleged links to the Espinosa drug trade.

On November 5, the mayor was killed inside his jail cell by Chief Inspector Leo Laraga, of the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group Region 8 (CIDG8), as they tried to serve a search warrant against him. Espinosa, the CIDG 8 personnel claim, had shot at police first. That claim was disputed by the NBI, which declared that the police murdered Espinosa.

In the 2 Senate hearings, senators questioned the legitimacy of the CIDG 8 operation. Senators found out that CIDG 8 personnel had already called several Scene of the Crime (SOCO) teams before they even entered the jail. Senator Panfilo Lacson, himself a former PNP chief, said this was akin to calling a funeral home even before an encounter happened.

Kerwin Espinosa also accused CIDG8 head Superintendent Marvin Marcos of being under his payroll. The self-confessed “drug distributor” said Marcos asked him for P3 million to fund the campaign of the superintendent’s wife in a different Leyte town. In exchange, Kerwin Espinosa claimed, Marcos “protected” his narcotics business.

During last Monday's hearing, another witness emerged to accuse Marcos of plotting Espinosa’s death.

Mylene Son, former Pastrana town councilor and wife of the late Chief Inspector Hesus Son, said Marcos offered his husband P500,000 to kill Espinosa. She claimed her husband backed out of the deal, which “made Marcos furious.” Chief Inspector Son was eventually killed in Sta Fe, Leyte by unidentified persons.

Marcos downplayed Son’s allegations, telling reporters that politics was behind it.

Marcos, in turn, recounted that Son, during a gathering of several police officers at a police camp, was angry over allegations that he himself had links to illegal drugs. Marcos insisted that he had no motive in killing Espinosa.

Dayan vs the Senate

One of the key resource persons who appeared before the probe was a man who wasn’t directly involved in Mayor Espinosa’s killing, but was mentioned several times in Kerwin Espinosa’s affidavit because he allegedly acted as a bagman for Senator Leila de Lima.

Ronnie Dayan, De Lima’s former bodyguard and paramour, allegedly collected and contacted Kerwin Espinosa to get drug money for the former justice secretary’s 2016 campaign. While the testimonies of Dayan and Kerwin Espinosa are consistent in some claims – of having met in Baguio City to drop off drug money, for instance – the fine details of their transactions differ.

Dayan’s supposed evasiveness in answering question from senators led to Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao to move that he be cited in contempt. But the Senate eventually lifted this sanction on Dayan.

Adding to the confusion was Dayan’s apparent change of heart in the details of his illegal activities under the supposed orders of De Lima. Speaking before the Senate, Dayan claimed he got money in exchange for endorsing Rafael Ragos and Franklin Jesus Bucayu, former Bureau of Corrections officials.

Dayan also apparently “remembered” that his meeting with Kerwin Espinosa in Baguio City happened in 2015 and not 2014 as he previously claimed.

Still, Dayan and Espinosa’s claims over how they first got in touch are in conflict. Dayan has also denied knowing Espenido, whom Espinosa claimed facilitated their contact.

Of Duterte, Dela Rosa, and Marcos

Marcos’ alleged ties to illegal drugs isn’t the only controversy that’s come his way.

In an interview, Dela Rosa revealed that he had actually relieved Marcos after he got reports of the police officer’s alleged ties to illegal drugs. Those orders were revoked the same day, however, when Duterte called to intervene. The reasons for Marcos’ halted relief differ, depending on who explains it.

Dela Rosa said Special Assistant to the President and longtime Duterte aide Bong Go cited “humanitarian reasons” – the welfare of Marcos’ family – in asking that he reinstated. Duterte himself said he wanted Marcos to stay on because he was already conducting an investigation into the cop’s drug ties.

Initially, Dela Rosa refused to admit who ordered Marcos’ reinstatement, alternating between calling the person a “high ranking official” to a “kumpare.” It was Duterte himself who admitted that he ordered Marcos’ return.

Duterte nemesis Senator Leila de Lima grilled Dela Rosa over his refusal to tell the truth outright. During the exchange, both Dela Rosa and De Lima turned emotional as the PNP chief defended his decision to not tell the truth right away.

Speaking to media after the hearing, Dela Rosa invoked “executive privilege” in explaining why he had initially denied that it was Duterte who gave the orders.

De Lima’s defense

Despite belonging to different blocs in the Senate, De Lima and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV have found themselves in a alliance bound by a disdain for Duterte and his war on drugs. The two senators are among Duterte’s fiercest critics in government and were the lead personalities in the introduction of a self-confessed gunman who tried to link Duterte to extrajudicial killings in Davao City.

On December 5, the two senators joined forces to refuse the claims made by both Espinosa and Dayan.

Trillanes chided Dayan and Espinosa for inconsistencies in their “script” or the executed affidavits.

The senator, who ran for vice president but lost in 2016, also flashed photos of Duterte with Kerwin’s alleged drug supplier, Cebuano businessman and alleged Visayas drug lord Peter Lim. Trillanes was trying to explain how photos of politicians with alleged criminals should not be proof of guilt. Otherwise, Duterte should be tagged as a drug coddler himself, the senator said.

But that reasoning was shot down by Lascon, who said that unlike Duterte’s photos with Lim, De Lima’s now-infamous picture with Espinosa and his wife have affidavits to back the story.

Dela Rosa also defended Duterte, revealing that the President had ordered the PNP to build a case against the Cebuano businessman.

De Lima, who has been the focus of criticism and allegations by officials and allies of the Duterte administration, lashed out against both Espinosa and Dayan while saying that she had “forgiven” them for making false testimonies against her.

What’s next?

Over the course of three hearings, senators still seem to be sure of the CIDG 8 team’s guilt in supposedly plotting the death of Mayor Espinosa. Several times during the hearing, Lacson made quips about the cops' involvement in the death. 

When discussing if Laraga should be allowed to go home for his wedding the next day, Lacson reminded Dela Rosa to guard the cop's movements lest another person be killed in Leyte. 

The NBI report concludes as much. (READ: NBI: Mayor Espinosa's death a 'rubout')

The President, however, seems undeterred in defending Marcos and company, declaring he will never allow them to go to jail. –