Leonardo Espina: Leading a PNP in 'crisis'

MANILA, Philippines – If things had gone according to plan, Police Deputy Director Leonardo Espina would not be where he is today: attending one congressional probe after another, serving as the voice of 44 slain policemen in search of explanations.

Many plans had to go awry for the 3-star general to find himself with the daunting task of rallying together a Philippine National Police (PNP) through its hardest period in recent history.

First, its chief,  Director General Alan Purisima, had to be embroiled in corruption controversies. He was eventually suspended for 6 months as the Ombudsman investigates one of 3 cases.

Roughly a month after his suspension, and nearly two weeks after the bloody police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, Purisima resigned

He was not scheduled to retire from the police force until November 2015, months after Espina's own scheduled retirement in July 2015. 

Second, “Oplan Exodus,” a PNP Special Action Force (SAF) operation to neutralize Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as “Marwan," had to end badly.

While SAF troopers were able to kill Marwan, 44 of them never left Mamasapano town alive, casualties in an encounter with fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

It would be the bloodiest operation in recent PNP history. 

Espina, already the PNP Officer-in-Charge, did not know of “Oplan Exodus” until after two SAF companies were already in trouble.

Seeking justice

In the wee hours of the morning of January 25, Espina was told SAF troopers were caught in an encounter in Mamasapano.

Espina called up his Philippine Military Academy (PMA) classmate, Western Mindanao Command Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero, to ask for help. “Sabi niya, 'Anong nangyayari?' 'Ka ko sa kanya, 'Hindi ko rin alam' (He asked me, 'What's going on?' I told him, 'I don't know either'),” he told Guerrero then.

Espina would make his first public statement on the incident much later in the day, at around 9 pm. 

It has been a difficult few weeks for the PNP, its leaders, and its men and women.

Congress continues to probe the incident in sessions that feature both honest-to-goodness fact-finding and political grandstanding.

But the tall and slender 55-year-old is showing no obvious signs of wear.

His eyes look more tired than usual but his voice did not falter when, during an emotional speech before the House of Representatives on Wednesday, February 11, he said he lost sleep over the “overkill” of his men, the SAF 44.

“We at the PNP are all for peace,” he said.

Sagutin 'nyo lang po ako so that when we face each other all in heaven I can tell them what happened. My men, I tell you, buhay na buhay 'yan. Hindi 'nyo man lang pinauwi kasama ng kanyang mga anak. Dapat fair play lang ho lahat. That's what I want, that's what I request. Fairness and justice for my men," he added. 

(Answer my questions so that when I face them in heaven, I can tell them what happened. My men were alive. You [the MILF] didn’t let them go home to their children. We need to play fair. That's what I want, that's what I request. Fairness and justice for my men.)

The crowd applauded and Espina, still sitting down, turned around and tried to regain composure. A man tapped his shoulder.

It was Police Director Getulio Napeñas, the relieved commander of the PNP SAF – the same man who decided to keep Espina in the dark but at the same time consulted with Purisima in the lead up to Exodus.

The two men hugged, to even stronger applause from a room full of legislators and reporters.

‘I will repeat and repeat it’

Espina’s emotional messages do not come as a surprise.

In his first Command Conference as PNP OIC on February 5, Espina asked the PNP hierarchy to avoid voicing out their opinions – especially about the MILF – in public, and especially to the media.

"Hayaan 'nyo na ako magsalita tungkol doon. I want them [MILF] to be sincere. Ako na lang magsasalita laban sa kanila....Hindi ako maawat tungkol diyan. And I will repeat and repeat it,” he told a room full of police generals and colonels.

(Let me be the one to talk about it. I want the MILF to be sincere. Let me be the one who talk against them. I cannot be stopped on that point. And I will repeat and repeat it.)

It was during the same Command Conference where Espina called on his officers to rally together. “As long as I’m your OIC, let’s follow the line. Let’s toe the line,” he said.

Even before a single SAF trooper boot hit Mamasapano soil, or even before Purisima “adviced” Napeñas to keep both Espina and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II out of the loop, there had been a leadership problem of sorts in the PNP.

While Espina was the PNP's legitimate head as the OIC, the suspended Purisima’s long shadow loomed over the organization.

Purisima immediately questioned his suspension before the Court of Appeals. And there was, of course, his close ties to President Benigno Aquino III himself.

But if Espina ever had any grudges towards Purisima – another one of his PMA mistahs (classmates) – he made sure not to show it. Not once did Espina talk flak or even explicitly mention Purisima during the almost hour-long Command Conference.

The Mamasapano encounter and the issues surrounding it may be pitting Espina and Purisima against each other, but to Espina, none of it is personal.

He extends the same message when asked about the perceived rift between the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philipppines.

Next in line?

Things weren’t always easy in Camp Crame under the leadership of Purisima. Upon cinching the top spot in 2012, Purisima became "aggressive," according to his mistahs from the PMA.

Purisima would reportedly dress down mistahs in Camp Crame.

 

For a long time, Purisima was joined in the Command Group by Espina, retired Deputy Director General Felipe Rojas, and Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo Jr.

A senior police official described Purisima as a “jealous” and “insecure” PNP chief who was worried others would try to usurp his position.

It’s ironic now that he is accused of doing the same to Espina.

Espina had said nothing about these whispers from and around Camp Crame.

On the day Roxas announced and clarified Espina’s role as OIC, this first public “outing” as the new – albeit temporary – top cop, the police general was warm, friendly, and noticeably jovial.

“First of all, I want to say that I’ve missed all of you,” the former PNP spokesman told media in Camp Crame.

Aside from being the PNP’s spokesman, Espina was also once head of the Highway Patrol Group and later, director of the National Capital Region Police Office. He then joined the PNP’s top brass as the Chief of Directorial Staff.

Currently, he holds 3 positions in the PNP: as OIC, Deputy Director for Administration, and Deputy Director for Operations. He is one in the twosome that is the current Command Group alongside another mistah, Chief of Directorial Staff Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo Jr.

Espina is set to retire on July 19, 2015, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56. It’s a milestone his wife has been looking forward to, she told reporters during the PNP’s New Year’s Call this year.

Extending a police officer’s term in the force is rare but not unheard of.

And after his impassioned speech and what many in the public are viewing as steadfast leadership in the face of a crisis, will Espina’s retirement have to wait? – Rappler.com