CEBU CITY, Philippines – There is an unspoken rule for any local police chief: the mayor reigns supreme.
Yet this relationship is not necessarily true lately in Cebu City, where Tomas “Tommy” Osmeña is the chief local executive.
Osmeña is known to be controlling, and Senior Superintendent Royina Garma was told by her superiors about this before she assumed the post last July 1 as Cebu City’s first female police chief.
Garma knew that the local police needed Osmeña's support for resources and his cooperation as their bridge to the locals, but she refused to stay silent or be a yes-person.
When Osmeña said SWAT personnel should tag along with cops in all operations, Garma blocked it, saying it was not allowed. When Osmeña said Cebu City had turned into a "criminal city," Garma insisted Cebu remained peaceful, and only criminals should be afraid. When Osmeña said he was receiving death threats, likely from cops, Garma responded with a challenge: “Prove it.”
Garma is not out to please the mayor; she has the favor of the President.
The fall and rise of Garma
In 2005, Garma was in the middle of a sex scandal that rocked Davao City.
Chief Inspector Roland Vilela, the head of the city’s police anti-vice unit, had been accused of raping a minor sex worker. The girl, only 17 years old, was said to have asked Vilela for help to sue her aunt who forced her into prostitution.
Instead of helping the girl file a complaint, Vilela allegedly holed her up in a hotel and penetrated her twice in a single night.
“He took advantage of a child,” said Garma, then the wife of Vilela.
The tragedy was not just that her husband was accused of a crime he was tasked to prevent, but Garma – then known as an officer of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) whose advocacy was to protect women and children – was completely blindsided. She still stood by Vilela.
“Husband ko siya eh (It’s because he’s my husband),” Garma said. Even if she doubted him, she still loved him.
It was neither a good place nor time to be accused as a scalawag cop, as the mayor then was the unforgiving Rodrigo Duterte, who wanted Vilela exiled not just out of the city, but out of the Davao Region.
Garma knocked at the door of the mayor’s office and “nakihangyo (pleaded).”
“I went to the mayor, I cried to the mayor, I was like a child.” Garma recalled asking the mayor, “’Wag mo siyang ire-assign, i-relieve mo na lang siya or kahit i-floating mo na lang siya.” (Don’t re-assign him, just relieve him or put him on floating status.)
A cop Duterte had known to deliver in the CIDG, especially in anti-drugs operations, Garma was granted her plea.
Two years later, Vilela abused Garma’s trust once more.
This time, it was caught on tape and, even without the internet, quickly spread across the city. This time, Garma did not plead with Duterte. She let her husband get sacked. She then filed for the annulment of their marriage.
It was the end of her marriage to Vilela, but the beginning of her friendship with Duterte.
From thereon, she said, she had gone to Duterte for other personal problems. The mayor became the shoulder she could cry on.
They saw less of each other when Duterte moved up to Malacañang and she was assigned to Cebu City.
Close ties with the President
Prior to Duterte's presidency, Garma had worked with him for over a decade.
Throughout her career, Garma has been able to deliver wherever she was assigned, Davao cops who had worked with her told Rappler.
“Kilala naman talaga siya sa lahat ng pulis diyan. 'Pag di mo kilala si Colonel Garma sa Davao, patay ka,” said one former Davao cop who now works in Camp Crame. (She is really known among all cops there. If you do not know Colonel Garma in Davao, you are dead.)
When Duterte was on his first 3rd term as Davao City mayor, from 1996 to 1998, Garma headed the anti-vice unit, accomplishing record apprehensions for illegal drugs, gambling, and prostitution.
From 1999 to 2004, Garma headed the women and children’s protection desk of Davao City, alongside Mayor Benjamin de Guzman. From 2004 to 2007, she went back and forth between Davao and Manila as a CIDG officer.
She finally settled in Davao again in 2009, during the last term of Mayor Duterte. Garma worked as an administrative officer of the city police, working under recently retired PNP No. 2 official, Ramon Apolinario.
“Noong admin officer siya noon bawal talaga ang malaking tiyan, kaya lahat ng parading officers noon, maninipis. Disciplinarian kasi si ma’am,” said a junior Davao cop who saw her rise. (When she was an admin officer, big tummies were forbidden, so all parading officers then were thin. She was a disciplinarian.)
The cop added that Garma was notorious for sending cops with dirty shoes and haircuts home to touch up before they were allowed to appear in flag ceremonies and meetings.
Between 2011 and 2015, Garma served as the station commander of two problem areas of Davao City: Sasa, which covers their seaport and airport, and Sta Ana, which encompasses Davao’s bustling Chinatown.
During these times, Garma stood out in their command conference with Duterte – she was always the only policewoman commander in the war room.
She is among the PNP Academy’s first batch of women police lieutenants, graduating just a year after the first batch of the academy with women.
While Garma has enjoyed close ties with Duterte, she has a track record as well of delivering – all this while taking care of her adopted daughter.
Her affiliation with Duterte has even gotten her into trouble.
Jude Sabio, the lawyer of Davao Death Squad whistleblower Edgar Matobato, accused her in his complaint before the International Criminal Court of “oversee[ing] and supervis[ing] the death squad operations in [the] war on drugs.”
The secret to her success in the service, Garma said, was the support of the Dutertes.
“They trust the police, and then they will ask you, ‘What do you need?’ They will provide everything, and they don't intervene [in police operations]. If we need them to intervene, they’re ready anytime,” Garma said.
This support, Garma said, came to her despite not knowing Duterte before her assignment in Davao City. Garma is not a native of Davao, but hails from the northern province of Cagayan.
“We are very fortunate, we who are assigned to Davao City, because we are not exposed to that (politicizing cops). So our career grew to a very professional [level]. And we were given the opportunity to bloom on our own,” Garma said.
It’s a stark contrast to her experience in Cebu City, she said, where locals are divided on their support for cops.
She is not on speaking terms with her mayor, Tommy Osmeña, who has repeatedly accused the police force she leads as being behind the killings.
Asked why she thinks Osmeña has been hostile to her, she said, “I’m not his choice.”
Garma even said she is already itching to leave the post. She has thought of resigning during her first month in office. But she has decided on staying as, according to her, “every police officer's dream is to have a command.”
And so she will move forward and continue to talk back to Osmeña. She said she’s on the side of the right. More than that, even if she finds herself cornered, she would always have the man in Malacañang standing by her side. – Rappler.com
Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.