President Rodrigo Duterte's murderous war on drugs has cost thousands of lives. After the killings of two local mayors, a ruthless police chief has made his name as a willing enforcer, Florian Neuhof reports.
The police station in Ozamiz is a hive of activity. In the entrance hall, police officers walk briskly past the reception, documents tucked under their arms, as a steady stream of town folk enter the modest two-story building to register a complaint or seek help. Inmates are crammed into a squalid holding cell beyond the bars of a metal door at the far end of the foyer. On the roof, an elite SWAT team inhabits tightly packed bunkbeds, shielded from the elements only by a sheet of corrugated iron above their heads.
Amid the hustle and bustle, Chief Inspector Jovie Espenido would almost go unnoticed, were it not for his outsized reputation and the respect he is treated with by police and visitors alike. A diminutive, jovial man, Espenido is soft-spoken and quick to flash a smile that gives him an almost child-like appearance.
Despite that, the 49-year-old fights crime with relentless determination. He has become known throughout the Philippines for killing Ozamiz Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog, a man accused of running one of the country's most notorious crime syndicates.
Residents say that before Espenido became police chief in Ozamiz last year, the Parojinogs controlled the drugs trade and filled their coffers through rampant corruption. Everyone — from drivers of tricycle taxis to wealthy businessmen — had to pay protection money to the Parojinogs.
They say that those who stood in their way were killed by the armed thugs in the hire of the family and their bodies buried in the dense jungle that surrounds the city or dumped into the harbor with weights tied to their feet.
Within months of Espenido's arrival in Ozamiz, a sleepy port town on the island of Mindanao, the mayor was dead — killed in a police raid on his house. His wife and 13 family members and acolytes also died in the raid.
It was not the first time that an encounter with Espenido had ended in the death of a mayor. In his previous posting, in the small town of Albuera, the mayor, Rolando Espinosa, mysteriously died in a police cell after his arrest.
Espenido insists that both men were killed in self-defense. He says the Albuera mayor had smuggled a hand gun into prison, while his Ozamiz counterpart opened fire on the police when they came to search his house. His detractors claim that Parojinog was killed by police who threw a grenade into the house of the mayor after he had surrendered himself.
In the Philippines, endemic corruption and abuse of power has led to local politicians running their constituencies like private fiefdoms and often running organized crime rings at the same time.
'Duterte's poster boy'
Espenido detests the nexus between politics and crime, and he is on a mission to fight it. No inquiries have been launched into the death of the mayors, so the question remains: Is the police chief prepared to use extrajudicial killings to dispatch powerful criminals?
While he denies any wrongdoing, he is not shy to stand by his convictions.
"If you do things the right way, we are brothers and sisters, but if you don't I will punish you by all means," says Espenido.
His ruthlessness has made him useful to President Rodrigo Duterte, who has launched a bloody crackdown on drugs. Thousands of suspected drug users and pushers have died at the hands of police and murky death squads since Duterte was elected in 2016, and the president has also targeted mayors whom he has accused of being linked to the drugs trade. Parojinog is one of 10 mayors who have perished after Duterte put them on a list of suspected narco-politicians.
Critics such as Senator Antonio Trillanes say that Duterte's war on drugs has now claimed the lives of 22,000 people — a figure that remains unconfirmed — while failing to reduce the narcotics in circulation. Its real aim, the senator says, is to intimidate the political opposition.
In Espenido, the president has found a willing enforcer of his hard-line approach.
"Since Espenido gained prominence, he's being made a poster boy for the brand of policeman he wants: the kind that kills arbitrarily," says Trillanes.
But in Ozamiz, many are grateful to Espenido. Andres Fernandez, a prominent local lawyer, says that past police chiefs had been bribed by the mayor or were afraid to stand up to him because of his connections in government.
"We welcomed the decision of Duterte to send Espenido. He is a police officer who puts his life on the line. He worked relentlessly against [the Parojinogs]," he says.
Sermons for prisoners
To the police chief, his work is a religious duty. A devout Christian and member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Espenido does not work on Saturdays and is a strict vegetarian and teetotaler. His faith has also given him inexhaustible energy and a missionary zeal that dominates life in the police station.
Living with his wife in a small room behind his office in the police station — a safety precaution against retaliation from remnants of Parojinog's gang, he says — Espenido gathers the inmates of the downstairs cell outside the station every morning at five.
Sitting on plastic chairs lined up in front of the entrance, the inmates sing to religious jingles blaring out of a cheap sound system until the police chief steps up to deliver a sermon. The prisoners are let out of their cell again in the evening for more praying and singing. Espenido is convinced that faith leads to redemption, and the message might be getting across.
"Jovie Espenido is a good man, I am telling you that he is a good man, because he gave us a second chance in life," says Butch Merino, the former right-hand man of Nova Princess Parojinog, the daughter of the slain mayor, who was arrested in the raid that killed her father. With tattoos covering his arms and a menacing demeanor, Butch looks like a textbook thug. After his arrest, he began cooperating with the police to seek out his former accomplices, and he is now in protective custody as part of a witness protection scheme.
Butch may or may not have fallen to Espenido's proselytizing. Either way, he is part of the police chief's crusade against crime.