Leonardo Espina's 'last card'

'FALLEN 44.' Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas during the arrival of 42 of 44 slain SAF troopers at the Villamor Airbase. PNP PIO file photo

'FALLEN 44.' Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas during the arrival of 42 of 44 slain SAF troopers at the Villamor Airbase.

PNP PIO file photo

MANILA, Philippines – The arrival of caskets bearing elite cops killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, at the Villamor Airbase on January 29 was a deeply personal moment for Philippine National Police (PNP) officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina.

To Deputy Director General Espina, the 44 men slain in the controversial “Oplan Exodus” were not just comrades killed in battle. They reminded him of his eldest brother, Joseph Espina, who was slain during a police operation decades ago.

A million things were going through his mind: Why was he kept out of the loop in an operation against a high-value target? What exactly happened in the run-up to the doomed operation? 

But there was one question that bothered him the most: What would happen to the families of the 44 left behind?

Kaming mga kapatid – 6 kasi kami – noong namatay ang eldest brother ko (My brothers – there are 6 of us – when my eldest brother died), I took charge in rallying and getting all the collective efforts of my brothers para ma-assist namin ang mga bata kasi maliliit pa eh (to help his children because they were still young then),” Espina told Rappler in an interview weeks before his scheduled retirement on July 19, 2015. (READ: Ricardo Marquez is new PNP chief)

It wasn't an issue of finances, although that's important too, said Espina. It was the thought of young children growing up without a father. 

And this happened to 44. This happened to 44. 'Yun ang mabigat sa akin…kasi ramdam ko eh. Kasi namatayan ako ng kapatid eh. Eto nakita ko, namatayan ng 44. Parang ganoon rin, times 44 nga eh. Kaya nga napakabigat,” he added.

(That was the hardest part for me…because I felt it. I know what it’s like to lose a brother. Here, 44 families lost their loved ones. It was like my own experience, times 44. That’s what made it so difficult.)

The 3-star general counts the controversial Mamasapano operation – which claimed the lives of more than 60 people, including 44 of the PNP’s Special Action Force (SAF) – as among the toughest moments in his almost 4 decades of service as a commissioned officer, first in the military then eventually, in the civilian PNP.

Espina, who took over as the 150,000-strong PNP’s interim leader in December 2014, is set to lay down his uniform one last time when he turns 56, the mandatory age of retirement, on July 19.

The scars of Exodus

There were a lot of tears shed, mostly in private, in the days and weeks following the doomed operation.

For Espina, the most public was on February 11, 2015. During the House of Representatives’ probe into “Oplan Exodus,” he barely held back tears as he demanded justice for the 44.

So secret was the mission – which targeted Indonesian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir (alias “Marwan”) and Filipino bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman – that even Espina and other top security officials were kept out of the loop.

What followed was a crisis not only in the PNP, but the Aquino administration.

President Benigno Aquino III was scored for allowing his friend, suspended and eventually resigned PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, to be part of the operation even if he was preventively suspended over graft charges.

(Editor’s note: Purisima was eventually dismissed from the PNP by the Ombudsman, over the same case which prompted his suspension)

Aquino’s approval and trust ratings suffered – officers and police personnel upset over the President’s refusal to appoint an acting or full-time PNP chief, the public howling over what they perceived then as the President’s indifference to the death of the 44 elite cops.

For the PNP’s top brass at that time – the lonely twosome of Espina and his Philippine Military Academy (PMA) classmate and then Chief of Directorial Staff Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo Jr – the top priority, aside from attending to the families of the 44, was to rally together and to reunite a fractured PNP.

Despite Purisima’s suspension, there were officials who remained loyal to the 4-star general. They continued to follow his orders and neglect to inform Espina or Garbo. Napeñas, who commanded the SAF operation, was apparently one of them.

Speaking to Rappler months later, Espina admitted there was “confusion” among the PNP’s top officers.

“Yes, I must admit. Kasi, noong time na iyon sabi ko [kay] Leo [Napeñas]: Ano ba ang nangyari? Wala naman tayong hindi pagkakaintindihan….Sabi niya, medyo nalilito siya sa kalagayan. Sabi ko, hindi ka naman kailangan malito sa kalagayan natin and then he broke down. Tingin ko, personal lang yan eh. Perception. Hindi naman magulo ang kalagayan. Anticipation kasi,” said Espina.

(During that time, I told Director Napeñas: What happened? It’s not like we had a misunderstanding. He told me that he was confused over the situation. I told him he didn’t need to be confused and then he broke down. I think of it as a personal decision based on perception. It’s not that the situation was confusing. It’s because people anticipated too much.)

By “anticipation,” Espina meant how some officers were on their toes, expecting Purisima to return with a vengeance any time.

Once the hearings were over and the investigations were finished, Espina went around the country – visiting regional and provincial headquarters to tell police that it was time to move forward.

“It was a heavy burden. But I told them that eventually, it will be lighter but we shouldn’t forget about what happened. I want them to remember that these 44 died carrying or being the epitome of the PNP motto: Service. Honor. Justice,” said Espina.

Namatay ang mga 'yan, nag-serbisyo, Namatay 'yang mga 'yan may dignidad at honor. Namatay 'yang mga 'yan working for justice doon sa mga nabiktima ni Marwan (They died in service, they died with dignity and honor. They died working to get justice for the victims of Marwan),” he added.

On the job

Even as a young lieutenant, Espina was well aware of the dangers of his chosen profession. Even before he met his wife in Ormoc, Leyte, Espina made sure he had enough resources to eventually raise a family of his own.

He’s had his brushes with death – his first and most memorable one happened when he was only 22, a fresh graduate of the PMA.

“We were ambushed along a river. I told myself, this is it. I was 22. But it turns out, it wasn’t my time yet,” he said.

Another was when he was a commanding officer in Pampanga when Mount Pinatubo erupted.

Ugali ko, mula noong 2nd lieutenant ako, lalo na noong nagpakasal ako, lagi akong nagbibilin: do this, do that in case this is my last day. Importante 'yun e. Nakita ko nga sa kapatid ko, biglaan. Natuto ako, kaya medyo morbid planner ako. It’s already accepted by my wife,” Espina said.

(It’s been my habit since I was a 2nd lieutenant, especially after I got married. I always tell them: do this, do that in case this is my last day. It’s important. I saw what happened to my brother; it was so sudden. I learned from that so I became a morbid planner.)

His is a career that can be the envy of many officers in the PNP and even the military.

Prior to joining the PNP’s Command Group, Espina was chief of the Highway Patrol Group (HPG), and the now-defunct anti-kidnapping group Police Anti-Crime and Emergency Response Force. Espina was also once a spokesman for the police force.

‘My last card’

During his term as OIC, there was clamor for the President to appoint Espina as acting or full-time chief of the PNP, especially after “Oplan Exodus.” But Espina has no hard feelings when it comes to whatever title he's held in his last months in the PNP.

"This is the role given to me, so I’ll fulfil it. I never imagined that I would be OIC,” said Espina.

The police general did try to step down at least twice – the first time in December 2014, before Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II and a second time in late March, before Aquino himself.

Espina is also quick to dismiss speculation of any ill-feelings between himself and Purisima or Napeñas, though he admits he hasn’t spoken to Purisima, his mistah (PMA classmate), since legislative hearings on Mamasapano ended.

After all, Espina says he’s the kind of person who never thinks ahead of himself and takes things one step at a time.

Joining the armed forces, for instance, wasn’t exactly the young Espina’s dream.

Born to a well-off, middle class family, the young Espina's dream was to become a doctor. After graduating high school form the Lourdes School of Quezon City, the 14-and-a-half-year-old Leonardo Espina entered the University of the Philippines (UP)-Manila as a biology freshman.

After two years in his pre-med course came the awful realization: “Gusto ko 'yung medicine, [pero] 'yung medicine, ayaw sa akin (I wanted to take up medicine but medicine did not want me).”

Espina recalled that his grades were dismal, or at least subpar. “My grades were so low at 2.5 when 3 was the passing. I’m not used to it. Feeling ko wala na akong pag-asa sa buhay (I felt hopeless),” Espina told Rappler, chuckling at the memory.

It was through older brother Joseph, then a cadet at the PMA, that Espina found hope.

"Sabi ko, buti pa tong kapatid ko. Sigurado na siyang meron siyang suweldo, sigurado na siyang meron siyang future, sigurado na siyang merong trabaho after graduation (I told myself: my brother is lucky. He’s sure to have a salary one day, he’s sure about his future, he’s sure to have a job after graduation). Somehow that really influenced me to enter the PMA,” he said.

Entering the military made no sense to the people surrounding the teenage Espina. He did, after all, fail 4 semesters of Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

Kasi nga wala akong kahilig-hilig diyan sa military, mag-dodoktor ako e (I had no interest in the military because I was deadset on becoming a doctor),” explained the police general.

Kaya noong pumasok ako, isang araw…paggising ko, nasa PMA na ako (One day I just woke up and I realized, I’m in the PMA). Of all people!” he added.

It was in Fort Gregorio del Pilar and the grassy expanse of the Borromeo field where Espina tried to find his place.

Ang aking motivation, parang wala na kasi akong pupuntahan. Ito na lang ang pag-asa ko talaga sa buhay. Ang motivation ko noon, grabe: bangkay 'nyo na ako tatanggalin sa PMA. Hindi 'nyo ako puwedeng pauwiin. Sabi ko: This is my last card. Talaga. Kaya walang makakapigil talaga sa akin,” said Espina.

(My motivation then was that I had nowhere else to go. The PMA was my only hope. I was so motivated then that I told myself, you’ll have to kill me to get me out of the PMA. You will not get rid of me. I told myself: This is my last card. Really. So nobody could stop me.)

‘Last two decades’

There are no regrets in devoting most of his life to the police force for this general, who says there's nothing sweeter than to die for the Philippines.

“This government, our country…it has taken care of us, our families. In my case, it started in 1977 until my retirement in 2015,” said Espina.

Based on his own – perhaps morbid – calculations, Espina reckons he has roughly 20 more years left. His last two decades, he intends to devote to his 3 sons and wife.

“I’m going back home. I’m going to see my family through and well and this is a commitment and a vow, I will help my wife in church,” he said. There are no plans of further service in government – at least for now. – Rappler.com