Espina, signing off
It is not often that a man in uniform achieves lasting national prominence, or cements a sympathetic public reputation, through what can be described as an act of weakness. In a culture still dominated by thoroughgoing concepts of machismo, a general shedding tears in public can be perceived as self-indulgent, emotionally vulnerable, lacking manly control. But Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, until yesterday the officer in charge of the Philippine National Police, showed nothing but strength when he wept during a hearing at the House of Representatives last February.
In that particular inquiry into the circumstances of the Mamasapano incident, where 44 PNP Special Action Force troopers perished in a clash with Moro rebels (and where 17 rebels and five civilians also died), Espina must have reached the emotional point of no return, and exploded: “Ano ba itong overkill na ginawa niyo sa mga tao ko (What is this overkill you did to my men)?” he began, with tears in his eyes. He was addressing the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, at a time when it was not yet clear who did what, and when, in the gun battle in the cornfields of Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
But while he did not sugarcoat his outrage against the rebel group, it was clear to anyone who watched that riveting moment, captured on TV and then shared online and on social media, that he was in pain for the officers and men of his organization who had died in scandalous circumstances. “I seek answers for my people. So that when my time comes, I can face my people and at least I can say something. It is always sweet to die for this country. Itong mga taong ito [These people] will always be there in your front and say ‘Mission accomplished.’”
It has since become clear that that was the authentic Espina. In his seven months as OIC of the PNP’s 160,000 men and women in uniform, Espina made an indelible impression that was—and it pains us to state the obvious—the exact opposite of the reputation of Alan Purisima, the man he replaced. Regardless of their specific law enforcement competencies, or skill in crime fighting, the two generals, both members of the Philippine Military Academy’s Class of 1981, became defined by their contrasting personas: While Purisima was seen as loyal to his friend President Aquino to a fault and protective of his own prerogatives, Espina in his seven months at the helm was seen as loyal to his organization above all. He placed the welfare of PNP personnel above that of personal or political interest.
In his farewell remarks, Espina gratefully acknowledged the confidence that the President had placed on him, “for the past rather challenging seven months,” but he was too much of an officer and a gentleman to point out that the source of some of those very challenges was none other than Mr. Aquino himself. He was already OIC when the operation that led to the tragedy in Mamasapano was green-lighted, with Purisima’s specific instruction to the SAF commander to bypass both Espina and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.
It is a measure of Espina’s leadership that the PNP as a whole and the SAF in particular seem to have weathered the worst of the post-Mamasapano crisis. We must not forget the conduct of many other PNP officials who helped keep the organization on an even keel, including the new SAF commander, Chief Supt. Moro Virgilio Lazo, and especially Director Benjamin Magalong and other members of the PNP’s Board of Inquiry. The BOI report was not without controversy, but the process by which it was conducted, and the reasoning behind its conclusions, did much to restore public confidence in the police.
Espina set the tone, and his organization responded. If we understand him correctly, he will be the first to say he was only doing his duty, and to downplay his role, but the simple truth is the nation owes him a debt of gratitude. Even the small details were telling: Early on, he took himself out of consideration for a full-time appointment as PNP chief because of his imminent retirement. He called on the PNP to support whoever the next chief would be. And when Director Ricardo Marquez was appointed, he offered enthusiastic, and specific, praise.
On the day he retired, Espina turned wistful: “I now sign off, I will miss you dearly. Goodbye, all.” Many at the change-of-command ceremony in Camp Crame must have thought: Mission accomplished.
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