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2 Suspected Narco Mayors Killed in Police Shootouts

L-R: Mayor Espinosa and National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. Photo from the Philippine National Police

With witnesses gunned down in custody, the latest casualties of the Philippine war on drugs are feared to be major setbacks.

Another provincial mayor of a Leyte town accused of drug trafficking was shot dead by police officers in his jail cell last Saturday.

Rolando Espinosa Sr., mayor of Albuera town, turned himself in last October, weeks after President Duterte included him in a list of more than a hundred Philippine officials suspected of being involved in narcotics. Espinosa was accused along with his son, Kerwin, who is believed to have run the operation. The younger Espinosa went into hiding, but is currently detained in Abu Dhabi.

Leyte provincial police claimed that Espinosa and his cellmate, Raul Yap, had been killed in a supposed firefight with police officers. The provincial police chief said both men had “resisted” members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) after officers woke them up to perform a warranted search their cell. According to the police, bags containing illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia, as well as two handguns had been recovered from the jail cell.

The mayor is the second politician on the president’s narco-list to have been killed by the police recently.

Eight days prior, another provincial mayor, Samsudin Dimaukom of the Mindanao town of Datu Saudi-Ampatuan, was gunned down at a police checkpoint. The police said the mayor and his party had fired on the checkpoint officers.

Dimaukom was also in the list of officials allegedly involved in drugs the President read on television last August. No evidence was offered; the President later admitted that some people on the list were not supposed to be there. Nevertheless, he has given these officials a clear warning: surrender or be subject to a manhunt.

And although Dimaukom did not turn himself in, Espinosa did. Before being gunned down he had identified 226 people connected to his son’s business, who were connected to different branches of government, the army, and even the media.

Espinosa had been assured protection by none other than National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who in turn ordered an investigation. Investigating officials have been puzzled: the mayor was gunned down with excessive force, apparently, for having a firearm.

As the investigation unfolds, more questions arise, such as the timing of the search warrant, and indeed, the need to issue a warrant to search a state-run facility. The regional CIDG answered the latter by pointing out it is often the case for jail management personnel to be tolerant of illegal activities within the facility.  This, of course, should put the involved personnel of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology—who were either compliant with the entry of firearms into the cell of a detainee or incompetent enough to let it slip by them—within the sights of the investigators.

Chief Insp. Jovie Espenido, the Albuera municipal police chief who had convinced Espinosa to produce an affidavit that named names, said that these two killings might instill fear among potential witnesses. “What is the guarantee that they are still safe?” he said. 

Photo from the Presidential Communications Office

The Philippine Commission on Human Rights, meanwhile, said the deaths raise serious questions on the responsibility of the state to protect “persons deprived of liberty, especially in relation to the primordial right to live of every human being.”

Since taking office in June, the Duterte administration has embarked on a bloody campaign against drugs that has left about 2,000 dead at the hands of police officers and vigilantes.

Last Saturday the office of the presidential communications secretary, Martin Andanar, talked about the death, calling it “unfortunate” and a big loss for the campaign against drugs.