The Philippine government on Thursday defended the national police chief’s move offering early retirement to officers whose names were included in President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug watchlist, saying it was a strategy to ferret out dirty cops.
Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said the offer made by police chief Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa could be part of a plan to get errant cops out in the open. But he emphasized that police officers would not be able to escape criminal prosecution even after retiring from service.
“By getting that [early] retirement, you’re admitting you’re involved [in the drug trade] because that’s precisely the purpose,” Panelo told reporters. “If you retire, it means you’re included there.”
Panelo said the government would pursue charges against officers facing drug-related allegations.
“It would be different if you will give them optional retirement and then you will waive criminal prosecution. That’s a different story,” he said. “You cannot waive criminal prosecution if there’s a violation of the law.”
During a news conference Monday, the national police chief said he recently met with 357 policemen accused of involvement in the illegal drug trade and told them they could avail themselves of an early retirement.
Gamboa said he made the move to save the reputation of the police force, as he confirmed that at least one general, whom he declined to identify, was named in the drug watchlist.
“If you think you are guilty, you better render your optional retirement,” Gamboa was quoted by the state-run Philippine News Agency as telling the police officers.
“They were given options so that the image of [the national police] would not be ruined, but it doesn’t mean they are off the hook,” he said, explaining that the drug-tainted officers would face prosecution.
He said only one officer had claimed optional retirement.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, citing sources who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, reported on Wednesday that among the officers included in the list was Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido, who had earlier reaped praise from Duterte for helping to carry out the deadly anti-narcotics campaign, which has killed thousands.
“Please just ask the chief of the [Philippine National Police],” the newspaper quoted Espenido as saying in a text message. “If he confirms it, I will speak.”
In 2017, Espenido led a squad of officers in a drug raid in which Reynaldo Parojinog, mayor of the southern city of Ozamiz, was killed along with several of his bodyguards.
Espenido was also the police chief in Albuera, a town in central Leyte province, when officers in 2016 killed Rolando Espinosa Sr., a mayor who was in jail for his alleged drug links.
Espinosa was killed after he allegedly pulled a gun on officers searching his jail cell for contraband.
Duterte two years ago ordered Espenido’s transfer to Bacolod, a city that the president said has had a long-time drug problem.
“I said, ‘Go there and you are free to kill everybody. … Go start killing them,’” Duterte said during a speech, recalling what he told the officer, whom he also described as “the policeman they fear.”
Rights groups have complained about Duterte’s order, noting that it marked the first time he had given a public directive to an officer to violate the law and kill suspects.
Espenido has since been replaced as chief of police in Bacolod, and placed on administrative duty at the national headquarters in Manila, officials said.
Gamboa, in an interview with local reporters on Thursday, declined to confirm Espenido’s inclusion in the drug watchlist, the Inquirer said.
But detained Sen. Leila de Lima, a leading Duterte critic, described the inclusion of Espenido as a sign that the controversial police officer had either lost his value to the administration or become a threat to the government.
“Police Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido now in Duterte’s drug list? Ironically amazing!” the senator said in a statement from jail.
De Lima, a former rights commissioner, is among the leading critics of Duterte’s drug war.
The government has jailed de Lima on charges that she received payoffs from drug dealers when she served as justice secretary. She has denied the allegations, saying these were intended to silence her for criticizing Duterte. Local and international human rights groups, as well as several U.S. senators, have called for her release.
About 6,000 suspected dealers and addicts have been killed since Duterte took power in mid-2016, according to official figures, but international rights groups estimate the death toll could be five times as high.
The majority of those killed were poor people in urban areas and despite the crackdown, drug trafficking has continued, according to officials.
During several public appearances, Duterte has waved thick documents he claimed contained the names of dozens of judges, police and military officers, as well as local officials allegedly involved in drug trafficking.
Many of those on the list have been killed, mostly in what police had described as legitimate gunfights.
Earlier this week Abdul Wahab Sabal, mayor of Talitay town in the southern province of Maguindanao, was gunned down as he was about to enter a hotel in Manila. Duterte had tagged him as a narco-politician who was also named on the president’s watchlist.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.