Short, stocky, hair combed flat, Jovie Espenido stood silently, feet shoulder-width apart, in the hall of Ozamiz City’s mayoral residence. Before him lay its former resident, Reynaldo Parojinog, his wife Susan and two other men. Three more men lay dead outside. In a nearby street seven more bodies stiffened in the cloying, pre-dawn heat, their blood drying on the tarmac.
Espenido’s M16 rifle hung from his right hand, and its muzzle rested on his black toecap – buffed, as always, to a high polish. Gun and grenade smoke wound past him, out of the building’s windows, and through the mess of phone wires and bunting above brightly-painted pedicabs and unmanned barbecue stalls. Locals gathered behind police cordons several dozen yards away, as night became day.
Espenido peered down at Reynaldo. The cartel boss’s beer belly hung bare and his arms were raised in a boxer’s feint as if, in the final frame of his life, Parojinog imagined he might dodge his adversary’s bullets. Espenido breathed slowly, smiled and walked outside. He gathered his men and began to pray. “Thank you Lord,” Espenido said, his eyes closed tight. “Thank you.”
The raid would propel Espenido to national notoriety. President Rodrigo Duterte has promoted the diminutive police chief as the pinup of his drug war – despite homicide charges that could still end Espenido’s career and stymie a crackdown that has ended the lives of thousands of Filipinos.
Whatever Jovie Espenido did with his life, it was never destined to be peaceful. He was born in 1968, the seventh of ten siblings in San Miguel, a languid podunk on the eastern edge of Mindanao, the Philippines’ restive southern island. His parents, Josepina and Vicente, gave Jovie a name that fused their own. But he received no special treatment and, each night, while Josepina and Vicente slept on the second floor of their modest home, their kids lay downstairs on hard floorboards, shoulder-to-shoulder in age formation, like Philippine Von Trapps.
Josepina and Vicente, strictly Catholic, forbade drinking, smoking, slouching and jokes. Eating three meals a day and attending school made the Espenido children middle-class by local standards. But they had little else, and Jovie grew up idolising the New People’s Army with its 20,000-or-so peasant-soldiers, some of who bivouacked deep in the green hills beyond his hometown. Jovie led his classmates in mock battles, reenacting firefights that crackled in the distance with sharpened bamboo sticks. He made spare change operating karaoke systems at village parties.
Josepina and Vicente were local politicians: they broadly supported the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his first lady Imelda. The Marcos’s corruption, according to a New Republic editorial, resembled “the mercantilist dynasties of late medieval Europe”. Imelda amassed a collection of over 3,000 designer shoes while millions of Filipinos struggled to eat. War against the NPA raged.
State troops dragged their fallen comrades through San Miguel so villagers could witness communist brutality up close. Two of Jovie’s brothers enlisted in the Army. But he wasn’t sure who the good guys were. Marcos’s soldiers looted, hit kids, and executed civilians suspected of communist ties. They called it “salvation”.
Aged 14, Jovie and a friend walked an hour through the jungle to an NPA hideout, and learned how to assemble American-made M16s. It was the first time he held a gun – and he loved it. He dreamt of becoming an NPA commander. When his mother found out, she got mad. If he joined the state, she told Jovie, he might change the system from within.
“But if you join the New People’s Army,” she added, “you die.”
In 1986 a popular rebellion, led by peacenik Catholic priests, ousted Marcos. Amid the power vacuum, the Philippine Army feared all-out war on the island of Mindanao. It deferred to dozens of private vigilante groups set up to stymie the spread of communism. One of the island’s most famous was the Kuratong Balaleng (KB), led by a wealthy benefactor named Octavio “Ongkoy” Parojinog. It repelled rebels with M16s and M203 grenade launchers – and dragged corpses through the streets of its base city, Ozamiz.
As the insurgency waned, and vigilante groups disbanded, Octavio spied an opportunity. His men branched into organised crime, robbing and extorting locals. Everybody in Ozamiz paid two taxes: one to Manila, and one to the KB. Yet Octavio managed to craft a Robin Hood persona in his hometown, much as Pablo Escobar had done in Medellín. The KB bribed cops and stationed “trigger men” on street corners, ready to deliver Octavio’s jungle justice. It was swift and savage. One former resident told me that when a man stole his mother’s bracelet, a KB henchman cut off the thief’s hand and gave the bangle back.
Cops killed Octavio at a cockfight in 1990, and the KB splintered into factions led by his three sons, Nato, Ricardo and Reynaldo. Throughout the decade it became notorious for a series of daring bank heists across the country. Reynaldo remained in Ozamiz. He was a quiet, podgy high-school dropout. But he was strict; “from the old school,” his daughter, Nova Princess Parojinog, tells me. Reynaldo punished his kids quickly. But he heaped love on them when they were good, and often led family singalongs.
Reynaldo imported shabu, a cheap methamphetamine named for the way users boiled it like Japanese shabu-shabu hotpots. Tons of the crystalline powder arrived on ships alongside smuggled rice, sugar and cigarettes. Pushers sold it at Ozamiz’s port-side market for under a dollar a hit. It was as easy as “selling pancakes”, local journalist Neptalee Batolenio says. Politicians kept quiet. Whistleblowers often wound up dead. In 1999, when a reporter asked Reynaldo how many Ozamiz residents were KB members, he replied: “Almost everybody.”
Throughout the period, Jovie’s own career flatlined. In 1987 he left San Miguel to study in Cebu, the Philippines’ humdrum second city. A year later he met Sheila, a medical student, and fell in love. Sheila was a Seventh-day Adventist: she celebrated Sabbath on Saturday, and hewed to a fundamentalist, Old Testament view of Christianity: eyes for eyes, and no cheeks turned. In 1991 Jovie converted from Catholicism, married Sheila and moved into her family home in Isabel, a sleepy seaside town on the island of Leyte.
Jovie discovered a passion for action movies: he loved James Bond, and Rudy Fernandez, a ribald leading man from Manila who rose from poverty to stardom. Fernandez’s characters were often maverick, Dirty Harry-style cops who dispensed justice with bullets and one-liners. Jovie dreamt of joining the Philippine National Police (PNP). But Sheila’s family forbade it, and he worked at the small convenience store that backed onto their home.
Then, one night in 1992, everything changed. Masked raiders broke into the store during dinner, and robbed the family at gunpoint. Jovie was unarmed, and helpless. He prayed, then called the cops. The cops knew the gang’s leader – Danilo “Denden” Mojado, a former NPA commander with political friends – but refused to help, and even demanded gas money. Jovie recalled his mother’s words in San Miguel, and begged Sheila’s family to allow him to join the PNP. Four years later, they did.
Jovie wasted little time wreaking his revenge. In 1998 he arrested Denden in Cebu. But Denden escaped jail by paying off wardens. “What kind of law is this in the Philippines,” Jovie wonders when recalling the episode to me one night on the porch of the home the family still owns today. “I will make a decision… I will get your life.”
In 2001 a source tipped Jovie off to Denden’s hideout in the mountains in Merida, just minutes from Leyte. Jovie sped off on a motorcycle and discovered Denden and six of his bandits in a bamboo hut beside a banana tree. He approached along a track of tamped grass, with his M16 raised and his flak jacket dripping with sweat. He stopped around the width of a tennis court away and yelled: “Where is Denden Mojado?”
The men turned. Denden stepped outside the hut holding a handgun and a grenade. He wore an amulet called Anting-anting that, according to Philippine folk religion, protected its wearer from harm. Jovie saw the amulet and believed he was squaring off against the devil. He fired, stepping forward with each shot. Five hit Denden – one in his mouth – and, as he fell, his tongue lolled out of the hole in his cheek. The other men froze. Jovie dropped to his knees and looked up beyond the canopy to the sun.
“Thank you Lord,” he cried. “This is my first mission.”
For Jovie the moment was divine justice. He soon earned a reputation as a dogged crimefighter, spending huge amounts of time speaking with regular citizens, and taking calls and texts on his cellphone. Any time Jovie served a warrant he would fast – sometimes for days.
But he made few friends on the force. Jovie refused to turn a blind eye to corruption, reporting colleagues who in turn denied him promotions. Cops respected Jovie’s work. But he was political dynamite, and remained a bottom-rung cop for years.
By 2005 Jovie was assigned to Ormoc, a harbour city so close to Isabel he could commute each day. On 20 August, Jovie’s regional director alerted him to a man wanted for 21 murders, who had been spotted drinking in the city’s covered market. It was Jovie’s wedding anniversary: he had dinner plans with Sheila, and needed to buy flowers. But at 3pm he met an informant and staked out the suspect, who sat on a stool at a hole-in-the-wall bar. He wore a basketball vest, and a bag sat on the bar beside him. A young woman sat on the next stool.
“You know him?” Jovie asked.
“Yes sir, I know him,” the informant replied. “He killed my father.”
Jovie drew his gun.
“Careful,” the informant warned him. “That person is a very quick draw.”
Jovie swooped on the bar.
“Don’t move, this is the police!”
The man grabbed for his bag. Jovie fired. His victim crashed to the floor. Jovie stepped closer. The informant told him the man who killed his father had a spider’s web tattooed on his chest. Jovie pulled away the dead man’s vest.
“Why’ve you embarrassed me?” he screamed at the informant. Then he turned to the body. “Oh my gosh,” Jovie said, stunned. “How did he do this to me?”
Jovie feared a murder charge. He picked up Sheila, who was waiting at their dinner date, and fled Ormoc. He told her everything. “Sorry,” he said. “We’ll solve the problem.”
Since Rodrigo Duterte became Philippine President in June 2016, his drug war has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives. Rights groups claim the real number is far higher. Duterte claims there are eight million drug-users in his country. A leading think-tank says the real figure is barely a quarter of that, putting the number of Filipinos who use illegal drugs lower, per capita, than the United Kingdom.
Philippine cops kill with near-impunity: only three have been prosecuted amid the bloodletting, for murdering 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos in a Manila alleyway in 2017. As soon as officers claim Nanlaban, or self-defence, cases usually end. In Duterte’s police state, blue lives don’t just matter – they are sovereign. In April 2017 Donald Trump called Duterte to congratulate him on an “unbelievable job” fighting narcotics. The Philippines has Asia’s highest homicide rate.
Almost every victim of the drug war is a poor user of shabu, rather than those importing or selling it. In August 2016, however, Duterte released a list of more than 150 public officials he accused of being Narkopolitikos. Among them was Reynaldo Parojinog. While Jovie’s career in the PNP had grown bloodier, Reynaldo spent the late Nineties trying to shed his own brutal image. In 2001 he became Ozamiz’s mayor, and launched community projects including a livelihood drive for women and a centre for Lumads, a widely persecuted minority ethnic group. Nova Princess lived up to her name and flaunted collections of designer clothes and Hermes bags. She soon joined Reynaldo in office as the city’s vice-mayor.
Protection money, however, continued to flow. Pedicab drivers contributed a handful of Philippine pesos – around the cost of one ride across town – each day. Each year they alone added around $75,000 to the mayor’s unofficial wealth. The illegal betting rings he controlled added more.
And shabu kept rolling into Ozamiz’s docks. By the mid-2010s, according to a local rehab worker, as many as half the city’s inhabitants were hooked. “Politicians, teachers, doctors, nurses, government workers” were into it. “It was destroying the very core values of the family.”
Manila’s powerbrokers rarely cared what happened on Mindanao. Duterte, then mayor of Davao, was the island’s highest-profile politician – he and Reynaldo were good friends. Duterte sometimes traveled to Ozamiz for basketball tournaments, and returned with sackfuls of local-caught crabs.
Having fled Ormoc, he spent seven months on the run across Mindanao. The woman who witnessed the market shooting was the dead man’s girlfriend. But she refused to come forward, and the case against Jovie unravelled. The man’s parents eventually agreed to a civil settlement of 200,000 pesos – around $6,500.
Jovie blamed the episode on his despair at the Philippines’ lawlessness and fretted that, in the time since Denden’s death, he’d lost touch with God. He vowed to cleave closer to the Bible, and never to mistrust his faith.
In 2008, Jovie caught a break: the PNP promoted him to inspector. But he would surely have remained a provincial cop, had Duterte not become the Philippines’ most powerful man. Almost as soon as taking office, this sweary, populist strongman enacted his drug war. Bodies piled 50-plus high each day. Rights groups and international leaders expressed their dismay (although then-UK trade minister Liam Fox visited Manila in April 2017, declaring “shared values” with the Philippine premier). To keep his citizens onside, and the powerful Catholic clergy in check, Duterte needed balance.
Jovie, a clean-cut father-of-three, was perfect. He was trigger-happy but softly spoken, with a penchant for sermonising state violence as divine Nanlaban. “Outwardly, you would think (Jovie’s) just an ordinary Filipino father,” Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch tells me. “He fits perfectly with the agenda of the Duterte administration.”
Moreover, Jovie “comes out of a tradition in Philippine movies of the quiet guy who’s very principled, and everybody abuses the community around him, and he can’t take it anymore,” says Patricio Abinales, a University of Hawaii-Manoa professor. “And everybody says, ‘It’s ok.’”
The events that set Jovie and Reynaldo hurtling towards their own violent finale had just begun.
On 13 July 2016, a fortnight into Duterte’s rule, the PNP assigned Jovie to Albuera, a fishing town 30 minutes from Ormoc. Albuera’s mayor, Rolando Espinosa, featured on Duterte’s list: he and his son Kerwin were well-known Narkopolitikos.
Jovie began his tenure by delivering sermons at the city’s gimcrack police station each morning and night, singing karaoke hymns with cops and criminals. He buffed his standard-issue derbies and kept his uniform immaculately pressed. He was the new boss in town. On 3 August, Jovie led a raid on the mayor’s sprawling Sitio Tinigo (”Secret Place”) hacienda, killing six. His team recovered rifles, RPGS and shabu worth $36,000.
Rolando told the media that he feared he would be killed by crooked cops who had collaborated with Kerwin, who had fled the Philippines. Two months later, police arrested Kerwin in Abu Dhabi, seizing guns, bomb-making material and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shabu from locations across Albuera. Rolando went into protective custody in a tiny jail two hours away. Jovie wanted Rolando to rat on the cops – but warned he couldn’t keep him safe.
At 4am on 5 November that year, officers entered the jail to serve warrants to Rolando and Raul Yap, his cellmate. In the ensuing gunfight, Rolando and Yap both died. Officers claimed the men fired first. Nanlaban. Jovie was furious. “He was my witness,” he insists to me, questioning the police account. Jovie’s corruption case was over, but locals adored him for effectively ridding them of a dynasty that had strangled the town for years. They held a shoreside party to celebrate.
Rolando was the second mayor killed in Duterte’s drug war. Television reporters flocked to Albuera. Viewers loved Jovie: his piety eased their moral panic over a body count that often topped 50 each day. The death was also a PR coup for Duterte, who could use it to reject the claim that he was simply massacring vulnerable Filipinos.
A handful of politicians opened an inquiry into Rolando’s death in Manila. Jovie attended. It ended inconclusively days later. As Jovie left the courtroom he received a call from a PNP director. “Jovie,” the voice crackled. “I will assign you in Ozamiz.”
Rolando Espinosa was a regional crook. Reynaldo Parojinoga, mayor of Ozamiz, was the head of a Mafia clan. Sheila and Jovie’s friends tried to warn him off the role. “You mustn’t leave,” one told him. “You are in the mouth of a crocodile.”
Jovie ignored them. He gathered some things, and he and a fellow officer drove 15 hours south from Albuera to Ozamiz. The omens weren’t good: just before arriving at around 2am, Jovie’s colleague fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a ditch. The car was wrecked but the two men escaped unhurt. “We’re alive,” Jovie told himself. “We’ll go there, no holds barred.”
When he woke the next morning, Jovie was revulsed at Ozamiz’s disorder. It was filthy, and trash piled on almost every street corner. Cars parked haphazardly and the city’s squat, dusty downtown was hushed as if prepared for a duel. Even sellers of balut – a Philippine delicacy comprising a duck embryo boiled in its shell – stayed indoors. Jovie, a vegetarian, didn’t mind. But it was clear: business was dead. The Parojinogs had killed Ozamiz.
The city’s outgoing chief warned Jovie not to trust anybody. Men had killed cops with barbecue spits. But Jovie was no desk-jobber. He walked all over town meeting vendors, shoppers, pedicab drivers – and gave them all his personal mobile number. He visited poor districts no previous chief had bothered to enter. Soon messages flooded in – “Hey, this is the guy you met in the blue t-shirt,” they would typically begin – and the narrative around Ozamiz’s Robin Hood mayor soon began to crack.
Jovie turned Ozamiz’s two-story police station into a fortress. He slept in a small, single-bed room above its jail, surrounded by wall-mounted assault rifles and Bibles. He pinned A4-printed verse to the walls of his office, including Romans 13:1.
“Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God.”
Twice daily, at 6am and 6pm, Jovie delivered fire-and-brimstone sermons at the police station. One evening, I attended. Jovie stood in the booking station, rattling through the Ten Commandments on a karaoke microphone framed by tungsten light and swarms of bugs. Visitors sat before him in a semicircle of patio chairs. Felons thrust their arms through the barred windows behind him. It was as if he stood between good and evil themselves, and he knew it. “If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land,” he boomed in English, quoting Isiah 1:19-20. “But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword.”
A pastor who sat next to me told me he had journeyed hours across the Panguil Bay to hear Jovie speak – a pilgrimage, of sorts. “In the Bible God hates sin,” he said, as the machine blurted out tinny hymns. “I believe that God will use somebody like this leadership to destroy the bad elements.” When the sermon ended Jovie raised his hands in a double thumbs-up – ”The Espenido Sign” – he called it. The Cult of Jovie was in full swing.
Reynaldo had built an empire for decades beyond Manila’s purview. But Jovie’s appointment sent a clear message from Reynaldo’s old friend Duterte: his days were numbered. Reynaldo denied involvement in the drug trade – but he admitted Nova Princess’s relationship with a Triad known as “Ampang”, one of the Philippines’ biggest importers of shabu. Ozamiz was set for a showdown. “Everyone was scared,” Jun Fernandez, a local attorney, told me. “We had suffered for 30 years.”
One night soon after his arrival, Jovie invited Reynaldo and Nova Princess to a secret meeting at 10pm, in a small furniture store above a downtown fast food restaurant. Jovie wasted no time setting his terms to the mayor: “You’ll surrender all the illegal guns… and your vice mayor will surrender all your illegal drugs… and you will surrender all your corrupt men of Kuratong Balaleng.” He gave Reynaldo a month to give everything up.
For over an hour that night, Reynaldo denied everything. But in the coming days KB henchmen dropped shabu addicts at the police station. They were olive branches, but there were no doves: Jovie suspected the Parojinogs were using him to eliminate rival dealers. He ordered his men to detain any motorcyclists riding without a helmet in order to make low-level arrests, peeling the onion of Ozamiz’s drug trade.
On 10 June 2017, Jovie and his men raided a party at a home whose family they believed were connected to the KB. Cops ordered women and children to leave and forced the men to lie face-down. A gunfight then erupted, during which all six suspects were shot dead. Jovie claimed Nanlaban in his official report. Such bloodshed was rare even during the days of the KB’s crusades against the NPA. Some locals wondered if they had welcomed an even greater terror than the Parojinogs.
A month later, his demands unmet, Jovie filed a warrant for Reynaldo’s arrest, prepared a raid, and fasted. Somebody leaked the plan to the mayor, who fled to Manila. A fortnight later, Jovie re-filed the warrant, sharing its details with a few key officers. In the early hours of 30 July, Jovie and his men strode to the mayor’s compound, in the compact neighborhood of Baybay Santa Cruz.
The first sound Nova Princess remembers was grenades exploding outside her window. Then there was gunfire – ”a lot of gunfire” – and people shouting. It was a scene better suited to warfare: Jovie claims his cops came under fire from the compound, and responded with grenades and high-powered rifles. One witness told me they saw an unarmed watchman shot dead.
One of those hit inside the home was Daryl Parojinog, Reynaldo’s cousin, who played dead in the carnage, her stomach torn open by shrapnel. As she bled out on the floor she called a family confidante. “I’ve lost almost all my blood,” she said. Within two hours Jovie’s men had killed 15 people. Daryl died three days later. One of the casualties was a 25-year-old television cameraman named JR Millinar, who had no ties to the Parojinogs (his family refused to speak with me for fear of reprisals). Jovie’s men knocked out CCTV, claiming it compromised informants, a move even the PNP condemned.
The only footage released from the house, filmed on a cellphone, showed Nova Princess grabbing a bag of white powder as cops arrested her. She had hidden with her teenage sons, whose school basketball team was sleeping over, when the first bullets clattered through her home (she alleges that plainclothes cops planted drugs throughout the home).
Jovie congratulated his men and prayed. Not once did he tremble or feel afraid during the bloodshed, he claims. “I could only open my arms and say, ‘Lord, thank you very much.’”
Soon after the raids, life returned to Ozamiz’s streets. Kids played football and skated at dusk. New businesses flourished: gyms, restaurants, cafes and vape stores opened, unburdened by the KB’s second tax. Vendors sold balut into the early hours, and barbecue smoke wafted across throngs of howling pedicabs.
Cops told me they felt safer and more respected. Most people supported the raids. Some, though, feared they’d simply replaced one deadly leader with another. “The end doesn’t always justify the means,” a cafe owner told me one sunny afternoon. “A lot of the real drug people are still in power, and still free.” It was unclear whether fewer people took shabu.
Duterte heaped praise on Espenido, decorating him with a national honour at a Manila ceremony that August. He tried to fast-track Jovie to a post in Iloilo, a major city whose mayor also featured on the Narkopoliticos list. But Jovie wasn’t qualified, and the PNP bounced him between sleepy assignments in Catanduanes and Samar. Jovie believed his colleagues were demoting him out of jealousy, for being the President’s poster boy.
Last July lawmakers indicted and two subordinates for homicide – not for the Parojinog raid, but the 10 June operation that left six unarmed men dead. Nanlaban is an affirmative defense: it must be proven, though Espenido has avoided jail while the case proceeds.
Nova Princess is also pressing charges for the raid that killed half her family. “I think he is a career officer who has been manipulated by our political opponents into going against us,” she says to me. Her laywer Ferdinand Topacio, above whose Manila desk hangs a portrait of Adolf Hitler, calls the raid a “mass murder.”
Moreover, rumour had it the KB’s remaining patriarchs were laying low, ready to return. In October 2018 four bike-mounted gunmen surrounded the car of a local judge and executed him with pistols. Last November Duterte recalled Jovie to Ozamiz, telling a crowd at the city’s new airport that “I want you to finish off these sons of bitches.” Some suggested Jovie might even run for mayor.
The return lasted almost a year: this October, Duterte promoted Jovie to lieutenant colonel and assigned him to Bacolod, a city of over half a million people near Cebu. Duterte had personally sacked five Bacolod officers for their involvement with the drugs trade. His message to Jovie caused an uproar. “Go there,” Duterte said, “and you are free to kill everybody.”
Duterte has targeted 100,000 drug-war deaths before he leaves office in 2022. The final toll may hinge largely on what happens to Jovie. “I do hope it’s going to be a benchmark,” one prosecutor familiar with the case told me. In his zeal to circumvent graft and short-circuit the Philippines’ broken justice system, did Jovie Espenido pull the trigger on his own undoing?
Many opponents of Duterte’s brutal war hope so – not that Jovie has any regrets about his life, and the “let’s say 50” people he has killed since Denden Mojado. “All that we did in Ozamiz was God’s will,” he claims. But a career spent taking an eye for an eye may have blinded Jovie to his duties as a public servant. In the race to eradicate evil, a bullet only goes so far.
Photographs Philipp Breu, Ezra Acayan and Getty Images