The pastor turns and speaks over the sound of hymns that thunder from an old karaoke machine. “In the Bible God hates sin,” he tells me. He is smiling. “God will use somebody like this leadership to destroy the bad elements.” He is speaking about Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president. The “bad elements” are 27,000-some Filipinos killed in Duterte’s drug war. Almost none are the country’s narco nabobs; almost all are poor, vulnerable users of shabu, a cheap, local meth.
But the pastor’s salvation also stands right before us, swaying and singing in a fresh-pressed police uniform. The pastor traveled hours to see this man. Many more went before him.
It is October 2018, around 6:30 PM. Eighty degrees. The air is thick and black with June bugs. Around thirty of us sit outside on green patio chairs, facing a tumbledown police station in Ozamiz, on the southern island of Mindanao. The city’s police chief, Jovie Espenido, stands at its entrance, haloed by flies that rage in the station’s strip lights. He is singing loudly in English and Cebuano, his native tongue. Most join in.
Behind him is the station’s wooden booking desk. The walls and floor are white. Above the desk is a large, framed copy of the Ten Commandments: a reminder that, here, God’s laws are sovereign. A jail cell is carved from the station’s back wall. Felons thrust their arms at Espenido through its rusted bars. Many sing and sway, trancelike, with the music.
During his assignment in Ozamiz—between December 2016 and October 2019—Espenido leads this singsong sermon twice daily, at 6 AM and 6 PM. Sometimes hundreds attend, including those like the pastor who’ve traveled hours. They clamor to see the man who fought the city’s Mafia and won—though the cost of victory is not yet clear.
On July 30, 2017, Espenido and his officers had raided properties belonging to then mayor Reynaldo Parojinog, head of a drug cartel called the Kuratong Balaleng, or KB. They knocked out CCTV cameras, shot unarmed guards and tossed grenades through windows. Sixteen died, including the mayor and his wife. Even the Philippine National Police, whose loose definition of self-defense, or Nanlaban, has given officers carte blanche to kill on sight, criticized Espenido. Duterte, who rarely censures his cops, gave Espenido a national award.
Espenido became a household name—metonym for a drug war whose thirst for death had now filtered out of Manila, the country’s violent capital, and into its distant provinces. Espenido helped rehabilitate the popular image of the Philippine cop: “pot-bellied and uncouth,” Carlos Conde, of Human Rights Watch, told me. “They look like goons,” he added. “Espenido is not like that.”
Espenido is married with three kids, smartly dressed, and deeply religious. He is polite and his waxy, youthful features suggest librarian rather than killer cop. He is the drug war’s pious pin-up; a perfect foil for his foul-mouthed, church-bashing President. Bible verse hangs all around his Ozamiz office. His family home, 200 miles north on the idyllic island of Leyte, is stuffed with books on spirituality and Christian tchotchkes picked up on vacation. He adheres to an ultraconservative, Adventist strain of the faith that leaves little room for Gospel magnanimity, and draws a hard line between the zealous and the damned. And he revels in it. My first night in Leyte I joined the Espenidos for Sabbath service at a tiny, pueblo-style church on their street. Cast against its teal chancel, in Comic Sans, Ephesians 6:
Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Espenido turned to me and smiled. It was divine Nanlaban. Afterward people mobbed him like a pop star. Espenido has been invited to speak at Adventist churches worldwide. Last January he delivered an hourlong sermon at the Waterman SDA Church in San Bernardino, California, home to a large Philippine community. “We allowed him to say something about his work spreading the gospel. Whatever he is doing for the government is his own, separate life,” Elbert Moialde, the church’s pastor, told me before hanging up.
“We motivate people to preserve life,” Bong De Asis, a Leyte pastor who has counseled Espenido for almost a decade, told me. “But in the Bible there are consequences . . . police officers have to maintain peace and order.”
Ninety-two percent of Filipinos are Christian, of whom 86 percent are Catholic. It is Asia’s most Christian state. The centerpiece of any Filipino city, town or barangay—its smallest civic subdivision—is almost always a church. Ozamiz is no different. Its cathedral’s portico, yellow and jukebox-shaped, where thousands of the city’s 140,000 or so citizens attend mass each week, cuts a lone, clean figure in a car fume–blackened downtown, its prefab blocks wrapped in skeins of phone wire that tail towards a market and Spanish-colonial sea fort.
Before the drug war began in 2016, it was as easy to buy shabu at the market as fish. Almost half the city had come into contact with the drug, one rehab worker told me. When Espenido wiped out the KB, shabu abuse dipped. But some quietly questioned to me whether it was worth sixteen bodies and a militarized police force.
When the drug war began, in 2016, Duterte compared the coming slaughter to the Holocaust. Catholic church leaders recoiled. Some led protests in the capital, comparing Duterte to Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator whose rule clergy members ended in 1986 via a bloodless coup (Marcos fled into exile in Hawaii, with the blessing of Ronald Reagan).
Now, as then, a narrative of church versus state has embedded itself in the Philippine national consciousness. In truth, the conflict is less well defined—and has been so for decades. Duterte was mayor of Davao, Mindanao’s largest city, under Marcos. He enabled Christian vigilantes to root out and kill leftist rebels with impunity. A particularly zealous group, the Tadtad— “Chop-chop”—beheaded foes in Jesus’s name. Duterte himself has admitted riding around Davao on a motorbike, searching for criminals to kill. A onetime member of Duterte’s so-called “Davao Death Squad” alleged that the former mayor emptied two Uzi magazines into a political rival.
Now that Duterte is virtually king, Catholic-led protest has assailed his drug war. Some episodes have captured the hearts and minds of Filipinos more than others. When cops murdered Kian Delos Santos, a 17-year-old member of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David’s congregation in the Manila suburb Caloocan, the clergyman held police at his cathedral gates to prevent more bloodshed. His colleague Father George Alfonso later warned me of a “collision course” between church and state. “Stop the killing and start the healing,” he said, in a quiet seminary above a cathedral food drive for the homeless. If Duterte fears the clergy, he doesn’t show it. He has called the Pope a “son of a whore,” and beckoned Filipinos to a new faith: the Iglesia ni Rodrigo.
The thing is—most Filipinos adhere to both. If so many citizens believed the preservation of life to be sacrosanct, 82 percent of them would not approve (per a September poll) of the drug war. Neither would Duterte, who has promised a death count of 100,000, enjoy an approval rating of 78 percent. This cognitive dissonance runs deep into the country’s poorest and worst-affected barangays. Bright “DU30” (“Du-thirty”) bumper stickers and clothing branded with the President’s clenched-fist logo cut across class and ethnic divides. Mothers whose sons have been picked up in violent raids have consistently told me they blame unruly cops, not the president, for their children’s fates—which range anywhere from state-mandated rehabilitory zumba classes to death.
The image of prelates holding cops from ravaging their flock may appear cinematic. But the same can be said for Duterte’s truculence—underpinned by charismatic pastor-cops like Espenido, killing in the name of a vengeful, Old Testament God and turning performatively to the heavens when the bodies fall. That night at the station it was clear he saw himself standing between good and evil. One night at his home I caught Espenido in a rarer, more equivocal mood. “Poor people—users, pushers—they are all victims of illegal drugs,” he told me, revealing that he’d once considered becoming a communist rebel in his youth, before finding God. “The people who are responsible for illegal drug trafficking are rich people.”
In public, though, Espenido betrays no such dialectical subtleties. After the Ozamiz raid he told reporters the former mayor “deserved to die. . . . Even if you’re bad, if God doesn’t like it, it won’t happen.” Having been assigned a role in the bigger city of Bacolod this October, Espenido told Bacoleños to “pray harder to God to let this end; to make it less bloody.”
Duterte’s orders to him were even less nuanced: “You are free to kill everybody.”
The predominance of power over religious compassion is hardly confined to the Philippines. But it drove the country’s subjugation under Spanish colonial rule from 1565. A “friarocracy” mandated church and state to be one, and a cloistered Apartheid exhorted Filipinos to kiss the hands of white pastors until the 19th century. Rebels later couched anticolonial wars in Christian theology, killing the dog-collared despots in the name of God.
Espenido is a continuation of this eschatalogical-activist tradition. Before his arrival in Ozamiz Espenido oversaw the death of a mayor in Albuera, a small fishing town 200 miles north. Upon reassignment he quoted Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Everybody in Ozamiz invoked God. Jun Fernandez, a lawyer who worked closely with Espenido, told me he had questioned Espenido’s ability to wipe out the KB before witnessing his piety. “His abiding faith in God is so strong that every time we meet, we pray,” he said. “Before we leave we pray. We leave for somewhere, before we start traveling we pray. We come home, nobody steps out of the car, not until we have prayed, that we arrive safely.” That innocent lives have been lost to the drug war is “unfortunate,” Fernandez added. But the fact that he could walk Ozamiz’s streets at night was worth it. “It’s good here,” he added. “The city has changed tremendously.”
Soon after I left Ozamiz, a judge was surrounded in his car by masked gunmen and shot dead. Rumor was the KB was regathering. Locals told me they feared war. Espenido didn’t. So long as he continued leading sermons and evangelizing the city, he told me, all would remain calm. Then, this October, he left for a larger pulpit. Fernandez fretted. “The job of Espenido is not yet finished,” he told me over the phone. “Our peace is fragile.”
Many Bacoleños set a similar tone. “We can welcome Espenido with open arms,” wrote one local newspaper columnist. “But when blood starts pouring, don’t say you were not warned.”
Espenido’s response was simple, and ominous. “Don’t be afraid,” he told reporters. “We are human and we have God.”