The Parojinog provocation” was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on August 19, 2017.

Frustration with a judicial system that did not deliver justice drove many to support Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential bid. But many have recoiled at the postelection surge in unresolved killings by police forces and freelance vigilantes. As in Aesop’s fable, the frogs who accepted a crocodile king to discipline their divided and dysfunctional colony discovered that a ruler’s unrestrained power to exterminate the guilty also risked extinguishing the innocent.

The government’s predawn assault on the homes of Ozamiz City Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog on July 30 produced 16 fatalities (including the mayor and his wife, sister, brother and nephew) and sharpened the dilemma that President Duterte posed for many voters. Those vulnerable to the clan’s power probably felt liberated and relieved, even if they objected in principle to EJK. Reflective of this dilemma was Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s ambivalence on whether to conduct a Senate inquiry into the matter.

Octavio Parojinog rose to power in the 1980s as the founder of the Kuratong Baleleng, a government-backed anticommunist militia group. Tolerated as a vigilante group, the Kuratong turned to extortion, armed robbery and kidnapping for ransom, provoking criminal charges and armed clashes with the police. Octavio was killed in 1990 while resisting arrest; charges against his sons, Renato, Ricardo and Reynaldo, were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Whether admired as Robin Hood figures or feared as a Mafia family, the Parojinogs remained dominant in their province and easily diversified into politics, also a potentially lucrative undertaking. In 2001 Renato won a provincial board seat and Reynaldo became mayor of Ozamiz. Third-generation descendants subsequently won city and provincial elections. Mayor Reynaldo and his daughter, Vice Mayor Nova Princess, were charged with corruption in 2008 and ordered arrested in 2016. The charges were dismissed only a year later.

As chief superintendent and head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission, Lacson led Task Force Habagat that engaged and killed 11 Kuratong gang members in 1991. The victims’ families denounced the operation as a “rubout.” Charges filed against Lacson and his men reached the Supreme Court but were dismissed in 2002.

Despite the similarities with the killing of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa—operations conducted in the dead of night, missing or nonfunctioning surveillance cameras—Lacson was inclined to see the action against the Parojinogs as aboveboard. But he was categorical in condemning the killing of Espinosa as premeditated murder and the downgrading to homicide of the charges filed against Supt. Marvin Marcos and his men. Mayor Parojinog, he observed, was not killed in a jail cell.

Mayor Parojinog reportedly had the inside track for the governor’s seat in the next election. Even those concerned about EJK recognized that further consolidation of the family’s grip on provincial politics would likely doom any criminal case lodged against its members. This pragmatic assessment argued for quietly accepting the summary execution of notorious criminals, rather than depending for justice on our fragile legal institutions. But who will make the call on who deserves EJK? As Joaquin Bernas, SJ, used to say, “The King should have this power, if I am King.”

Senior administration officials appear recently to have rediscovered the Constitution. Defending Superintendent Marcos, Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo admonished critics to observe “the constitutional presumption of innocence,” a line also taken by the PNP chief, Ronald dela Rosa. Allegations of Davao City Mayor Paolo Duterte’s involvement in Bureau of Customs corruption involving drugs did not prompt Mr. Duterte to call for the investigation of the case; he asked to see the evidence proving his son’s guilt.

We should welcome the administration’s appeal to constitutional rights, due process, and credible evidence. It has not been as zealous about meeting these standards before executing suspects in drug crimes. It has insisted that it must privilege the rights of the innocent over those of criminals. But, as pointed out with greater eloquence by St. Thomas More, rejecting the laws that protect the rights of the guilty deprives the innocent of their protection.

Granting the government the power to choose whose rights deserve respect slides us back to Square 1: an unjust judicial system giving impunity to the powerful—the problem that voters had hoped the Duterte presidency would correct. ###

Edilberto de Jesus
Edilberto de Jesus is a former Secretary of Education. He is also professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.