A military officer through and through
Esperon entered the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in 1970, shortly after graduating as class valedictorian from the Philippine Science High School (PSHS). He graduated from the PMA in 1974.
He began his military career as a platoon leader in Basilan, and later headed several Army units as company commander, battalion commander, and brigade commander in various areas in Mindanao.
He also served in the Presidential Security Command (PSC), the forerunner of today’s Presidential Security Group (PSG), during the Marcos dictatorship. He was appointed as Philippine military attache to Chicago, Illinois from 1982 to 1986.
After the People Power I uprising of 1986, Esperon returned to the Philippines and immediately reported to Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, who was then AFP chief of staff. He was assigned to Camp Servillano Aquino in Tarlac, where he worked as an intelligence officer.
Esperon was already a lieutenant colonel when he was taken out of his post as area command staff for intelligence at the AFP’s Southern Command (Southcom) and called to palace duty in 1996. He was assigned as deputy commander of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) from 1996 to 1998, under then President Fidel V. Ramos.
He went back to combat duty in Mindanao after his stint at the PSG. In 2000, during the Estrada administration’s “all-out war” against the MILF, Esperon commanded the Army’s 602nd Infantry Brigade.
The “all-out war” between government forces and the MILF in March 2000 was sparked by a ferry bombing, which the Estrada government blamed on the MILF – an accusation the group denied. Government troops used the bombing as pretext to break into and overrun MILF areas. The “all-out war” led to the loss of thousands of lives and the displacement of as many as half a million civilians.
In 2002, Esperon was called back to Palace duty to serve as PSG commander, under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. As PSG commander, Esperon implemented a policy of “use of extreme force” in preventing demonstrators from getting near Malacañang. This period saw the start of violent dispersals of protest actions at the foot of the Chino Roces Bridge, a few meters away from the presidential palace, under the Arroyo regime.
In the May 2004 presidential elections, Esperon served as deputy commander of Task Force HOPE (Honest, Orderly and Peaceful Elections).
In mid-2005, his name would figure twice in the so-called “Hello Garci” tapes.
The “Hello Garci” tapes were a series of wiretapped and recorded conversations in which a voice similar to Arroyo’s is heard instructing an election official – widely believed to be former Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano – to rig the presidential polls. There is a specific instruction that a victory of “more than 1 M” be ensured for the woman.
Both Arroyo and Garcillano were forced to admit that they talked to each other during the counting period following the 2004 polls. They have however denied rigging the said elections.
In August 2005, Esperon was appointed as Army chief. In July the following year, he was appointed as AFP chief of staff.
His stint as AFP chief of staff saw the escalation of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of activists and other government critics.
UN (United Nations) Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston went on a mission to investigate extrajudicial killings in the Philippines late last year, and came up with a report specifically pointing to the military’s involvement in these. “In some parts of the country, the armed forces have followed a deliberate strategy of systematically hunting down the leaders of leftist organizations,” Alston, who is also a professor at New York University (NYU), said.