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Story Publication logo July 18, 2019

The Catholic Rebels Resisting the Philippines' Deadly War on Drugs


Nanette Castillo (center) and other mothers of drug war victims protest the war on drugs at a solidarity event organized by the ecumenical activist group Rise Up in October. Image by Eloisa Lopez. Philippines, 2018.

The Catholic Church is an outspoken opponent of a deadly war on drugs in the Philippines. But in a...

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One of the most famous victims – and a rare survivor – of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs is a 30-year-old pedicab driver named Francisco Santiago Jr. In September 2016, while cycling through central Manila, Santiago was abducted by a Philippine national police (PNP) officer posing as a passenger. Santiago's name was not on the "kill list" of the PNP's now-infamous drug-sting operation known as Oplan Tokhang, or "Operation Knock and Plead", but he had become a target, nonetheless.

After he was taken to a police station and beaten for the better part of a day, Santiago was led back into the streets and shot multiple times, suffering wounds to his chest and arms. Thinking him dead, one officer approached Santiago and placed a pistol next to his hand. Santiago waited, barely breathing as blood pooled around him, until he heard the hurried sounds of journalists arriving at the scene. He sat up, pleading for his life and waving his blood-soaked arms in surrender. By the next morning, local newspapers had already assigned Santiago a new name: Lazarus.

When the officers saw that Santiago was not dead, he was sent to an emergency room and handcuffed to his hospital bed. He spent the following two years in jail on myriad charges, including the illegal possession of a firearm. Last August, when he was finally acquitted, he found sanctuary with a missionary in the Redemptorist order of the Catholic church named Jun Santiago, known to most as Brother Jun.

Just as Jun has done for countless families of drug-war victims, he began sheltering Santiago – at Baclaran church, his parish in southern Manila, and various safe houses in the provinces surrounding the capital – offering protection and guidance to a man who had fallen into a precarious position. When Santiago appeared in a Manila courtroom last October, facing trial again for the illegal possession of a firearm (a charge refiled well after the sting), Jun was with him, a buffer against the PNP officers stalking the hallways outside the court, some of them the very same men who had tried to kill him two years earlier.

Occupying a vague space between activist, journalist and minister, Jun is the ragged tip of the spear in the Catholic church's resistance to the war on drugs – a war that has been condemned by international human rights organisations and has, by some estimates, claimed more than 20,000 lives. As a brother of the Redemptorist order, Jun is not technically clergy. He lives among the priests on the forested grounds of Baclaran, but operates as a layman, and often stands out from the company he keeps. His black hair hangs down to his shoulders. His uniform comprises a pair of rustic boots, cuffed jeans and, on that day at the Manila trial court, a Nirvana T-shirt.

Jun has taken it upon himself to perform a dizzyingly varied set of roles: from menial tasks, such as supplying candles for protest marches, to diplomatic work, such as appealing to eminent prelates for solidarity, to more dangerous missions such as patrolling Manila's streets at night and racing to crime scenes in order to photograph the dead – hundreds over the past three years. In a political climate where many fear the impulses of a violent president, Jun lives at risk on behalf of his church and thousands of Filipinos threatened by Duterte's war on drugs. Not yet 50, Jun's friends joke that he is already on the path to sainthood.

In the Philippines, where four in five citizens identify as Catholic, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against the drug war. The church is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 election campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country's most influential church authority, has been criticised by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to Duterte. Such a stance, they argue, seems blind to the country's suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those carrying it out.

In a country where vigilante executions have become commonplace, this work is perilous at best; Catholic leaders who speak out are often inundated with death threats, sometimes from Duterte himself. Since December, 2017, three Filipino priests have been killed in mysterious circumstances. One was ambushed in his car after negotiating the release of a political prisoner; another, while saying blessings on a group of children, was shot dead by a motorcyclist; a third was murdered at the altar in front of parishioners just before mass.

When I asked Jun whether he was concerned for his own safety, he shook his head and drew a circle around his chair, as if tracing an invisible ring of fire.

"It's part of our job," he said. "Why be afraid?"

There are three basic ways to die in Duterte's war on drugs. "Riding in tandem" has been the dominant mode in Manila: drive-by operations conducted on motorcycle, with balaclava-clad assassins – believed in some cases to be the PNP's hired guns. Other executions take place through so-called "legitimate police operations" carried out by large taskforces, whether for a group or just a single target. Other victims simply disappear.

The logic of the drug war is cold and transparent. Manila's slums have become killing fields, and police impunity compounds the horrors of extrajudicial killings. Fishermen have reportedly dumped bodies into Manila Bay at the orders of PNP officers. Women have been extorted for sex in exchange for the safety of male family members. Bodies have turned up on curbs and corners after dark, their heads wrapped in packing tape to disguise evidence of torture, cardboard messages draped around their necks: "Pusher Ako" ("I'm a pusher").

Such theatrical touches are common in the drug war's crime scenes, which often show signs of staging. The website Rappler, the Philippines's opposition-news outlet, has noted how ziplock bags of shabu (the methamphetamine at the heart of the country's drug crackdown) turn up in the pockets of victims so frequently and conveniently as to suggest they had been planted. Nearly as often, a handgun – typically a rusted .38 calibre – rests beside the body, or in the victim's hand. In some cases, and ominously, ambulances have arrived at a target's home ahead of the police, portending the violence to come.

And yet for all the carnage, and as alarming as these tactics seem, Duterte remains broadly popular. Before October of last year, the president's approval ratings had hovered around 80%; after a slump at the beginning of 2019, they rebounded by spring. And this May, the Philippines' midterm elections gave an unmistakable vote of confidence to Duterte: allies of the president claimed each of the 12 senate seats up for grabs. Among the new senate members is Ronald dela Rosa, the PNP chief who presided over the drug war in its first two years. Such a sweeping victory should allow Duterte to consolidate power in the second half of his presidency, and many fear that it clears the path for him to push through several ambitious policy goals, namely the reinstitution of a legal death penalty and the rewriting of the constitution to prolong his own power.

It may also lead to a resurgence in the drug killings. In June, the drug war claimed its youngest victim, a three-year-old girl named Myca Ulpina, who was killed in a sting targeting her father. "We are living in an imperfect world," the new senator Dela Rosa said of the young girl's death. "Shit happens during operations."

Caloocan bishop Pablo "Ambo" David, a rare dissenter among the Philippines's bishop class, has expressed alarm that Duterte has already succeeded in corrupting "even a basic sense of good and bad" in the minds of so many Catholics "in making it so easy for people to accept that these people deserve to die because they're drug suspects".

Recently, Ambo's public dissent prompted a counter from Duterte: the president accused the bishop of stealing from the offering plate and dealing in drugs himself. Duterte threatened to personally "decapitate" Ambo, who was then deluged with death threats from other sources. Through such direct attacks, Duterte has chipped away at a veneration of the church half a millennium in the making. Priests themselves no longer know their standing in the culture. As Father Albert Alejo, a member of the Catholic resistance, put it to me, the crisis of the drug war transcends the death toll. "In the end, they are not just killing bodies," he said, "they are killing our logic and they are killing our moral foundations."

When Duterte launched his presidential campaign in November 2015, he was a little-known mayor with a reputation for violence in the southern capital of Davao, where residents referred to him as the "death squad mayor". Six months later, his was the most famous face in the country, due mainly to a campaign that promised fantastical reforms to a frustrated and alienated electorate. "He promised them the moon and the stars," one Catholic activist told me, with pledges to clear Manila traffic – some of the worst in the world – in just 100 days, to weed out government and corporate corruption, and to scrub the country of crime and poverty through an unforgiving war on drugs.

Along with these bold promises, Duterte built his campaign on violent and blasphemous rhetoric that gave voters in an overwhelmingly Catholic country every possible reason to abandon him. His public appearances were marked by vulgarities and open threats, and rather than court the country's religious leaders to take political advantage of their traditional popularity, he instead waged a relentless crusade against the Catholic church, wielding its record of sexual abuse as moral leverage, going so far as to curse Pope Francis after his 2015 visit to Manila, complaining about the nightmarish traffic caused by the pope's mass. "Putang ina," Duterte sneered. "Son of a whore, go home. Do not visit us again."

These attacks should have landed discordantly with Filipino voters, for whom Catholicism is entwined with national identity. Here, Christian scripture is as inescapable as the sun and sea; prayer beads hang from countless rearview mirrors; neon crosses cap city skylines. In the crowded networks of Manila's vendor stalls – between sneakers and mangos and glass-bottled colas – passersby can pick up all kinds of Catholic trinkets: glossy plastic pietà statues, Crayola-coloured votive candles, floral and beaded rosaries, medallions stamped with the faces of saints. In the capital's alleyways, chapels materialise out of stone and sheet metal, nearly indistinguishable from the neighbouring shanties, where homemade shrines glow in the windows.

Yet the same country that is adorned in the ornaments of faith also remains broadly supportive of a misogynistic and murderous demagogue. "We will be celebrating very soon 500 years of Christianity," said Father Flavie Villanueva, an anti-drug-war activist, alluding to Spain's arrival in the Philippines – and with it, Catholicism – in 1521. "But look at who voted for Duterte, and the people still supporting Duterte. There are still so many Catholics on that side."

As antagonistic as his rhetoric was during the campaign, Duterte's hostility toward the church has only intensified during his presidency. As if testing the limits of his own blasphemy, Duterte has aimed each curse at a Catholic dogma more sacred than the last. Addressing Filipinos during a 2016 speech in Laos, he predicted a future in which the Catholic church would be irrelevant and beckoned his countrymen into an "iglesia ni Duterte" (a "church of Duterte"). On All Saints' day last year, he mocked Catholic saints as hypocrites and loons, and proposed himself as a proper object of worship: "Santo Rodrigo". Last October, he aimed even higher than the pope, calling God himself a "son of a whore" and asking: "Who is this stupid God?"

Duterte's ascent has resurrected a dilemma for the Philippines's Catholic leadership that mirrors an identity crisis the church has faced throughout its history: what is its responsibility under an immoral regime? Cardinal Tagle rarely speaks publicly about the war on drugs, and when he does it is through broad condemnations of a "culture of death" – vague phrasing that encompasses abortion as well as the drug war. His position is further muddied by the fact that he has been photographed in genial meetings with Duterte, whom he has yet to condemn by name. "Good luck trying to find him," one church activist said of Tagle. "He hates having reporters corner him with questions about the extrajudicial killings." (Cardinal Tagle did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.)

This dance has frustrated secular human-rights organisations who look to the church to take the lead on any number of urgent issues. "They were very slow. They were silent," Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said of the church's response to Duterte's drug war. Carlos Conde, the lone Human Rights Watch representative based in the Philippines, expressed similar frustrations. He believes that the church is "the only institution that is left standing that can confront Duterte … It is just a cop-out to say that the church is not political. Of course the church is political."

Recent history supports Conde's argument. The Philippine priesthood backed the country's successful revolutions of 1986 and 2001, and opposed a failed counterrevolution later that same year. The first and most famous of these was the People Power Revolution, which deposed the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and brought an end to more than a decade of martial law. The church was instrumental in orchestrating the revolt. The legacy of those revolutions hangs heavy over the modern-day Philippine church, a radically different organisation than it was then. "We don't want anything to do with politics right now," Villanueva told me, describing a church that has shied away from the expectations established by those past revolts.

Undoubtedly, the Catholic leadership has played a more cautious hand with Duterte than some of its strident parish priests have. But, as Guadalupe Tuñón, an Academy Scholar at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs who specialises in the intersection of religion and politics, points out, these shadow games may only reveal part of the story. "Whatever they are saying on the record is potentially less important than what they are allowing in their dioceses," says Tuñón. Tagle himself may be quiet, but any dissidence in his archdiocese comes by his tacit permission. It is noteworthy, then, that one of the country's handful of vocal bishops is the cardinal's direct subordinate, Broderick Pabillo, the auxiliary bishop of Manila.

Pabillo defends the cardinal's approach, arguing that "there are different ways how you can respond" to accomplish the same ends. Nonetheless, there is a dissonance between Tagle's silent approach and Pabillo's wider view of how the church should be tackling this issue. "I don't think we have done enough," Pabillo told me. "Among the clergy and among the lay people, only a few are speaking out."

When I asked him what would happen if the church led the kind of widespread protest that he was advocating, he said, without qualification: "It would stop the killings."

At Eusebio funeral services in northern Manila, Brother Jun sat with Orly Fernandez, the operations manager, in the open doorway of the building's garage, waiting for news. Jun spends many of his nights at Eusebio, one of the PNP's "accredited" funeral homes, whose business has boomed during the drug war. When there is a killing, the police call an accredited funeral home to retrieve the body. When Fernandez gets a call, he often tips off Jun, who speeds ahead of the hearse in order to photograph the scene before the body is removed.

For nearly three years, Jun has dedicated his after-dark hours to this ritual, which is part of his work with the nightcrawlers, a group of Filipino journalists who cover the graveyard shift, waiting for calls about drug-war killings. At the height of the war, three to five killings a night were routine. On one night in the summer of 2017, as part of what the PNP called a "One Time, Big Time" operation, 32 people were killed in less than 24 hours. Jun sees documenting this violence – through photography and the collection of police reports – as crucial to the anti-drug-war effort. The work of the nightcrawlers has helped to draw international attention to the atrocities of the war on drugs, and they provide a support network for the families of victims. Still, Jun is unusually situated between photographer and missionary, and this allows him advantages over his peers in both worlds. For one thing, victims' families are often more inclined to talk with a representative of the church than the media; and as an activist brother, rather than a priest, Jun has some agility within the church's rigid structure.

It was a quiet night at Eusebio. Jun mentioned going to a province north of Manila where many of the killings were concentrated. "You don't need to the provinces," Fernandez told him. "There are enough killings here." Fernandez estimated that, the week before, he had recovered 10 bodies in northern Manila. While the group loitered on the curb outside the garage, Fernandez retrieved three printouts from inside and laid them out on his bench. The word "missing" was printed in large letters across the top of each, with pictures of three faces below. This had become the norm: with declining media coverage and wilier evasions by the police, the dead tended to disappear.

After passing a few monotonous hours smoking cigarettes and eating ramen from a nearby 7-Eleven, the handful of journalists on shift followed Jun to a nearby wake. As rigorous reporting on killings has declined, wakes have become one of Jun's primary venues for gathering information, both to secure police reports and to hear the families' versions of events. Jun stopped the car outside a one-room shack. Inside, they found a woman sleeping across two folding chairs in front of an open casket. It was late, approaching 1am, but children, extended family members and friends of the departed were still there, playing cards outside. Philippine wakes can go on for a week or longer, and gambling is a common way to pass the time, with the winnings going toward the vigil costs.

Jun fell into friendly conversation with the sister and mother of the victim and soon won their trust. Within minutes, they were laughing at his jokes, and after a short conversation they handed him the PNP papers from the killing. The report stated that a teenage girl had reported a shooting in Navotas a few nights before. An unidentified gunman shot the victim, Victor dela Cruz, twice; once in the shoulder and once in the arm. On Dela Cruz's body, the report added, police recovered a "heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance believe [sic] to be 'shabu'."

Jun pocketed the papers and went home for the night.

Not long after our night at Eusebio, I was standing with Jun outside another funeral home, this time in Cebu City, the largest city in the Philippines's Visayas region. Late last summer, as the intensity of the drug war subsided in Manila, drug-related killings spiked in Cebu. A small congress of Catholic activists had travelled here to meet with Jóse Palma, the archbishop of Cebu.

The arrival of the drug war in Cebu marred one of the Philippines's most picturesque islands, and also one of the most important in the country's Christian tradition. Cebu is known as the the cradle of Catholicism in the Philippines. The island's surge in drug-related killings had followed the transfer of three notorious senior PNP officers to Cebu. "Follow the police officers," Jun told me when we first met, explaining that you could pretty accurately predict where the next rash of killings would break out by tracking where certain PNP officers and units were transferred.

In the end, the activists who had travelled to Cebu to see the archbishop came away disappointed. Although he had been outspoken about the war on drugs, Palma mostly fell back on platitudes – "Killing is not the answer" and "We have God" – and seemed to take the PNP's official statements regarding the killings at face value. At the end of the meeting, each member of the group appealed to Palma with their own suggestions for the church's response. Jun directly implored the bishop to examine the situation with greater scepticism. "The pattern they were using in Manila, they just brought it here," he insisted. "It's so blatant."

Palma nodded agreeably, then mentioned a local clerical coalition that he hoped could "be a factor in digging up many of these things". He turned down an invitation from another activist to speak at an upcoming protest due to his schedule. Soon we wrapped up the meeting. Palma would fly to Rome the next day.

Outside of the archbishop's palace, Jun was frustrated that Palma hadn't seemed to grasp the farce of PNP operations – their cruelty, their gravity and the formula. But for all of his discontent with the church's staid response, Jun knows he cannot hold the rest of the hierarchy to the same standard he holds himself. "This is their territory. This is their responsibility. You have to respect the other parishes," he sighed. One bishop cannot weigh in on the concerns of another bishop's diocese without express permission from the second bishop. The same goes for priests and their parishes. Protests are scattered throughout the establishment instead of being unified behind the will of a common God. The complex structure of the Catholic church chafes against its own activism.

Jun's very presence in Cebu was a kind of subversion of the hierarchy: far beyond the limits of his own parish, he was educating an archbishop on the atrocities of his archdiocese. Still, Jun insisted he came to Cebu not out of the obligations of a religious missionary, but out of a duty to his country: "I am here as a journalist and as a Filipino. Personally, my vocation is not bounded by my religious affiliation."

On our last evening in Cebu, Jun drove the party up into the mountains behind the city, to the site of a recent massacre. A few hours before sunrise on the night of the "One Time, Big Time" operation in Cebu, seven people were abducted and taken to an abandoned farmer's road to be killed. When we reached the site, a brick path overlooking the valley below, Jun pantomimed the executions, pacing and gesticulating across the vista to describe how five people were murdered and how two escaped. He looked out beyond the ravine, where a small wooden cross still memorialised the massacre. "I am a Filipino. First things first," he told me later. "The religious identity is just an offshoot of being a Filipino."

We drove back into the valley to a Redemptorist retreat house on the outskirts of town where, the next day, Jun would give a presentation to Catholic leaders on the atrocities he had witnessed. He wanted to prepare, so, finding a seat in a quiet corner, he pulled up a slideshow on his computer. Photographs of the drug war's dead faded in and out on the screen. With each new image, Jun recited a place and a name. Down the hall, muffled smalltalk mixed with the hum of cicadas in the trees. Night had long since fallen, the stars winking like tea lights behind the incoming clouds.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review.



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