"Every night, I see 10 murders."
Brother Ciriaco Santiago, also known as Brother Jun, answers the telephone at 9 p.m. He is driving.
Every day, when he finishes his work with the Redemptorist community, he grabs his camera and makes his way around Manila, documenting killings connected to the war on drugs unleashed by President Rodrigo Duterte, which has already taken a toll of perhaps 8,000 victims.
In this war, as the Economist notes, drug suspects are killed by “police, vigilantes and rivals (the three categories overlap).”
“Most Filipinos are enthusiastic, albeit nervous for their safety; many foreigners are appalled,” the Economist observes. “Love it or hate it, the campaign has totally overshadowed Mr Duterte’s eight months in office.”
At the end of January, the leader of the Filipino bishops, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, released a statement decrying the tactics: “This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers,” he said. “An additional cause of concern is the reign of terror in many places of the poor. Many are killed not because of drugs.”
(At Aleteia today, read about one priest’s grassroots effort to provide a nonviolent alternative to Duterte’s war on drugs.)
Brother Jun’s cell phone signal breaks up, and the conversation is postponed. The next morning, he tells Alfa y Omega what happened during the night.
“We visited three crime scenes, at which there were a total of six victims. All were shot to death in their homes. Overall, in the Manila metropolitan area, there were 11 deaths.” Each night sees an average of nearly 10 victims.
Brother Jun has lost count of the photos he has taken since December, when he began this mission. In October, his congregation got involved in the Rise Up project, started by Catholic and Protestant organizations, together with families of victims, to take a stand against the extrajudicial executions of supposed drug dealers which have been happening since Duterte took office in the summer. This was the origin of the idea of keeping a record of the crimes.
Br. Jun is an amateur photographer, and he offered himself willingly. “Our vocation is to be with those who are most abandoned, and now we recognize them in the victims of these violations of human rights. We are their voice. We want to use the photos as proof, and to get the attention of the international community.”
The Philippine bishops have asked Rise Up to send them all the material they obtain. They have frequently denounced the killings, and have started initiatives for treatment of drug addicts.
The bishops have also criticized others of Duterte’s projects, such as the reinstatement of the death penalty, a reform of the Constitution to permit the declaration of martial law without permission from Congress, and lowering the minimum age for criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years of age.
Rise Up’s records of murders will also be sent to the National Democratic Front, the communist movement with which the government has resumed talks to end the guerrilla war that is damaging the country. The Redemptorist brother hopes that they can force the government to end the executions.
With the nightcrawlers
In his “second job” with Rise Up, Br. Jun accompanies a group of approximately 10 Filipino photographers. “Foreign correspondents call us nightcrawlers,” he says. They gather information from the police, from members of the community, from social networks, or from victims’ families, and they navigate through the crime scenes across Manila. They have no protection, despite knowing that, among the curious onlookers who gather around the dead bodies, there might be people watching them. In fact, the government has let Br. Jun know that they are surveilling him.
Besides taking photographs, Br. Jun interviews family members and creates a profile of the victims for his records. Among the dead, he explains, there is a bit of everything: those who only consumed drugs, those who got involved in shady business to be able to buy them… But there is also collateral damage—among the casualties, he has seen children who were just 5 years old—and many innocent people.
He still doesn’t have definitive data, but the percentage of victims who are innocent “is high,” he affirms.
What he has never seen—he continues to explain—is a drug lord among the victims. Nor has he seen any corrupt policemen among the dead. The only thing that the murder victims have in common is that “they are very poor; you can’t imagine how poor.”