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Philippines: A religious brother is documenting extrajudicial killings


Daniel Thompson | Shutterstock

Alfa Y Omega - published on 04/06/17

"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.”

The threat of vigilantes

Some of the killings, about 2,500, have happened at the hands of the police, who usually allege that the victims had been resisting arrest. A recent Human Rights Watch report accused officials of falsifying proof in order to justify the deaths. In January, the government temporarily put a halt to anti-drug operations due to rampant corruption in the corps, but Br. Jun explains that they have started to kill again.

Nonetheless, most of the victims die at the hands of vigilantes. “They arrive on motorcycles or in vans and they shoot you in the head; or they go into your house, and pull the trigger,” he recounts.

There is widespread suspicion of links between these groups and the president. Duterte himself has asserted that he has given orders to put an end to drug dealers, and he has boasted of having killed several with his own hands when he was the mayor of Davao.

Armando Picardal, also a Redemptorist, explained to Alfa y Omega in September how he had documented the relationship between the current president and the death squads in that city.

Even so, Br. Santiago is cautious: “I can only talk about the facts; I can’t give my opinion. It’s very difficult to prove who the vigilantes are and why they do it. We have some clues, but for the moment I can’t say anything.”

A night job… and a day job

One thing is clear, though: the president’s incendiary language and his boasting about using violence to end the drug problem incites “more killings. They are opening the doors of hell, and creating a perverse system: violence for the sake of violence.”

Br. Jun is afraid that the widows and orphans of the victims could sink even deeper into poverty with the death of the main family breadwinner, and that the killings could perpetuate, instead of solve, crime and violence.

To avoid that, Rise Up—besides documenting the executions—has created a support program for the families of victims. It is coordinated by none other than Br. Jun, who is the director of the Social Apostolate office of his congregation. “If the family is prepared to face a legal battle, we have a group of lawyers to help them press charges.”
The program also offers them psychological assistance, and gives them training and help to find work. There is also a sanctuary home to protect victims who are still in danger.

The Redemptorist brother’s night rounds end at 4:30 a.m. “At 9:30 a.m., I start my daily routine,” as just one more member of the religious community.

But in his weekly planner, he keeps another space available: whenever he can, he visits the families on weekends and accompanies them during the funerals of their loved ones.

Written by María Martínez for Alfa y Omega

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