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Church vs. State

Portraits of slain victims of the Philippine drug war. Manila, November 2018.

ISSUE:  Summer 2019
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal but popular war on drugs has forced the Catholic Church to ask itself a defining question: What is its responsibility under an immoral regime?


This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

Photographs by Eloisa LopezOne of the most famous victims—and the rare survivor—of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs is a thirty-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 beaten in a PNP station for the better part of a day, Santiago was led back into the streets that night 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, after the Israelite resurrected by Jesus in the Gospel of John.

After spending the next two years in jail for myriad charges, including the illegal possession of a firearm, Santiago 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, at various safe houses in the provinces surrounding the capital—offering protection and guidance to a man who has fallen into a precarious position. Overnight, Santiago became a witness to police impunity in the war on drugs. He also became an amplified target. 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 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 which, despite being condemned by many international human-rights organizations, is surprisingly popular among Filipinos. As a brother of the Redemptorist order, he is not technically clergy. Jun lives among the priests on the forested grounds of Baclaran, but he operates outside the Catholic hierarchy as a layman and often stands out from the company he keeps. His black hair hangs down to his shoulders. His uniform—a far cry from the cassocks of his brethren—comprises a pair of rustic boots, cuffed jeans, and, on that day at the Manila trial court, a Nirvana T-shirt.

I met Jun on my third day in the Philippines and did not track him down again until the eleventh, but in the days between, in conversations across the sprawl of Metro Manila, I kept hearing his name. His influence was everywhere, his roles so varied as to be almost Zelig-like: from menial tasks, such as supplying candles for protest marches, to diplomatic work, such as appealing to eminent prelates for solidarity, to infinitely more dangerous missions like patrolling Manila’s streets at night, racing to crime scenes in order to photograph the dead—hundreds over the last 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 forty, Jun’s friends joke that he’s already on the path to sainthood.

In the Philippines, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against a drug war that has claimed, by some estimates, more than twenty thousand lives. It is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 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. It is a familiar dilemma, exacerbated by deep historical fissures between conservative and liberal clerics, and it has heightened pressure on the church’s most prominent prelates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, who splits his time between duties on behalf of the Vatican and leading packed services in the cathedral of Intramuros—the Catholic heart of the Philippine capital—has been criticized by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to dealing with Duterte. Such soft-pedaling, 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 responsible.

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. In the last year and a half, three Filipino priests have been killed under 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. In 2017 and 2018, such violence against clergymen prompted more than two hundred priests and religious leaders to petition for licenses to carry firearms.

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 task forces, whether for a group or just a single target. (It isn’t uncommon for the police to kill a drug suspect who was, according to witnesses, asleep when the raid occurred; in these cases, as with many others, the police reports include a telltale phrase, nanlaban: “They fought back.”) Other victims simply disappear.

The logic of the drug war is cold and callously transparent. Manila’s slums—Tondo, Navotas, Caloocan, Pasay, Malabon—have become killing fields. Police impunity is rampant and flagrant, compounding 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 their male family members. Bodies have turned up on curbs and corners after dark, their heads wrapped in packing tape to disguise the defacements 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’d been planted. Nearly as often, a handgun—typically a rusted .38 caliber—rests beside the body, or in the victim’s nondominant hand. In some cases, and ominously, ambulances have arrived at a target’s home ahead of the police, portending the violence to come.

Photographs by Eloisa Lopez Jun does not waver in calling this strategy “a systematic killing of the people.” Oplan Tokhang’s targets are informally submitted to local barangay offices—the smallest administrative districts in the Philippines—without vetting. Truth is peripheral, and according to Duterte’s moral code, the same punishment fits nearly every crime: Someone ten years sober is as eligible a candidate for proscription as any other.

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 percent; after a short slump at the beginning of 2019, they rebounded to just shy of that percentage by spring. Caloocan bishop Pablo “Ambo” David, the rare dissenter among the Philippines’s bishop class, and perhaps the most outspoken Duterte critic among the archipelago’s clerical elite, worries about what he terms “a death of conscience” within the Filipino people. Ambo expresses 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, after which the bishop was overwhelmed by death threats. 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 one hundred days, to weed out government and corporate corruption, and, in his banner program, 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 (four in five Filipinos identify as Catholic) every possible reason to abandon him. His public appearances were marked by vulgarities and open threats: “If I make it to the presidential palace,” Duterte said in his last rally before the election, “I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you.” And rather than court the country’s religious leaders to take political advantage of their historical popularity, he instead waged a relentless crusade against the Catholic Church, wielding its record of sexual abuse as moral leverage and going so far as to curse Pope Francis after his 2015 visit to Manila, using the nightmarish traffic caused by the pope’s Mass to lodge a populist critique. “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 saturates the landscape; biblical antecedents abound. Prayer beads hang from countless rearview mirrors. Neon crosses cap barangay 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-colored votive candles, floral and beaded rosaries, medallions stamped with the faces of saints. In the capital’s angled alleyways, chapels materialize out of stone and sheet metal, nearly indistinguishable from the neighboring shanties, where homemade shrines glow in the windows. Against this profound expression, Duterte’s rise has exposed a blind spot in Philippine Catholicism: The same country that is adorned in the ornaments of faith also remains broadly supportive of a misogynistic and murderous demagogue.

Duterte somehow found an audience in the country’s Catholic ranks, more so than any other candidate. For many, his anticlerical language simply reinforced an antiestablishment persona, his hubris the mark of a political liberator. “We are tired of the technocrats—the elites—who are well-dressed but actually they’re not in touch with the people,” said Alejo, who is also a professor of theology at Ateneo de Manila University. “This guy makes us laugh, he makes us cry, he cracks jokes, he curses the way we curse. And he is able to curse the United Nations, the US, and even the pope? My God, this guy has guts.”

“We will be celebrating very soon five hundred 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.” What’s more, Duterte’s garish brand of populism appealed to some clergy as well as laity. For Villanueva, the complicity is personal. “I voted for the asshole,” he told me. “But after three months, I saw the killings.” I asked Villanueva why he supported Duterte in the first place. “Because I know that he had balls,” he said. “Perhaps that’s the radical side of me.”

Photographs by Eloisa Lopez

As antagonistic as his rhetoric was during the campaign, Duterte’s hostility toward the church has only intensified during his presidency. In one tirade earlier this year, he threatened to execute priests who had sexually abused children. Separately, he promised to kill a prominent bishop who had simply criticized his administration. And in a speech at the presidential palace last December, Duterte called for violence against an entire class of church leaders: “These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools.” 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, as Filipinos flocked to cemeteries in the tens of thousands to pay respects to departed loved ones, he mocked Catholic saints as hypocrites and loons—“We don’t even know those saints, who those fools are, those drunkards”—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 writ large has faced throughout its history: What is the responsibility of the church under an immoral regime? The institution’s elaborate machinations make it tricky to parse the actual stances and tactics of its leading figures. Cardinal Tagle, for one, 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’s 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 is always flying off to some country or other because he is the head of Caritas International and also has a number of important positions in the Vatican. And 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 organizations 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, describing “a long fallow period” before the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the voice of the Vatican in the country, finally issued a formal statement denouncing the killings. “In our view, silence to a certain extent is complicity here, given that what was going on was an egregious violation of some of the most basic Christian tenets,” said Kine, dismissing the response of the Philippine church as “perfunctory and minimalist.” 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,” but he bemoans its opposition movement as “inconsistent” and “fragmented.” Tagle, he argues, is forsaking “a moral duty to bring back the balance.” This stodgy response has nearly caused Conde to lose faith in the church completely. “It is just a cop-out to say that the church is not political. Of course the church is political,” Conde said.

Proof can be found in recent history. In less than forty years, the Philippines has weathered two major political revolutions and one counterrevolution, each taking shape through mass protests along the same stretch of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or EDSA, the perpetually clogged twelve-lane highway that encircles Manila.

The Philippine priesthood took sides in all three of these popular uprisings, backing the successful revolutions of 1986 and 2001, while opposing 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. On February 21, 1986, Cardinal Jaime Sin, who frequently denounced Marcos’s repressive regime from the pulpit, went on national radio and called upon the Filipinos of Metro Manila to take to the streets in solidarity with a high-ranking military official who had parted ways with Marcos. Within hours, thousands of people were choking the lanes of EDSA and scaling its high-mast lampposts. Entire families came bearing drums, flags, and anti-Marcos banners. When Marcos’s tanks rolled onto the thoroughfare, they encountered a massive crowd of revolutionaries and nuns reciting the prayers of the rosary. After four days of protests, during which troops refused to comply with orders to fire on the peaceful demonstrators, Marcos fled the country. (A “triumph of God in our time,” Sin later called it.) Fifteen years later, in 2001, Sin directed the street protests that successfully brought an end to the corrupt tenure of President Joseph Estrada. Here again, the results reinforced a narrative of divine intervention in Philippine politics. When counterdemonstrations by supporters of the ousted president gathered at a monument to People Power only a few months later, church officials deemed their protests a “desecration” of a “holy place.”

The legacy of the EDSA revolutions hangs heavy over the modern-day Philippine church, a radically different organization than the one of Sin’s time. “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 the former cardinal. Amid the uncertainty of the Duterte regime, many of the clergy recall Sin’s tenure with bittersweet nostalgia: On the one hand, Sin presided over a church with far-reaching influence on civil society; on the other, the church’s political forays seem to have been in vain. Governance in the Philippines is more violent than it has ever been. “Nothing has changed,” Villanueva said. “We’ve gotten worse.”

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 specializes 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 tack of the cardinal, 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 overarching philosophy of the church’s approach. “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, Jun sat with Orly Fernandez, the funeral home’s 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, parlors whose business has boomed during the drug war thanks to such partnerships. 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.

Photographs by Eloisa Lopez

For nearly three years, Jun has dedicated his after-dark hours—between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.—to this ritual, part of his work with the nightcrawlers, a group of semi-nocturnal Filipino journalists who cover the graveyard shift in the war on drugs. Made up primarily of photojournalists, the nightcrawlers stake out the early morning hours in Manila, 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 calls a “One Time, Big Time” operation, thirty-two people were killed in less than twenty-four 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 crucial 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 journalism and the church. 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 Catholic Church’s rigid structure: Liberated from burdensome clerical duties, he can dedicate himself to supporting victims’ families while documenting the killings.

It was a slow night at Eusebio. Jun mentioned going to Bulacan, a province north of Manila where many of the killings were concentrated. “You don’t need to go to the provinces,” Fernandez told him. “There are enough killings here.” Fernandez estimated that, just the week before, he had recovered ten 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. With Manila’s streets finally cleared of traffic, they covered ground quickly. Just a few minutes after leaving the funeral home, 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 one in the morning, but children, extended family members, and friends of the departed were still there, playing cards outside the shanty. 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, a man named Victor dela Cruz, and soon won the trust of the mourning women: Within minutes they were laughing at his jokes, and after a short conversation they handed him the PNP papers from the dela Cruz killing. The police report stated that a teenage girl (“resident of Block 3, Squatters Area”) had reported a shooting in Navotas a few nights before. An unidentified gunman shot dela Cruz twice, once in the shoulder and once in the arm. On dela Cruz’s body, the report added, the 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.


Photographs by Eloisa Lopez Three years after the People Power Revolution toppled Ferdinand Marcos, the Catholic Church erected a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary to memorialize what it saw as God’s hand in bringing an end to dictatorship. The Shrine of Mary, Queen of Peace, or Our Lady of EDSA, as she’s commonly called, presides over a gridlocked junction where EDSA meets a network of trans-Manilan highways and flyover roads. Her palms stretch wide to the beltway, one lifted softly skyward in a blessing of peace. The monument, atop Cardinal Sin’s shrine to the first EDSA Revolution, stands in memory to the crossroads of faith and politics in the Philippine church. It is also a subtle harkening to the architect of that more politicized era. “He was not afraid to make a stand. He was not afraid to take risks,” Father Robert Reyes, the most outspoken progressive priest in today’s Philippines, said of Sin. “But now, there’s so much timidity, tepidity, reluctance, and compromise. People don’t expect the church to say anything at all.”

A minor celebrity in the Philippines, Reyes is popularly known as the “Running Priest” because he often embarks on long runs on behalf of various causes, once covering the length of the archipelago to commemorate the centennial of the Philippine Revolution that overthrew Spanish rule. He is a lightning rod of the church, a fixture on the front lines of marches who occasionally stages protests as a lone wolf. His recent assignment to a parish in Manila’s Quezon City came as a surprise to many in the Catholic community. A few days before I met him, a story went viral on Philippine social media that Pope Francis had excommunicated “the renegade priest” for his political dissent. The story was a hoax, but its traction spoke to Reyes’s notorious reputation in the church establishment.

On multiple occasions, Reyes has pleaded publicly for Tagle, whom he calls a friend, to denounce Duterte. “Cardinal Tagle is very careful,” Reyes said in an emotional protest march last year. “A prophet is not careful.” Although Reyes acknowledges that the church has expressed a moral opposition to the drug-war killings, he laments the ambiguous leadership of the cardinal. “Everything is hierarchical in the Catholic Church, so you avoid saying or doing something that does not have clear approval from the Vatican,” Reyes said. He believes that Tagle has papal ambitions of his own and, as a result, walks a careful line. But without a clear voice at the top, Reyes argues that the Catholic Church lacks the authority, cogency, and moral fire that the Philippine crisis demands: “The voices are so disparate, so far apart, so far away from each other. You don’t have a sense that there’s a collective voice.”

Reyes is so unyielding in his political activism that his friends feign surprise that he is still alive. Last year, Father Villanueva was traveling abroad when he got a call from a journalist alerting him that a priest had been killed in the Philippines. “Who, Robert?” Villanueva shouted into the phone. The journalist assured him that Reyes was alive and safe. “But why not Robert!?” Villanueva insisted. He often prods Reyes: “There’s nothing happening these days. We need a catalyst. Why don’t you have yourself shot in the leg? Or in the arm?”

Villanueva jokes about the dangers posed to his friend, but he’s certainly justified for the genuine concern that’s embedded in his ribbing—and has good reason to worry not just for Reyes’s safety, but for his own. Together with Albert Alejo, the three compose a distinct trio of strident political dissidents in the church’s grassroots efforts, and all three have reason to believe they are targets of the administration. When I met Villanueva at a homeless shelter he runs in northern Manila, he had just sold his car because he no longer felt safe driving alone. Sitting beside a pile of rice bags in his narrow office, dressed in sandals and a jersey that read, in rainbow lettering, team jesus, 7, and was • is • is to come, Villanueva explained how his public opposition to Duterte landed him on a government-surveillance list. He recounted how, on several occasions, mysterious men would appear at the shelter and ask for his whereabouts, inquiring into his daily routine. During our conversation, a man appeared in the shelter’s open doorway, and he and Villanueva exchanged a few words in Tagalog. “He’s my driver, even if he looks like a beneficiary,” Villanueva joked. “He’s brave—because he knows what I do.” The last driver, Villanueva explained, quit after witnessing a Mass that Villanueva delivered for a dead priest. “The driver saw me in my homily, how I condemned the government. The following day he sends me a message: ‘Father, what you’re doing is scary, so I don’t think I can continue.’ But this guy’s better.”

Though he has been considerably less visible than either of his counterparts, Alejo, too, receives regular, credible threats, and has lately kept to the campus of Ateneo de Manila University, where he teaches, doing his best to stay out of the news. Still, his resistance bona fides are unimpeachable. While stationed in Davao, Alejo had heard rumors of Mayor Duterte’s death squad. When Duterte began campaigning for president, Alejo took in a pair of whistle-blowers from Davao who had come forward to testify to the popular candidate’s history of violence. Citing a religious awakening, one of them, a man named Edgar Matobato, claimed to have killed more than fifty people under Duterte’s orders (in one case, feeding a man’s body to a crocodile). Once Duterte was elected, Matobato became the Philippines’s public enemy number one. No longer safe in the government’s witness-protection program, he was quietly shifted out just before the transfer of power, landing in the church’s underground sanctuary network. Matobato changed hands several times before eventually coming into Alejo’s care. “It’s kind of an informal thing,” Alejo said of the sanctuary movement. “You don’t say, ‘It’s the church.’ But church people are very much involved.”

These days, Reyes, Villanueva, and Alejo are careful not to be in the same place at the same time. But in a rare display this March, the trio held a press conference to publicly disclose the death threats they had long kept to themselves. In doing so, they sought both to ensure their own personal protection through public awareness and expose the dire straits of the church’s activists. “This is the best protection that we’ve ever had,” Villanueva explained of their decision to go public. In this way, church superiors were as much a target audience as the president himself. After being privately alerted to the threats against his parish priests, Tagle, who was in Rome at the time, sent a text message to one of Duterte’s aides, read aloud by the president at a press conference in February: “Good day po. Greetings from Rome. I was informed that … some priests got death threats from someone claiming to be working for the President’s family … Just to let you know, baka may naninira [someone might be trying to destroy your reputation]. Thanks. We pray.” Villanueva vented: “If that doesn’t sound diplomatic, I wouldn’t know what is diplomatic.”

By coming forward with their death threats, Villanueva said, he, Reyes, and Alejo hoped to be a spur “for the church, for the hierarchy, to finally recognize that diplomacy apparently is not working with this government.” It’s a hope that stems from the conviction that the Catholic Church may yet drive a social reformation in the Philippines. If the church mobilized all of its resources against the war on drugs, if Tagle followed the lead of some of the lower-ranking clergy, “The problem is over in a day,” Reyes said. But even Reyes wavered when pressed on whether the Catholic Church still possesses the secular influence it had during the revolutions of Cardinal Sin’s time. “Right now, can the church do that?” Reyes said. “I really don’t know. I’m scared to admit that. If the church continues this way, when it tries to mobilize people … she will sound like the little boy who cried wolf. It may be too late.”


Not long after our night at Eusebio, I was standing with Jun outside yet another funeral home, this one in Cebu City, the largest city in the Visayas region of the Philippines. Late last summer, as the intensity of the drug war subsided in the capital, drug-related killings spiked in Cebu. And whereas the Catholic Church of Manila had grown accustomed to the war on drugs, its tricks and its formulas, the diocese in Cebu was caught flat-footed. A small congress of Catholics —Villanueva, two representatives of the ecumenical activist group Rise Up, and two other journalists—had traveled here to meet with Jose Palma, the archbishop of Cebu. Palma was in high demand at the time: Many of Manila’s grassroots Catholic activists were eager for face time with him following the surge in killings in his province.

This was not Jun’s first trip to Cebu since the outbreak of killings there. He had been traveling back and forth between the capital and Cebu, running the night shift on the Visayan island just as he had in Manila. Tracking the death toll of the drug war in Cebu, however, proved more challenging than in the familiar streets of Manila. Despite the vastness of the Philippine capital and the intricacy of its slums, years on the night shift have accustomed Jun to the city’s confused pathways and geographic eccentricities. Cebu, on the other hand, was unfamiliar territory.

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. Located in the central region of the archipelago, where the islands shrink and scatter over the Pacific, Cebu is known as the the cradle of Catholicism in the Philippines. In 1521, Magellan, sailing under the Spanish crown, became the first European to set foot in the Philippines when his fleet landed in Visayas. In Cebu, the Spaniards ingratiated themselves with the king and converted him to Catholicism. But a rival ruler, Lapu-Lapu, chief of the nearby island of Mactan (home, today, to Cebu City’s airport), was less tolerant. It was on Mactan that Magellan was killed in battle as he attempted to forcibly convert Lapu-Lapu to Christianity. Though Magellan died, the Spaniards kept coming, eventually colonizing the rest of the archipelago and establishing Catholicism as its national faith.

The rise in drug-related killings in Cebu had followed the transfer of three notorious PNP officers to Cebu: Royina Garma, Debold Sinas, and Lito Patay. Garma, a fixture of the PNP and a favorite of the president since his days as mayor of Davao, now served as Cebu City’s police chief, with promises to implement the “Davao template” in her new post. Sinas, meanwhile, was appointed chief of the PNP for the entire Central Visayas region. Patay, who had been chief of a squadron of officers that followed Duterte from Davao to Manila after the 2016 election (calling themselves “The Davao Boys,” they were one of the deadliest outfits of the PNP during the first two years of the drug war), had taken over the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Visayas, based in Cebu.

Photographs by Eloisa Lopez

“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: “Just follow them and there will be killings.” Near the end of summer 2018, a few months after the personnel shuffle that brought Garma, Sinas, and Patay together, drug-related killings began to climb in Cebu. Then, on the night of October 3 and morning of October 4, the local PNP ran the “One Time, Big Time” operation, leaving fourteen dead.

So the stakes were high for the activists who had traveled to Cebu to see the archbishop. But for all of the anticipation leading up to the Palma meeting, little came of it. Though 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 he all but recycled these again when pressed for his thoughts about the practices of the local police. More troubling was the fact that he 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. Delicately bypassing the formalities of church protocol, Jun directly implored the bishop to examine the situation with greater skepticism. “The pattern they were using in Manila, they just brought it here,” he insisted. “Even Colonel Garma, she was there in Manila during the ‘One Time, Big Time’ … 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. Much like the bishops of Metro Manila at the dawn of Duterte’s presidency, Palma appeared to be stalling in his response to the killings.

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 that he holds himself. “I’m so judgmental,” he sighed. “This is their territory. This is their responsibility. You have to respect the other parishes.” In this way, the byzantine order of the Catholic Church chafes against its own activism, both moral and political. 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. In all of Catholicism’s uniformity of rite, dogma, and creed, this structure can make solidarity across church, diocese, and parish difficult to achieve: Protests are scattered throughout the establishment instead of being unified behind the will of a common God. “They’re doing whatever capacity they have,” Jun said.

Jun’s very presence in Cebu is a kind of subversion of the hierarchy: far beyond the limits of his own parish and educating an archbishop on the atrocities of his archdiocese. Still, Jun insisted he was propelled to Cebu not out of the obligations of a religious missionary, but out of a duty to his country. “I am here not as a Redemptorist,” he said. “I am here as a journalist and as a Filipino. Personally, my vocation is not bounded by my religious affiliation.” For all of his vows, Jun’s Catholicism is unmoored from the institutional church—a blurring at the border of his religion and nationalism.

“There are two mindsets: a dichotomy of faith and reason here in the Philippines,” Jun said, describing a paradox of Philippine Catholicism that he suggests has allowed things to drift so far from the church’s moral vision. Philippine faith, he says, is an exclusively personal experience, expressed through the touching of images, the chants of the rosary, through kneeling in silent and independent prayer: “That’s between me, myself, and my God.” Reason, on the other hand, “That’s the human relationship.” It is according to this more material sense that Jun feels compelled to chase leads in places like Cebu, to shelter victims and their families, to spend his nights dashing through Manila’s streets, counting bodies.

On our last evening in Cebu, Brother Jun drove the party up into the mountains behind Cebu City, to the site of a recent massacre. A few hours before sunrise on October 4, 2018, the night of the “One Time, Big Time” operation in Cebu, seven people were abducted and taken, in two separate vans, to an abandoned farmer’s road. We followed the same road the vans had taken through the phosphorescent hills. The sky was blue over the city, but low clouds threatened rain in the mountains. When we reached the site, a brick path eroding over a ledge that gives way to the valley, Jun pantomimed the executions, pacing and gesticulating across the vista to describe how five people were murdered and how two escaped. He looked out, past the end of the broken road and beyond the ravine, where a small wooden cross still memorialized the massacre. Below: the fraught, five-hundred-year-old origins of Philippine Catholicism. “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 present 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 small talk mixed with the hum of cicadas in the trees. Night had long since fallen, the stars winking like tea lights behind the incoming clouds. 

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Tony b's picture
Tony b · 1 month ago

a very moving account...

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