As a once-convicted dope pusher, the Catholic Church never really struck me as a natural ally. But priests are taking a stand again against the bloody ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines. In recent years, three of them have been murdered.
Organised religion is something you usually associate with stuck-up conservatives. The only reason I liked mass in school was we got the chance to flunk off lessons. But in the developing world, a few Catholic priests have been a force of revolutionary change. Look at Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated by El Salvador’s military junta. Or the Philippines in the 1980s, ruled by dictator Ferdinand Marcos. After Cardinal Jaime Sin denounced Marcos from the pulpit, Filipinos took to the streets and within days of protests Marcos was gone.
One of those priests involved in subversive activity was Father Amado ‘Picx’ Picardal, who was thrown in prison for distributing leaflets against Marcos, where he was tortured and had a gun stuck in his mouth. Now he’s taking a stand again against the bloody ‘war on drugs’ waged by President Rodrigo Duterte, in which up to 29,000 alleged dealers and users may have been killed by the police and unofficial death squads. As well as going on mammoth bike rides across the country to raise awareness of the killings, Father Picx helped file a report for the International Criminal Court and is ready to testify if called upon. His activism hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“The security guard informed me that there were six men on three motorbikes with full-faced helmets near the entrance of the monastery,” he wrote on his blog two years ago. “I immediately concluded that they were the death squad and I was the target. Had I gone out, there would have been no escape for me. I recognized their modus operandi – that’s what I learned from a former member of the Davao Death Squad when we were documenting the extrajudicial killings years before.”
Father Picx has been an outspoken critic of the drug war since before it was cool: he served as a priest in the city of Davao in the ‘90s, where Duterte was the mayor and used pretty much the same tactics, dispatching a team of assassins to clean up the streets by executing street children, petty criminals and drug addicts, and maybe an activist or two. The good Father is now in hiding.
“I have transferred to a more secure place – out of reach from the death squad – where I could continue the life of silence, solitude and prayer – and to do a lot of writing,” he told me via email. “From where I am, I feel free to move around – I don’t have to stay in my room all the time. But I don’t want Duterte to know where I am because he could just put a contract on me or send someone to finish me off. I know that of all the priests, I am on top of his hate/hit list. If I have my own way, I really want to go back to my mountain hermitage, but my superiors are very concerned about my personal safety and security.”
The Catholic Church hasn’t always had a great track record, let’s be honest. And I lost my faith a long time ago. But for once, I’m siding with the priests. The Church enjoys a powerful voice in a country that’s over 80% Catholic, and priests have been at the forefront of protests against what’s been called a war on the poor.
“The killings began as soon as Duterte became president,” Father Arnel Bodota of the Jesus of Nazareth parish told me. “The poor are the first victims of this campaign, the jobless. The poor are not able to fight back, and it’s very easy for them to be thrown in jail, or to be killed. Anyone can call the police and say you’re a pusher, and the police can plant the evidence.”
Father Bodota’s parish helps organise scholarships, food handouts and Christmas parties for the families of victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs).
“We accept whatever your religion, so long as you’re a victim of EJK. They [the widows] are scared, not only because their husband died but because don’t know what future they can give to their children,” Father Bodota told me. “The diocese is trying to give a monthly supply of 25 kilos of rice to the families. We started it last November. Each and every one of them receives a gift at Christmas.”
Filipinos for the most part support the drug war, seeing it as the only way to fix a problem which had been left festering for too long. But after the murder of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old with no criminal record who’d been shot dead after being kidnapped by three police officers, two Catholic priests led a procession of over 5,000 through the streets of Manila that turned into a protest march.
While the Church itself has failed to mobilise, it’s fallen to individual priests and their parishes to take a stand against the drug war and protect its victims. Caloocan Bishop Pablo ‘Ambo’ David stood fast against death threats and granted sanctuary to witnesses of the Kian delos Santos killing. He refused to budge and in a rare case of justice, three cops were sentenced for the murder. Another priest, Albert Alejo, sheltered former Davao Death Squad killer Edgar Matobato after he turned witness on his former paymasters.
Duterte’s been dismissive of the priests, having been molested by one as a boy. While at high school Duterte was fondled by an American Jesuit priest, which explains his antipathy towards the Church. In addition to calling visiting Pope Francis a “son of a whore”, Duterte’s own relationship with the Man Upstairs has been rocky, to say the least. Once on a flight from Japan, he claimed he heard the voice of God telling him to stop cursing or the plane would crash. Needless to say his newfound politeness didn’t last long. Before long, Duterte called the Almighty himself a “stupid son of a bitch”, then said he would resign if anyone could prove He exists.
The President hasn’t taken dissenting priests lightly. After Bishop Ambo accused Duterte of warping his flock’s perception of good and evil, the President implied he was slinging meth out of the confession booth and threatened to decapitate him.
“The Catholic Church and Bishop David is clinging to a belief 3,000 years ago,” he said. “Bishop, if you are selling drugs, I’ll have your head cut off.”
Since December 2017, at least three priests in the Philippines have been murdered: one shot after negotiating a prisoner’s release; another while blessing a group of children by shooters riding “in tandem” (on a motorbike – the same as many EJKs); and a third murdered at the altar in front of churchgoers just before mass. Perhaps that’s why many remain silent. Others believe that an all-out war is the only way to defeat the menace of drug trafficking.
Bishop Ambo is living under 24-hour protection after death threats. Albert Alejo was offered, and refused, police protection – he doesn’t trust them. These are tough times to be a man of the cloth, trying to fulfil your mission saving lives and souls in the face of the murderous leanings of a psychotic regime. But a shepherd must protect his flock.
Niko Vorobyov is a government-certified (convicted) drug dealer turned writer and author of the book Dopeworld (Drugswereld), about the international drug trade. You can follow him on Twitter @Lemmiwinks_III