As police and vigilante killings continue under President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs, Catholic leaders in the Philippines have decried the bloodshed, begging the nation to stop support of the escalating violence.
Considered the deadliest week since Duterte’s war on drugs was launched last year, more than 70 alleged drug offenders were killed last week, including 17-year-old Kian Loyd de los Santos. His death has sparked public outrage after surveillance footage of the attack appears to show the boy being dragged by police, and witnesses say he was beaten, handed a gun, told to run and then shot, contradicting a police report claiming he shot first.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan and Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila both denounced public support for the killings of suspected drug offenders over the weekend, calling on the nation to be courageous and vocal in opposing the violence. “The country is [in] chaos. The officer who kills is rewarded and the slain get the blame. The corpses could no longer defend themselves from accusations that they fought back,” Archbishop Villegas said in a pastoral exhortation Aug. 20.
“They say that if there are 32 killed every day, our lives would be better, and our countrymen nod in agreement. They applaud and cry with a smile … while counting corpses in the night, while passing wakes for the dead left and right. It’s not in our nature to be happy over the killings.”
In his own message, Cardinal Tagle said that the danger and destruction caused by illegal drugs is real, but that the problem “should not be reduced to a political or criminal issue,” but is rather “a humanitarian concern that affects all of us.”
Police officers and vigilantes have killed more than 7,000 persons in the drug trade from July 2016 through January 2017, according to numbers provided by the Philippine National Police. The alleged suspects are usually shot by police under the allegation that they attacked first.
In response, Archbishop Villegas has asked for all church bells in his archdiocese to ring for 15 minutes each night beginning Aug. 22, memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, until Nov. 27. He said they are ringing the bells in prayer for all of the victims of the police operations in the Pampanga province and in the metro area of Manila last week. They also serve as an audible reminder each night to be brave in acting against the killings.
“Don’t we know how to weep?” Archbishop Villegas asked. “Why aren’t we shocked by the gunfire and flow of blood on the sidewalk? Why aren’t we angry at the flow of drugs from China? Why is it that it’s only the poor who are shot while if a rich person with connections with higher ups is tagged, there needs to be an investigation and affidavit first.”
Cardinal Tagle decried the illegal drug problem, saying. “We knock on the consciences of those manufacturing and selling illegal drugs to stop this activity.” “We knock on the consciences of those who kill even the helpless, especially those who cover their faces with bonnets, to stop wasting human lives,” he continued, referring to the drug killings carried out by vigilantes who wear civilian clothes and cover their faces and heads with masks and hats.
He encouraged the nation to instead support peaceful means of drug reform, such as the parish-based rehabilitation program in Manila called Sanlakbay. Cardinal Tagle has also asked all parishes in the archdiocese to observe nine days of special prayer at all Masses from Aug. 21-29 “for the repose of those who have died in this war, for the strength of their families, for the perseverance of those recovering from addiction and the conversion of killers.”
Elected president in May 2016, Duterte ran for office on a platform of taking strong action against the drug trade in the country, making shocking statements to underline his commitment to action. “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor,” the BBC reported him saying. Duterte was previously the mayor of the city of Davao, where he made a name for himself as the “death squad mayor.”
“You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you,” he said while running for president. “I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
Duterte, whose popularity remains high, praised the killing of 32 people in police raids across Pampanga province Aug. 14, saying, “Those who died in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that’s good. If we can kill another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”