The Feature

A man of God in the Philippines is helping document a bloody war on drugs

February 17, 2017
Brother Jun Santiago photographs a crime scene in metro Manila after midnight on February 14, 2017. Photo: Eloisa Lopez.

The only perk of the night shift in Manila is the lack of traffic. By day, the streets and highways are clogged, with vehicles crawling along them slowly, close together, like long lines of disorganized ants. But in the dark hours from midnight to dawn, there is no waiting. That’s how we got to the crime scene so fast, before the bodies were sent to the morgue. Leaving Manila Police District at 3:30 am, the driver of our Isuzu SUV flashed his emergency lights, passed cars, honked for others to get out of the way, and blew the occasional red light. The car was full. I was with four other local journalists and photographers, and Brother Jun Santiago from the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, known locally as the Baclaran Church. Brother Jun was driving.

The overwhelming majority of the 100 million people that make up the population of the Philippines are Catholic. Brother Jun, 46, is from the Roman Catholic order called the Redemptorists, who are known globally for their missionary work. He’s a “brother,” not a priest, which means he can give sermons but can’t lead mass. Brothers spend more time in the field and in the community. Vincent Go, the Filipino photographer sitting in the front seat next to Brother Jun, said they’re like the Marines—the tip of the spear.

Brother Jun is also a longtime photographer, and as a result, he has one foot in two influential institutions in the Philippines: the church and the media. By day, he attends to religious duties at a parish in Manila. After hours, he goes into the field as one of the dozens of “nightcrawlers” documenting President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drug dealers and users. Since Duterte took office seven months ago, more than 7,000 people have been killed in official police operations and vigilante killings tied to the crackdown. But as bodies keep appearing in the streets, complaints are growing at home. Through his humanitarian work and photojournalism, Brother Jun occupies a unique position in the fight to document the drug war and help its victims. He is a bridge between two worlds, and his unusual role shows how nontraditional journalism can serve the public interest while working in tandem with the mainstream media.

He has one foot in two influential institutions in the Philippines: the church and the media.

Since the 1990s, when he was a seminary student, Brother Jun has infused his religious work with photography, or as he often calls it, documentation. The two go hand in hand. “Photography by itself is a mission,” he told me when we first met in Manila in early February.

The Philippines has a reputation for being an extremely dangerous place for journalists; in 2009, 32 journalists were killed in provincial election violence. But the reputation belies one of the most freewheeling and diverse media climates in the region, a seed that was planted during the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, when an alternative “mosquito” press rushed forward to challenge the government. As many pointed out to me during my visit, the death toll in the drug war, which has lasted more than half a year, is larger than the death toll under Marcos, who was ousted in 1986 after two decades in power.

Journalists and photographers who have covered the crackdown since it began express frustration that their work has not done more to alter public opinion, which stands strongly behind Duterte. They also have felt the urge to do more to help victims they come across on a given night, but are wary of crossing the line from neutral observer to active participant. Enter Brother Jun. Through his photography, he is amassing case profiles and material that can be used by his church as part of a larger program for victims, which includes financial assistance for poor families, trauma counseling, sanctuary for those in fear, and the possible filing of criminal complaints. On the other side, through his connections to the media, he can respond to tips from journalists who refer needy families to the church. Together, Brother Jun and his contacts in the press organized a controversial photo exhibit of crime scenes now on display at churches in the Philippines; he contributed about six of his own images. Raffy Lerma, a photographer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said Brother Jun’s involvement has been a game-changer. Other journalists echoed this sentiment to me privately. “When he came into the picture he gave a different dynamic to it,” Lerma says. Trying to describe the effect, he used a saying in Tagalog, the national language. Hulog ng langit: “Sent from heaven.”

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When I arrived in Manila in late January, official anti-drug operations had supposedly been “suspended”—after a South Korean businessman had been found dead in a police camp, creating an embarrassing scandal for Duterte. But there have been lulls before, and during the two weeks I was there, shootings slowed but did not cease. Duterte has suggested bringing in the army to take over the job from police. He also recently said he would continue the effort for his entire six-year term. Because of the crime associated—somewhat dubiously—with the high use of “shabu,” a cheap form of methamphetamine popular in the Philippines, the war here has enjoyed broad support from the public, even if some have recoiled from the violence used to wage it. The lack of public outcry has puzzled members of the press corps, while attracting the kind of international media attention that only comes to the Philippines during a natural disaster. At the height of it the cottage-sized Manila Press Corps building, which is attached to the Manila Police District, was packed with foreign journalists, all waiting to go to the next shooting. Back then, Go, who works for the Catholic news outlet UCAN, would show up at MPD and muse, “Am I in the Philippines?”

Though I sensed a natural weariness with the ongoing arrival of new journalists, members of the local media I spoke with seemed pleased with work from outsiders that, in their minds, was serious and struck a nerve. Many singled out the work of photographer Daniel Berehulak, whose images were widely shared in the Philippines.

The work of the night shift was so darkly fascinating that the shift itself became a subject for reportage, with stories focusing on the gritty side of the coverage. “Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift,” reads a recent headline in the New York Review of Books, adding the tagline “The Execution Beat: Tracking the Philippines Drug War.” The BBC has a piece on “Manila’s Brutal Nightshift,” while the LA Times invites us to “Meet the Nightcrawlers of Manila: A night on the front lines of the Philippines’ War on Drugs.”

is indeed brutal. Go told me that he stopped counting the bodies after a while, and that it was difficult to edit the photos at night, because he could see the faces of the victims in his sleep. The night shift helped foster frustration. “It’s been almost seven months and we still don’t understand what is going on,” Go tells me, alluding to the complex mixture of police killings, disappearances, and murders whose links to the drug war are not always clear. Some of the nightcrawlers had developed an almost religious devotion to covering the shift amid fading local and international interest, doing it on their own time if not on a specific assignment from their newspaper or working with a foreign client as a fixer.

Brother Jun’s arrival tapped into the sense of helplessness and helped channel it. A tentative alliance was born. Much to the annoyance of Duterte, Catholic leaders have started speaking out against the war. Sending Brother Jun into the trenches was a significant, but scarcely covered, part of that effort. In December, Brother Jun and Go hatched the idea to display the portraits of crime scenes. The photos came from Brother Jun, Go—who contributed about half of them—and from photographers covering the night shift. They were blown up and posted at the entrance of Brother Jun’s church, the Baclaran, 10 days before Christmas. Upwards of 100,000 people saw them, reacting with a mixture of support and backlash.

A man stares at a photo of a crime scene placed outside a church northwest of Manila. Photo: Eloisa Lopez.

A man stares at a photo of a crime scene placed outside a church northwest of Manila. Photo: Eloisa Lopez.

Father Carlos Ronquillo, 61, the Superior at Baclaran Church, says the project succeeded. “That exhibit is really photojournalism at its best. Yet you need a religious background for it to appeal. Because if you just put it in a public place it’s not going to work, it’s not going to be very effective,” he says. “It spawned a deep thinking in many of the people. I think that you begin to see now that people are asking questions.” Soon other churches called up and asked if they could use the images. They are now part of a roving exhibit. Ronquillo said the collaboration between the church and the media was a first. “No one from the church sector ever thought of it.”

Before joining him at night, I talked with Brother Jun over coffee at the Baclaran Church, which is off a busy thoroughfare in Manila crowded with food stands and taxis and small jeep-like buses. He was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and had a Sony camera slung over his arm. “Since I was in college, in the seminary [in Manila], I was involved in documentation, I used to take photographs,” he says. He grew up near the Baclaran and felt called to the religious life from a young age. He said he wanted to be a brother instead of a priest because this path allowed him to work closer with communities. “We are freer than the priests. I made my choice during my immersion year in a farmworker community. In the Philippines if you are a cleric you are put on a pedestal. Sometimes that special place gives a bigger gap with the ordinary faithful,” he says. “Our life is more in the community, we live in the community.”

His first church “assignment” as a photojournalist was in 1990 when he went to the aftermath of the 7.8-magnitude Luzon  earthquake, which struck on July 16 and killed some 1,000 people. He joined church relief operations as part of the first team to go Central Luzon to cover the extent of the damage. Tasked with documentation, he stayed for two weeks, taking pictures of damaged roads and collapsed buildings. He was stunned by the scope of the destruction.

When Brother Jun takes photos, he is not angling for the images to be picked up by a wire service and published in mainstream news outlets. The photo display of crime scenes at churches was, in fact, one of the few times his work has ever been exhibited before a general audience. The church, which stores his images in an archive, uses them to assess damage for relief and rebuilding or to develop assistance programs.

In later years after the earthquake he carried out similar projects, documenting human rights and environmental abuses. But he always borrowed his camera from the church supply. In 2006, while he was on sabbatical, a deadly landslide hit Southern Leyte, part of an island in the central section of the archipelago. It buried an entire community and racked up a death toll comparable to the Luzon quake. Brother Jun bought his first camera and went to the scene. He saw that part of a mountain had collapsed. “It was a school day, so the whole population of the school was buried,” he tells me in a conversation over the phone after our first meeting. “Elementary, all the kids.”

with the drug war involved the families of victims, who came to the church begging for help with funeral costs. They just kept coming. He wanted to do more. He was already a member of the Photojournalism Center of the Philippines, and he knew some photographers. “I need to go out at night,” he thought. The church management endorsed the idea. “So I joined the nightcrawlers.”

He started on December 1. The first murder was one of mistaken identity. “They were just looking for a name. The name is Michael,” he says. In the drug war, the authorities have lists of suspected drug users, petty criminals, or others who have, for whatever reason, run afoul of the system. The names are sometimes based on previous arrests, sometimes gathered by local officials. In an approach called “Operation Knock and Plead,” authorities went into neighborhoods asking for names, reading off a list. Some surrendered. But encounters with law enforcement didn’t always end peacefully. In this case, Brother Jun said, the man was just a streetsweeper. “He was shot in the leg,” he says. “He died.” According to him, the police report said the man fought back.

“After Michael, another one and another one,” Brother Jun adds, referring to the number of bodies that were dropping in drug-related killings on nights he ventured into the field. “In one night, 16.” He works Monday through Saturday, 9 pm until around 3 or 4 am, then sleeps and resumes his duties at the church. One night, a photographer asked him: “Brother Jun, what do you think. Will the Baclaran community allow us to do an exhibition?”

I asked him why he thought it was a good idea. “For awareness. People are sleeping,” he says. When the photos went up, there was “a lot of reaction.” Some were angry. It was Christmas time. They didn’t want to see poor dead people shot in the street laying in a pool of blood. There were calls and comments on the church’s Facebook page. There was media coverage. A pro-Duterte blogger posted a video that was shared thousands of times on Facebook, racking up 1.2 million views, Brother Jun says. They were accused of collaborating with the opposition.

“But after three days, four days. [there were] a lot of congratulatory messages,” he says. One family told them: “We had a son killed.” Churches have also held masses for victims. Three sets of the photos were printed, and 13 parishes have requested them. The tentative plan is to rotate them monthly.

A spokesman for Duterte, who himself has called for a ‘showdown’ with ‘corrupt’ priests, responded by calling the anti-drug crackdown a ‘reign of peace.'”

Their work presaged a shift in the Catholic church in general after months of dithering on how strongly to come out against the drug war. On February 5, sermons delivered at masses in the Philippines called the war a “reign of terror.” A spokesman for Duterte, who himself has called for a “showdown” with “corrupt” priests, responded by calling the anti-drug crackdown a “reign of peace.”

“The officials of the [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines] are apparently out of touch with the sentiments of the faithful who overwhelmingly support the changes in the Philippines,” Ernesto Abella, the spokesman, said in a statement.

I ask Brother Jun which crime scene affected him most. He recalls a case in which a man in his 60s had been killed. “It was inside the house,” Brother Jun says. “The family members were really angry with the media. But one agreed to an interview.” He repeated what they told the cameras. “Please stop killing. Mr President, please stop this killing. They just killed my father. He was 64 years old. He was blind; he could hardly see.” But the police report said he fought back, had a gun.  In many shootings involving police, the officers have cited self-defense. The scene moved him to tears. “I just covered my face and just kept shooting.”

Brother Jun Santiago. Photo: Eloisa Lopez

Brother Jun Santiago. Photo: Eloisa Lopez

The war on drugs is also a war of information. In the Philippines, there were 47 million active Facebook users in 2015—almost half the population. Duterte’s campaign leveraged social media to help him crush his opponents. With the drug war, online trolling and one-sided news sites have shifted focus to silence critics. The parallels with the social media landscape that saw the rise of President Donald Trump are clear. Just as journalists in the US now struggle to be heard amid the din of “alternative facts,” the media in the Philippines face intense pushback online. “The same tool that gave us power has been turned against us,” Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler, tells me one afternoon at the all-digital website’s slick office in Pasig City, a 30-minute drive from Manila’s central business district. The pro-Duterte Facebook groups, bots, and fake accounts are outpacing and overwhelming traditional media. “They have clear messages that are meant to influence the public,” she adds. “This is what we’re facing.”

Moving the photo exhibit from Baclaran to other churches meant more people would see the images. By the time I arrived, they had gone to Our Lady of Victory Chapel northwest of Manila. One morning I went to see them, accompanied by a translator. Similar to the setup at Baclaran, they had been blown up, put on canvas, and placed between two upright posts, like miniature billboards. Instead of being around the church, or in a meeting hall nearby, they had been posted on the road leading to the entrance. That meant even non-church goers walking down the street or driving saw them. In the hour we spent there, dozens of people stopped to gaze at the images. Cars slowed down to take a look. “There’s one there, you can see the blood,” a teenager said to a younger kid. The photos were not sanitized or blurred. Bodies lay on the street, bloodied, normally with police in the background. The neighborhood itself was calm, middle class, residential, with flowerbeds and frangipani trees in the grounds leading up to the stone chapel, where women were cutting flowers in preparation for a wedding.

Escarda Wilfredo Bernabe, who maintains small buses in a town nearby, stopped to look. Coincidentally, he was a former user, though he said he stopped doing drugs years ago. He felt sympathy for the victims. “Why would you kill them?” he wonders. “I am sad because I know they had a chance.” He recounted a turbulent life involving political activism, drug use, and being institutionalized. “It hurts because I believe in a higher being, but it seems these days, humans act like gods.” Joanna Estabillo, a 33-year-old who works in catering, was walking by further up the road. At first, she asked if the killings in the photos were specific to the area. She said the effort to raise awareness was “helping the issue.” A third person we interviewed illustrated the other, more robust, side of the debate. Nita Cayetano, 70, said she thought the drug war should continue, and that the authorities had not done enough. She also somehow misinterpreted the purpose of the images, viewing them as warnings or cautionary tales. Keep doing drugs and you’ll end up like this. “Even if they put up these photos, the users won’t be scared,” she says. Her area was still affected. “There are still a lot of assholes in my community.”

There are still a lot of assholes in my community.”

how fast Brother Jun was driving. We had been flying through the streets for about 15 minutes now but had covered a lot of territory since the initial call about the crime scene came in at around 3:30 am. When a car did not respond to beeping or tailing, Go took out a small flashlight and and flickered it into its back windshield, creating an effect not dissimilar to a police cruiser attempting to pull over a driver. It worked every time.

We finally arrived in the neighborhood about 10 minutes later, but it took a while to find the exact street that led into the residential alley where the bodies were. Brother Jun was pulling over and asking questions. With help from neighbors, we finally located a small alley that led into a dozen other small alleys, inside a seemingly endless warren of dark passages. We got out and headed into the darkness. A light rain had fallen, and the ground was slippery. I could barely see a thing and realized why others were wearing headlamps as if they were miners. I pulled out my phone and turned on the flashlight to illuminate the wet concrete. After several turns we arrived in a cramped alleyway with yellow police tape spread across it on either side. An older woman sat with her head in her hands as journalists tried to get answers. Two people had been shot by men in masks, local residents said later. They had entered through the other side of the street, which was frequented by “shabu” users. It was difficult to get more information. The area was so cramped that crime-scene investigators had to bring in a wooden ladder to try and enter through the window. They had to eventually bang on a neighbor’s door to get the bodies out of the closely knit houses, nothing more than collections of concrete block and corrugated tin. Brother Jun called out to Go. He had found a way to get a better view. He moved with the haste of a photographer trying to get the right shot. I followed.

We circled around a few alleyways and came to the other end of the scene, where the bodies were now being put on stretchers. Brother Jun knelt down under the crime-scene tape and snapped pictures of the wrapped-up corpse. They brought out one body on the stretcher, then had to go back and retrieve the other. Afterwards I thought about how many nights Brother Jun would continue to go out. Weeks? Months? I recalled something he said to me at the church. “I doubt it will stop during Duterte’s time,” he says. “That means six years. The drug problems are his masterpiece.”

Joe Freeman is a journalist who lives in Yangon and has reported from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Follow him on Twitter @joefree215.