Criminals have no humanity, President Duterte said just five days ago—the latest iteration of the mindset that informs the idée fixe of his political life, the war on drugs. His justice secretary said the same thing in February: “The criminals, the drug lords, drug pushers, they are not humanity.”
Vitaliano Aguirre was, of course, merely parroting his boss; as early as August 2016, a month into his presidency, Mr. Duterte had essentially formulated the talking point when, railing against international human rights groups which had warned that his brutal campaign then already racking up dead bodies might constitute crimes against humanity, he retorted: “[W]hat ‘crime against humanity?’ In the first place, I’d like to be frank with you, are they (drug users) humans?”
In another time, in a different season, those startling statements would spell doom, or at least widespread public opprobrium, for any politician angling to be a leader in the so-called only predominantly Christian nation in Asia. Not so today, when they have apparently become the governing philosophy of the times, the underpinning of an actual government policy that has resulted so far in over 7,000 Filipinos killed. Admittedly, it’s also a program with sufficient popular appeal at this time, sold on the ground that the end result is keeping the larger population safe, while those killed deserve to be eliminated from society because they are, after all, “not human.”
But for how long? Various observers have noted that the wave of extrajudicial killings is creating a generation of orphans and rudderless families, the death of fathers and mothers in the poorest communities a particularly devastating loss to the children and other family members dependent on them.
The Catholic Church, other than becoming more vocal of late in denouncing the killings, is providing a compelling counterargument to the official line that addicts are a hopeless case by showing the opposite: that, given the chance, drug users can be rehabilitated.
A Sunday report in this paper profiled the efforts of a community-based drug reformation program in Blumentritt, Manila, run by the San Roque de Manila parish that “has been quietly providing refuge and a shot at redemption to meth users and peddlers.” The program is not a lone-wolf effort; the parish has managed to get the support of the Parish Pastoral Council, Caritas Manila, volunteers from different institutions, the barangays around, and especially the police.
That last element is crucial: Where many drug surrenderers in other areas still end up dead afterwards, those participating in the San Roque program appear to have won some assurance of safety. “Commanders at the nearby Santa Cruz police station, who often stopped by the parish hall to check on the sessions, had given the assurance that the police would lay off the surrenderers once they complete the program,” said the report.
That life-or-death reprieve for drug addicts (some 66 were reportedly enrolled in late January) is a key window in helping these people break their destructive habit, to enable them to get back their bearings and turn a new leaf. Under the San Roque grassroots program, the surrenderers take part in prayers, values formation classes, skills and livelihood training, sports, even Zumba—the modules created by a priest, Fr. Robert “Bobby” dela Cruz, who himself is an admitted former drug dependent.
Many other parishes and Church groups—in fact other churches under the ecumenical alliance Rise Up for Life and for Rights—are doing the same: giving sanctuary to drug users wanting to escape their old life, and assisting and protecting frightened families and survivors of drug raids. Against the “othering” rhetoric and firepower of an indiscriminate state-sponsored campaign directed mostly at powerless Filipinos, this is humane and all-too-important work.
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