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  • Church vs. StatePhilippine 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?
  • Reporting by Adam Willis and Photographs by Eloisa Lopez

reporting, Duterte, the Philippines, Catholic church

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This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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One 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, [End Page 41] 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...


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