Detox, rehab, food: Parish works to fight Philippine drug problem

IMAGE: CNS photo.Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

MANILA, Philippines (CNS) — As the body
count rises in the Philippines’ war on drugs, a Catholic priest is trying to
create a space where healing takes precedence over killing.

On Sept. 1, 20 drug users surrendered to
police under the watchful eye of Father Luciano Feloni, an Argentine priest who
is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Caloocan City, on the edge of
Manila. Another 20 were expected to surrender under a program the parish has
dubbed “Healing, not killing.”

The mass surrender — which Father Feloni
orchestrated in coordination with the police and local political leaders — comes
as drug users and pushers are being killed throughout the country in response
to an all-out assault on drugs by newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte. Father
Feloni said the killings began in the days leading up to Duterte’s inauguration
June 30. Since then, between three and five people in his parish have been
killed every week. One victim was shot in front of the parish church
immediately following Mass.

“I know the numbers because we said the
funeral Mass for them. Almost all were killed in the same way: A motorcycle
would come up with two people, and one would get off and pull a gun and kill
the person, then they would ride away. No one ever gets caught or convicted,”
Father Feloni told Catholic News Service.

Father Feloni’s parish and the local
government are currently accompanying the newly surrendered drug users through
a process of detoxification and rehabilitation, as well as providing food in
exchange for work in the neighborhood.

The priest said he supports Duterte’s
campaign against drugs.

“It has to be crystal clear that the
church is 100 percent behind the president on this campaign against drugs,
because drugs are destroying the country. I come from Latin America and I know
how it looks when drugs destroy a place. But at the same time, we are against
the killings,” he said.

The Philippine National Police announced Sept.
4 that more than 1,000 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed in
police operations since Duterte took office and encouraged police to not worry
about due process. “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about
human rights, you better believe me,” Duterte said Aug. 5.

Nearly 1,400 killings of alleged drug users
in the same period were characterized as “deaths under investigation,”
many of them reportedly carried out by killers hired by drug gangs worried that
those who turn themselves in to police will reveal the names of their suppliers
in a criminal enterprise, which by many accounts stretches high into the upper
echelons of the government and police.

Senior Superintendent Joel Napoleon Coronel
of the Manila Police District told Catholic News Service Aug. 29 that many of
the killings are the result of internal tensions within and between drug gangs
facing a collapsing market. Yet he said authorities are also investigating
several “rogue policemen who are eliminating their former runners,
traffickers and sellers.”

In response to the unprecedented wave of
killings, tens of thousands of drug users — mostly addicts of shabu, a local
form of methamphetamine — have turned themselves in to police, taking a chance
on life in overcrowded jails rather than risk getting gunned down on the

As Father Feloni watched the killings ravage
his parish, he talked with his parish council, which agreed that something had
to be done. The council president had lost his brother, a police officer, in a
shootout with drug pushers.

“We agreed that killing is not a
solution to our problems,” Father Feloni said. “And we asked what we
could do. The church has been denouncing the killings and getting feedback from
the people that we are meddling. They say we’re talking and talking and talking
and doing nothing. The message that we were totally in favor of the campaign
against drugs wasn’t coming across properly. So we began to ask what we could
do proactively, more than just stating that we’re against the killings.”

Working with local government officials and
the police, Father Feloni garnered commitments to get help for users who were
willing to turn themselves in.

“There is no real program being offered
by the government. Once you surrender, you go home and it’s assumed you’ll stop
being an addict. That is not real thinking. You cannot stop addiction just by
fear. It’s a sickness, and you need psychosocial intervention to cure it,”
he said. “If killing isn’t a solution, neither is surrender. It’s just the
beginning. Unless you offer something, people cannot really change.”        

Any successful intervention must also help
users develop new sources of income.

“Almost all the users are also
small-scale pushers. They get their portion free, but at the same time sell to
others to get a little income. If you stop their business, they have no way to
survive, no way to feed their children,” the priest said.

Father Feloni said that as the program took
shape, he had some very frank discussions with the police. “I was also
honest with them and said, ‘Don’t kill them afterward,'” he said.

The priest, who said he and local police are
“on the same page,” said he worries about the effect the killings are
having on Philippine society.

“A lot of people are really taking the
president’s ideas very seriously, and that’s dangerous. People make decisions
about each other’s lives, and they put an addict on the same level as a drug
lord. We are not very far away from becoming like ISIS. It could be people
drinking or having a long beard, or having an extramarital relationship or
playing cards. At the end, everybody should be killed,” Father Feloni said.

“We are becoming a much more violent
society. And that can easily spiral out of control. As the church we have to do
something. They were asking me today about what could happen to any of us who
are working on this. We can also be targets of violence. And I said that the biggest
danger is that we as a church do nothing. We will face God and God will ask us
what we have done beside funerals,” he said.

The priest, who has served in the
Philippines for 22 years, recognizes the personal risks involved.

“We are trying to take clients away
from the drug syndicates. When you rehabilitate people, then less people will
buy drugs, and they won’t be happy. Police officers who protect the syndicates
will not be happy. So a lot of people will be happy to kill either the
neighborhood captain or myself,” said Father Feloni, who says he is
intentionally varying his daily routine.

Bishop Antonio Tobias of Novaliches was
present for the surrender ceremony, and Father Feloni said the church sees his
program as a pilot project for the diocese and beyond.

“If after six months the parish priest
is still alive, then other parishes will be encouraged to do the same,” Father
Feloni said.

– – –

Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article