MANILA, Philippines (CNS)—After emerging from a face-to-face meeting with six drug users, Sister Maria Juanita "Nenet" Dano heaved a small sigh of relief that perhaps these men would not meet a bloody end like dozens of others in the San Andres Bukid slum area where she works.
The men had come forward to undergo counseling, hoping to change their ways and avoid becoming victims in the government's ongoing anti-drug war. But their names are on a police list, which makes them targets in massive police operations in force since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in July 2016.
"They are afraid they'd get killed," Sister Dano, a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, said of her six clients, ages 25 to 47. "They also responded to the call of the barangay (village) head, a woman, to make the barangay drug-free."
Depending on who is counting, the anti-drug war has claimed from 2,000 to more than 7,000 lives, both in police operations and vigilante-style or extrajudicial killings. Duterte has vowed to end the drug menace and exterminate those involved in it by whatever means necessary.
Sister Dano is a licensed social worker who has been doing outreach work since 2011. Half her week is spent in San Andres Bukid, where the religious order maintains an outreach center that serves as an office, meeting place and sleeping quarters for Sister Dano when she is there.
Her volunteer partners—local women, from poor families—help the families of drug-war victims arrange funerals. They undergo paralegal training so they can document cases. They spoke about their experiences, but for security purposes asked not to be identified by their real names.
Ely said she has had to comfort mothers of those killed and grieves with them. "I am a mother, too," she said. "Some nights it is hard to sleep when you hear little noises" that might signal a police raid nearby.
"When the residents notice unusual police presence, they conclude that there will be killings," Sister Dano said.
The women also minister to drug users who are not yet badly addicted by giving them activated carbon capsules meant to help clean out their systems. The capsules are made from burned coconut husk and sourced from alternative health groups.
"I approached some users and offered to help them," said Dianne, another volunteer. "For several weeks, they take the capsules two to three times a day and later in lower dosage. After that they undergo a urine test."
The most common prohibited substance used is methamphetamine hydrochloride, known as "poor man's cocaine" —locally called "shabu"—and marijuana. Shabu is the substance of choice for most drug users and pushers because it is readily available and easy to transport. It is locally produced in hidden laboratories. Chinese nationals with Filipino accomplices who operate the laboratories have been apprehended, charged and imprisoned. Shabu also is sourced from outside the Philippines. It is common knowledge that police also are involved in the drug trade.
The oft-repeated police reason for the killings is that the suspects "fought back," but in most raids, usually at night, the target suspects are unarmed or even asleep. As to unknown assailants in vigilante-style killings, people can only speculate whether the killers are hired by police or drug lords.
Sister Dano told of a recent casualty of the drug war. "He was a 49-year-old father of two, a person with disability and known to rent out his place for drug sessions. He charged 20 pesos per person. He was sleeping in the alley that night. The raiders took him inside the house and killed him there. The police said he fought back. How could he fight back when he couldn't even raise his withered hand?"
Sister Dano said she is collating cases of extrajudicial killings for her congregation and others to read. But her focus is to stop those who are addicts from becoming victims in the government's war on drugs and to live drug-free, meaningful lives.
"When I brought a 14-year-old girl for drug rehab to the Department of Social Welfare and Development office I was told they did not have a budget for even a drug test that cost $10," she said. "I told the social work official that the government has no intention to let the addicts live."
Amina Merced lost her two adult sons and a brother in a police operation in January.
"I was told that two of them, my son Leo and my brother Bimbo, were asleep, while Joshua, my other son, was taking a bath and was naked when shot," she said. "Bimbo was mistaken as his brother Crisanto, who was being hunted. I rushed back and found blood all over the wall in our house."
A 7-year-old boy told how he found his father lying dead in a pool of blood. With his mother now in jail because of drug-related charges, the boy is being cared for by relatives and neighbors.
Sister Regina Kuizon, the order's provincial leader for the Philippines and Japan and co-chair of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, is supportive of Sister Dano's ministry.
"Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, Sister Nenet reaches out to the most in need and the victims of (extrajudicial killings)," she said. "Undaunted, she speaks on their behalf and takes the risk to protect them. I pray for her and all those who are fearless to be on the side of the poor in our country."