‘Cult’ escapees recall ordeal; Senate detains leader, 3 others
Senators on Thursday ordered the detention of four officers and members of the Surigao del Norte-based group Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) for supposedly lying under oath during an emotional, eight-hour public hearing, where they denied allegations of human rights abuses and outright criminal activities cloaked in cultish practices.
Cited for contempt on a motion by Sen. Risa Hontiveros were SBSI Jey Rence Quilario, the group’s 82-year-old vice president Mamerto Galanida, and members Janeth Ajoc and Karren Sanico.
Known in the organization as “Senior Aguila,” Quilario, 22, has styled himself as a messianic “Son of God,” according to former members who testified at the hearing.
Two Senate panels—the committee on public order and dangerous drugs; and on women, family relations and gender equality—launched an inquiry into the allegations made against SBSI, on paper a self-help organization based at Sitio Kapihan, a mountain settlement in the island town of Socorro, Surigao del Norte.
Appearing nervous during the hearing, Quilario dismissed the allegations as “false and malicious,” sometimes pointing a finger at the former members present, their faces covered for their security.
“The truth is, I did not choose to be the leader of this group as I was only thrust into [this position] after being handpicked by our former president, Rosalina Taruc. I would have wanted to get an education as I have only finished second year in high school.”
Peeved by Quilario and the other officers’ denials, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa warned them: “Please don’t make a mockery of this hearing by not telling the truth. If you will keep on lying before this committee I will jail all of you.”
The group, called a “cult” by Hontiveros in a privilege speech delivered on Sept. 18, is accused of maintaining a private army, forcing marriages that condoned the rape of women, and taking the government cash aid meant for its impoverished members.
“The cult is the vehicle they use to perpetrate the multiple abuses on the children of SBSI. The cult is the cover to avoid scrutiny, the cult is what they use to provide impunity to its leaders,” Hontiveros, chair of the Senate committee on women, reiterated at Thursday’s hearing.
Testifying against the SBSI leaders were three teenagers who were allegedly forced into marriage or subjected to forced labor and had suffered “inhumane” punishments. They were described as among the estimated 300 youths in Socorro who have dropped out of school after settling at Kapihan to join SBSI.
Fifteen year-old “Jane” (not her real name) was among the youths—mainly girls age 12 years and older, and males who were at least 18 years old—who were summoned to the village last year by Quilario.
Speaking in a Visayan dialect with her lawyer serving as interpreter, Jane said that at age 14 she was forced to “marry” an 18-year-old man whom she met only for the first time.
Their “pairing” was upon the recommendation of Quilario, whom members revered for supposedly being the reincarnation of the Sto. Niño, or the Child Jesus.
At another public ceremony, Jane said, Quilario told the men that they had “all the rights to have sex” with their paired mates “because we are married couples already.”
Jane said they had been conditioned to believe that following the group’s rules would earn them a place in heaven since they were fulfilling the will of “God.”
“We were told not to disobey (Quilario) for he is ‘God’ himself,” Jane said.
Quilario, Jane said, presented himself to the recruits as a “savior.” Those who disobeyed faced a range of punishments which she described as “paddle, roulette or restricted to the foxhole.”
Paddle means the erring members “are hit with the butt of a wooden rifle.”
“With roulette, a member spins [a disc] indicating various forms of punishment,” she said.
Jane said her mother was also forced to marry another man on Quilario’s orders, supposedly because members without partners within the group “cannot enter Noah’s ark.”
Witnesses also confirmed reports that SBSI had been maintaining a private army, with a group of 13 dismissed and resigned police officers forming its core.
In another testimony, 12-year-old “Renz” said he was forced to do hard work in the Kapihan “barracks” at the private army’s training site.
He recalled seeing armed men get into formation as early as 2 a.m. In the last election season, he said, he saw a truckload of firearms driving past their quarters.
“We were made to put up sandbags for our barracks and forced to do masi-masi,” Renz said, using a local slang which he said meant “punishment en masse.”
He began sobbing when asked why he decided to escape from the group.
“I wanted so bad to go to school; I am already 12 and I still do not know how to write,” he said.
Another male escapee,“Koko” also broke down as he recalled being forced to undergo military-like training to become one of SBSI’s “Soldiers of God.” Failure to obey commands meant severe punishment, he added.
On their knees
Another female witness recounted how her younger sister, then age 12, was forced to marry an SBSI member. When the young girl refused to have sex with the man, she was punished by Quilario himself, the witness told the senators.
“Senior Aguila ordered all married teenagers to step out of the gate of our house, and those who were reported to have refused to have sex with their husbands were ordered to walk on their knees along the dirt road leading to their leader’s house,” she said in Filipino.
“My sister was wailing in pain because the road was rocky, so she told Senior Aguila that ‘we will do whatever you want,’” she said.
Against her will, the young girl got pregnant twice, with the second pregnancy ending in a miscarriage that almost killed her, the witness added.
According to Police Col. Laudemer Laude, Surigao del Norte police director, Quilario and 12 other SBSI officers and members have been charged with qualified human trafficking, kidnapping, serious illegal detention, adultery, violence against women and their children, and child labor.
Registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 1980, SBSI had operated as a self-help organization prior to becoming a cult around 2017, said Edelito Sangco, spokesperson for the Socorro Task Force Kapihan which was organized by the local government to handle the cases.
Jeng Plaza, another witness, said Taruc, the former SBSI president, was still formally in charge but that some of the senior leaders formed a faction under Quilario in 2018.
The new group called themselves “Soldiers of God” and is composed of seven clusters, with the highest level called the Aguila Squad for being directly under Quilario’s command.
Richard Dano, a legal consultant for the task force, noted that the “pattern of exploitation of the children” worsened after Typhoon “Odette” struck the province in December 2021.
Agreement with DENR
Citing accounts gathered from the escapees, Dano said children were made to perform “rituals’’ and exercises as early as 2 a.m. and later sent to do farm labor or stand guard around the 353-hectare area under SBSI’s control.
The land is covered by a resource management agreement, which governs protected areas, between SBSI and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
SBSI’s 25-year tenure over the area expires in 2029, according to DENR Regional Director Nonito Tamayo.
But even though DENR personnel are authorized to check on the area, Tamayo said, they have difficulty entering Kapihan village itself due to the restrictions imposed by SBSI.