MANILA--Every night since July 20 this year, Fr. Robert Reyes lights candles after evening Mass in San Isidro Labrador Parish in Quezon City.
He began with 7 candles representing residents slain in vigilante-style murders, which have gripped the slums in Barangay Pinyahan since January, with the killings becoming more frequent and brazen during the pandemic. The number has since increased to 10 with half of the murders taking place during a 4-week stretch.
"Ngayon, mas kinakatakutan nila kaysa sa pandemic itong mga naka-motorsiklo," Reyes told ABS-CBN News.
(They're more worried now with killers on motorcycles than the pandemic.)
What worries the priest, known for his relentless activism over the years, is the possibility that people might get used to these extrajudicial killings, especially as communities grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 5,500 people have been killed in anti-drug operations by law enforcers under President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war as of end of 2019. Based on reports monitored by the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group, there have been nearly 2,000 drug-related fatalities by unidentified assailants as of February 2020. Barangay Pinyahan, home to a large slum area near the headquarters of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, has seen some of these killings, said Reyes.
Reyes acknowledged that some of the victims might have been linked to illegal drugs in the past. But they should have been accorded due process just the same, instead of a brutal "sentencing" from masked killers attacking with impunity, he said.
In a span of 2 weeks in July, he presided over funeral Masses for Jeselyn Ordono, 39, Gilbert Paala, 46, and Jonathan Burce, 42, a former village councilman.
Before the final blessing, he told parishioners to offer prayers as well for victims of extrajudicial killings, warning of the "virus of the war on drugs."
"This virus has entered the minds, hearts and souls of many police officers, police assets, and men whose identity is concealed by hoods and helmets," he said in a letter sent to ABS-CBN News.
Most of the victims in the government's anti-narcotics campaign have been reduced to statistics, much like the daily tally of COVID-19 infections and deaths. But Reyes knew each of the victims in his parish.
Paala, who was killed while selling duck eggs on the evening of July 20, was known as a generous man who had spent the P8,000 pandemic assistance he got from the government buying groceries for his relatives, said the priest.
The victim had spent 10 years in prison but stuck to honest living afterward, Reyes said.
“Is this the kind of persons who are deemed unworthy of existence by these hooded, motorcycle-riding men? Who then is more useful to society?" he said.
Reyes has formed a group to provide support for relatives of the victims, an initiative patterned after the "Paghilom" or recovery program initiated by Fr. Flavie Villanueva.
Aside from whatever little cash assistance he could raise for the families, Reyes said the group offers "constant connection" so they would neither lose hope nor feel abandoned.
"This week, I don't want to light another candle," he said.