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CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines — The Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated (SBSI), a group accused of child abuse, manipulation, and other excesses in Surigao del Norte, vehemently denied engaging in cult practices.
“We are a people’s organization with a noble purpose,” said Mamerto Galanida, SBSI’s vice president, during an interview with Surigao City-based broadcaster DXRS-Radio Mindanao Network on Wednesday, September 20.
Senator Risa Hontiveros leveled accusations of child abuse, exploitation, manipulation, and other excesses against the group in a privilege speech on Monday, September 18.
She alleged that the group has compelled its members to surrender more than half of their social welfare benefits and government aid to their leader, Jey Rence Quilario, also known as Señor Agila.
The senator also said the group was armed and dangerous, and there were allegations that it had links to the drug trade.
According to Hontiveros, Quilario is being revered by SBSI members as the new messiah or the Santo Niño (Child Jesus).
Galanida and Quilario are among the 13 respondents in a complaint filed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Socorro Mayor Riza Rafonselle Timcang, and the town’s social welfare and development officer, Chien Dizon.
The group was accused of violating the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, kidnapping and serious illegal detention, the prohibition on the practice of child marriage, child abuse, and exploitation since 2019.
The other respondents are as follows:
- Karren Sanico Jr.
- Janeth Ajoc
- Wenefredo Buntad
- Giovanni Lasala
- Ibrahim Adlao
- Jovelito Atchecoso
- Sergio Cubillan
- Daryl Buntad
- Jonry Elandag
- Yure Gary Portilio
- Florencio Quiban.
Prosecutors have yet to decide whether or not to indict the respondents as of this posting time.
Galanida, a former mayor of Socorro town and provincial board member, described the allegation that the group was involved in the drug trade as a “lie to the highest degree.”
He denied that SBSI has been transformed from a grassroots organization into a cult. However, he did not categorically deny that Quilario has claimed deity status or that SBSI members were convinced that their leader is the Santo Niño.
Galanida also strongly objected to labeling his group as a cult.
“I am a member of IFI (Iglesia Filipina Independiente). Señor Agila used to serve as a sacristan,” Galanida told DXRS.
He added, “We believe in one God. We wake up at 3 am daily to pray as part of our devotion to the Santo Niño. All we want is to lead simple and tranquil lives.”
Edelito Sangco, spokesman for Task Force Kapihan, told Rappler that thousands relocated to Sitio Kapihan, Barangay Sering in Socorro town following a powerful earthquake in 2019 to be with Quilario, under the threat of eternal damnation.
The alleged child abuse and exploitation started that year in Sitio Kapihan, according to Sangco.
Galanida, however, said no one was forced to do anything against their will.
He denied that children were being forced to have sex with Quilario or that the SBSI practiced child marriage.
“Let’s qualify this. No one is being forced. Parents would not allow their children to marry against their will,” said Galanida, pointing out that early marriages were taking place throughout the country.
Galanida also denied that the SBSI has subjected children to labor.
“Child labor? How? The children are being trained well [in various disciplines],” he said.
Galanida said one group of SBSI children, known as Omega de Salonera, even emerged as the top prize winner in various local and international dance competitions. “We train them every day,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, made it impossible for the children to go to school.
The nearest school is about four kilometers from the SBSI community in Sitio Kapihan.
Galanida said the SBSI has volunteer teachers who have made arrangements with the Department of Education (DepEd). The community, he said, has also resorted to the alternative learning system.
He also denied that the SBSI community was tightly guarded, saying they were open to visitors.
Galanida said they welcomed a Senate investigation into the SBSI’s activities and would face senators provided that the government would shoulder their expenses.
Meanwhile, Hontiveros said on Thursday, September 21, that she received two compelling testimonies from former SBSI members.
One was identified as Karl, a 28-year-old former member of the Agila Squad, alleged to be the armed wing of SBSI.
The Agila Squad is allegedly composed of more than 100 members, including minors as young as 12 years old and women.
Karl alleged that they underwent combat training, which included the use of firearms such as pistols, armalites, M4 rifles, and knives.
He claimed that they were indoctrinated with the belief that they were “soldiers of God,” tasked with a divine mission, and were ready to kill for their leader.
Another testimony came from a 13-year-old girl called Maymay, who managed to escape the group.
Maymay said the group prevented children like her from attending school while in Kapihan.
Hontiveros said these recent accounts only scratch the surface of the group’s alleged abusive and exploitative practices. – Rappler.com