MANILA, Philippines – At age 13, Dieg Teopaco was steeped in crime – robbery, hold-up, snatching, even carnapping. He was a gang member, too, who had his share of rugby, marijuana, shabu, and valium.
By his own admission, it was a life gone wasted. Not surprising for a kid who felt he was worth nothing.
“Ano ‘yong buhay ko, talagang walang kuwenta dati. Kung makakasalubong mo ‘ko, makikita mo ‘ko sa kalsada, baka lumihis ka ng landas. Sobrang payat ko, sobrang humpak ng mukha ko talaga. Wala ‘kong ibang ginagawa kundi puro kasamaan lang talaga,” Teopaco, a native of Antipolo City, told Rappler in an interview.
(My life before was worthless. If our paths had crossed or if you had seen me too, maybe you’d try to avoid me. I was too thin, my face was sunken. I did nothing but evil things.)
Because of his early life choices, Dieg was unable to finish high school. The bad influence of his friends and conflict with his parents pushed him to the dark side, from where it became increasingly difficult to extricate himself. He dealt drugs, used them, and worked with dealers and users like him, many of whom died under Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal campaign against drugs.
It became a matter of time before the law caught up with Dieg. He was jailed once for attempted homicide, and another time for illegal possession of marijuana in Pampanga. At the height of Duterte’s drug war, the name Dieg Teopaco landed on his barangay’s drug list.
He had lost many of his companions – including the leader of one of his groups – under this relentless drug war. Dieg said he, too, would have lost his life had he not chosen a different path.
Not an easy journey
In 2017, Dieg was among the first batch of drug surrenderees in his barangay. Every Sunday, for 12 weeks, he attended the rehabilitation and counseling sessions organized by the local government in Antipolo. He felt different, like something had touched his soul.
After graduation from the rehabilitation program, he thought his new life would start there. He was mistaken.
He was fortunate to have been sponsored and supported by siblings working in Japan. He got the opportunity to work there as a cook for nine months after his rehabilitation program. But while overseas, he wasted his chances and became more addicted to illegal drugs.
He decided to return home, and for a living, drove a jeepney that plied the Antipolo-Cubao route. But he succumbed to temptation again and started using shabu and marijuana. He said he was reckless and would drive while high on drugs, even with his eyes closed. Dieg’s family suggested it was better to just sell the jeep instead, and with no hesitation, he agreed.
Not long after, he saw his savings getting depleted. Dieg said it came to a point where he could not even provide his children with milk and pay their bills.
“Kasi ‘yong anak ko, kalabit nang kalabit sa akin. ‘Daddy, dedede na ‘ko.’ Wala ‘kong maibigay. Bilang ama, iyon ‘yong pinakamasakit na nangyari sa buhay ko. ‘Yong anak ko gutom,” Dieg said. (My son would keep on nudging me and say, “Daddy, I want milk,” but I couldn’t give it. As a father, that was the most painful thing to happen to me.)
Out of desperation, in August 2019, he considered reverting to his old ways – but that time, it was not to satisfy his own personal needs, but to provide for his family. He said “easy money” was the only way out that he knew as he didn’t know how to do manual labor.
Dieg said he reached out to his friend and asked if he could be a consignee of two bags of shabu that he could sell. His friend agreed and told him he could pick up the “package” at around 7 pm. Another friend also agreed to lend him money to push marijuana.
He told his wife he would “fly” (lilipad) that night. She cried because she understood what it meant and knew her husband would commit crimes again and risk being killed, given the prevailing political climate at the time.
“Ayokong gawin, pero ayoko rin makitang umiiyak ‘yong mga anak ko. Kasi sinubukan kong mag-apply ng mga trabaho, walang tumatanggap sa akin. Kilala nila akong magnanakaw, addict.” (I didn’t want to do it, but I also didn’t want to see my children crying. Because when I tried applying for jobs, no one would accept me. They knew me as a thief, as a drug addict.)
That night, however, the universe had different plans for Dieg. One notification on his cellphone radically changed his life.
He got a text message from one of the pastors he grew up with – Pastor Marlon Dayag, who was also a former thief. Dieg said he and Marlon were together during his last operation before he surrendered, but Marlon was arrested at that time, while he was able to hide.
Marlon asked him if he could come visit and he readily agreed because he intended to ask for P100 to buy food for his family that night.
Dieg met with Marlon and another pastor. Together they prayed in his house and Dieg recalled having felt a different sense of calm and joy in his heart. Instead of returning to the illegal drug trade that night, Dieg said he was reintroduced to God.
He started reading the bible and the first verse that appeared to him was John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
After that meeting with Marlon and another pastor, Dieg started going to their local Antipolo Hills Bless Church. Not long after, one of the pastors offered to look for a sponsor for his wedding. He was ready to settle down after having had two live-in partners before his current one.
The pastors found sponsors who paid for the food, reception, and even for the rings. The barangay chair agreed to become his ninong (principal sponsor).
While he was looking for a job, another pastor helped him by asking him to cook for their church’s feeding program. He would receive P200 as compensation and would also get food and rice in exchange.
Negative turning positive
After a month, Dieg tried looking for jobs. He tried to undergo drug testing but the doctors initially told him that he would likely yield a positive result because it had only been less than a month since he stopped using illegal drugs. Fortunately, his test result turned out to be negative.
“‘Yung resulta na ‘yon, iyon ‘yong magpapatunay sa lipunan na nagbabagong-buhay ako,” Dieg said. (That result, it was proof to society that I was changing for the better.)
Both ecstatic and proud, Dieg took a photo of the test result and posted it on his Facebook account. His cousin saw it and shortly after, he received a lot of notifications on his phone – his siblings unblocked him on Facebook. His older sister even called and asked if he wanted livelihood, but Dieg told her all he wanted was their acceptance.
Dieg applied as a driver of a tricycle owned by police personnel from the Manila Police District living in their area. After he showed his drug test, he was hired immediately.
The next months saw him consistently attending their church, preparing him to eventually become a pastor himself in 2020. From drug surrenderee in 2017, he had reason to be proud three years later. Dieg now provides spiritual guidance to drug surrenderees in their barangay, on top of being a life coach of the Philippine National Police Antipolo’s squad 12.
To provide for his family, he continues to cook leche flan, kakanin (rice cakes), and other Filipino delicacies, and sells them in their neighborhood.
“Kung kasama ‘nyo po sa bahay [ay] kagaya ko, hindi po sagot ‘yong kamuhian ‘nyo siya. Ang sagot po diyan ay pagmamahal, mahalin ‘nyo po ‘yung kamag-anak ‘nyo o ‘yung kagaya ko na nalulong sa droga o naging masamang tao,” Dieg said.
(If you have a family member like me, hating them is not the answer. Love is the answer, love your relatives or people like me who became addicted to illegal drugs or became a bad person.) – Rappler.com