While running for office last year, Philippines president Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr. promised to seek a new path to curb illegal drugs: Catch the “big fish” and rehabilitate drug users.

“Let’s educate the younger ones,” Marcos said in a Taglish interview. “And those who are already involved [or already addicted], we should treat them. … We’re trying to formulate … the best way for the rehabilitation.”

It’s a starkly different approach from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who outraged Filipinos and the international community with his brutal war on drugs, giving police blanket authority to kill anyone found using or dealing drugs.

During Duterte’s six-year presidential term, government data reported around 6,000 drug-related killings. Human rights groups, however, peg the number much higher, estimating that up to 30,000 people were killed.

“I will never, never apologize for the deaths,” Duterte said in January 2022. “Kill me, jail me, I will never apologize.”

Since taking office, Marcos has established more than 100 community-based drug rehab centers that provide drug users with temporary shelter and reintegrate them into society. Today there are nearly 500 of these centers, called Balay Silangan Reformation Centers, in the Philippines.

However, during the first year of Marcos’s presidency, the number of drug-related killings actually increased from the last year of Duterte’s term, according to a recent report by the Dahas Project at the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center. They counted 342 killings from Marcos’s inauguration in July 2022 until June 2023, 40 more than the previous year. Of that number, state agents killed a total of 146 people.

The study’s researcher Joel Ariate Jr. told Rappler that while Marcos touts a different approach, the policy hasn’t changed because the officials who implemented Duterte’s war on drugs are still in power.

“No one is being held accountable for those killed before,” Ariate told Rappler. “There’s no sense of justice, no sense of punishment. What will stop those who killed and who continue to kill?”

As the government attempts different approaches to tackle the Philippines’ drug problems, Christians engaged in drug prevention and rehabilitation ministries continue their work quietly and faithfully. While government policies may impact who shows up at their doors, through it all, they continue to see God rescuing men and women from their addictions.

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Two ways to wage a war on drugs

The Philippines has long faced a drug abuse problem as its geographic location allows international drug syndicates to use it as a major market and transit hub for illegal drug trade in Southeast Asia. Approximately 1.67 million Filipinos used drugs in 2019, according to the government’s drug bureau.

Citizens fed up with corruption and crime elected hard-liner Duterte in 2016. A former mayor of Davao City, Duterte ruled the city for more than 22 years with an iron fist. “If elected president, give me about three to six months, I will get rid of corruption, drugs, and criminality,” Duterte declared during his presidential campaign.

Duterte granted police immunity in the drug war, which in some cases led corrupt police officers to kill people with no connection to drugs. For instance, a 2017 police raid operation in Caloocan City left 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos dead. On him were two small sachets of shabu (slang for methamphetamine) and a .45-caliber gun.

The policemen claimed that he was a suspected drug runner who resisted arrest and shot at them, forcing them to fire back. But witnesses and CCTV footage revealed the young man begged for his life. Gunpowder tests confirmed Delos Santos’s innocence, while reporters found the drugs and gun had been planted on him.

Delos Santos’ death caused an uproar. Authorities tried the three policemen involved in the killing and found them guilty of murder.

An investigation by the International Criminal Court found that only 507 of the 42,286 anti-illegal drug operations conducted in the first year and a half of Duterte’s rule were based on an arrest warrant.

Marcos has worked to differentiate his approach from that of his predecessor. “The campaign against illegal drugs continues—but it has taken on a new face,” Marcos said in his second State of the Nation Address in July. “It is now geared towards community-based treatment, rehabilitation, education, and reintegration to curb drug dependence among our affected citizenry.”

Mainstay Christian drug ministries have witnessed the repercussions of the whiplash in government policy. Since Marcos came into power, “illegal drugs have again proliferated, [even] in our maximum prisons, with inmates as packers,” said Ariston Lee, executive director of Philippine Teen Challenge, a Christian drug addiction treatment center that has operated in the country for 35 years. (Packers refers to dealers who repack drugs into smaller bags for sale.)

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Ginno Amodia, director of House of Hope (HOH) on Cebu Island, said that fewer residents now come to the Christian rehab—and that’s not necessarily because there are fewer drug users. Rather, “fly-by-night drug rehabilitation centers sprouted” during Duterte’s presidency as some people saw the strict drug laws as a business opportunity.

“Every barangay [neighborhood] would have an outpatient program,” Amodia said. “A person with a drug dependence problem only needs to visit the barangay once a week and go through a two-hour Narcotics Anonymous session. They aren’t required by the government to go to a full rehab center like ours anymore.”

As a result of this and factors like the pandemic, today House of Hope has 10 residents, down from the usual 20 to 30 residents. House of Hope does not receive government funding, rather sponsors—including churches, companies, and individuals—financially help drug addicts who can’t pay the center’s monthly fee.

Showing the gospel to at-risk youth

Christian groups are also working to prevent young people from getting into drugs in the first place. Abegail Mesa-Raymundo, founder of Rescue Kabataan (which means Rescue Youth), runs an eight-month mental health program at partner schools. This school year, Rescue Kabataan is helping students in General Santos City in Mindanao and Taytay, Rizal, in Luzon.

Volunteers from local churches regularly visit the schools to create a safe space to help high school students deal with issues such as drugs, sexual abuse, pornography, suicide, relationship issues, and teen pregnancy. Rescue Kabataan has held the program at 31 schools in 16 cities and municipalities.

“God can use Rescue Kabataan to show his love,” she said. “We do not share the gospel but we show the gospel.”

Each program starts with Mesa-Raymundo telling her story. In her teens, the pastor’s daughter started to smoke, drink, engage in promiscuous activities, and use drugs after her father died. Initially she sniffed “rugby” (a type of glue), then moved on to ecstasy and other party drugs. At 19, she was gang-raped. In her early 20s, she engaged in prostitution.

Mesa-Raymundo then lost her job as a teacher after having inappropriate relationships with her students. Burdened by all she had been through, she tried to commit suicide three times. But it wasn’t until she overdosed at age 23 in 2011 that she begged God for another chance.

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With the help of a group of Christians, she was able to not only stop using drugs but find spiritual and emotional rehabilitation. During a two-week prayer and fasting retreat, God gave her a vision for helping other troubled young people. It was at that moment that Rescue Kabataan was born.

In 2015 Mesa-Raymundo told her story to a crowd of 700 students at a school for the first time, encouraging the students to also bare their hearts. This was followed by many more invitations to speak at other schools and the creation of the holistic mental health program.

Rescue Kabataan’s volunteers range from young professionals to full-time moms, businessmen to retirees. They serve as accountability partners for the students, sharing God’s love with them.

One success story involves a ninth-grade student who started to use drugs at age seven, due to the influence of his drug-addicted parents. “I am ready to be rescued,” he told a Rescue Kabataan volunteer. The group then referred him to the social welfare department, where a social worker helped him recover from his addiction as he continued attending Rescue Kabataan sessions. His grades, his outlook, and his life drastically improved.

Seeing gospel changes at House of Hope

Over in Cebu, Amodia is busy with the daily rhythms of House of Hope. Founded by a Singaporean ex-addict in 1997, the center has been completely run by Filipinos since 2007. Amodia noted the importance of the four components of their one-year, live-in program: spiritual therapy, work therapy, physical therapy, and social therapy.

Every day at House of Hope starts and ends with the Word of God. Residents participate in morning quiet time, daily Bible study, and evening quiet time. Residents are assigned to different duties such as gardening, preparing food, and filling five-gallon water bottles for delivery using their water purification system.

Every afternoon, they spend time playing sports, while on Sundays, residents go to their assigned churches. Doing so helps them meet friends outside of the House of Hope community, Amodia said. After the residents graduate from the program, they continue attending the churches.

All of the staff at House of Hope are ex-drug addicts themselves. Amodia entered the program in 2001 as a 24-year-old on his last hope. Two months prior, he had finished a government-sponsored rehab program that pushed its residents to perform military-style exercises. Yet once he left, he went back to his old ways.

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“My family gave up on me,” he recalled. Upon the recommendation of another former drug addict, he applied for residency at House of Hope. There, Amodia came to know Jesus, who he said delivered him from the demons of addiction. After completing the program, he joined the staff.

Amodia sees Jesus doing what government policies can’t: “The gospel really changes people.”