Nov 4, 2023

Inside Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc, the alleged doomsday cult under investigation in the Philippines


South East Asia correspondent Lauren Day

November 4, 2023

When Jey Rence Quilario was just 17 years old, he managed to convince the members of his small Filipino village that he was their only saviour. 

In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 2019, villagers say the charismatic young man warned survivors that a wave of aftershocks and tsunamis would send them all to hell — unless they followed him to paradise.

Dozens followed Quilario, also known as Senior Agila, into the mountains to start a new life, with many selling their homes in Sitio Kapihan.

Those who did so were allegedly encouraged to give 40 per cent of their salaries, government benefits, and profits from property sales directly to the newly established Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc (SBSI).

For years, little was known about the secretive mountain community.

But this year a number of members, including children, managed to escape and began to share harrowing stories of life inside the elusive cult-like group.

"They have child marriages, they have forced labour for the children and for the adults, and they are training children to be warriors, to be soldiers of God," Fionah Bojos, an attorney from Cebu for Human Rights who met with survivors, told the ABC.

The man they thought was the reincarnation of Jesus had promised them heaven but delivered hell.

Now, Senior Agila and 12 of his loyal followers are facing charges of human trafficking, kidnapping and illegal detention. 

And there are fears their "soldiers of God" could be about to retaliate.

Child survivors share allegations of rape, forced labour

The details of what happened inside SBSI first began to emerge in September, when testimonies from villagers gathered by human rights lawyers made their way to the Philippine Senate.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, head of the Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs, used parliamentary privilege to reveal the allegations in late September and call for a congressional inquiry.

The inquiry brought together survivors and leaders of Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc, including Quilario.

Some of the most harrowing evidence came from child survivors like "Jane", who wore a hoodie, dark glasses and a mask to hide her identity as she sat just metres from her alleged abuser.

She told the hearing that at just 14, she was forced to marry an 18-year-old man and told she must have sex with him, and that if she refused, he had permission to rape her.

She said other girls had been forced to marry at just 12 years old and were forced to have sex with Quilario as well as their "husbands".

Two 12-year-old boys, given the aliases Renz and Coco, testified that they were subjected to hard labour and military training by Quilario's private army.

The minors were excused from the proceedings after they broke down while giving evidence.

"All the children when they testified cried recalling all their experiences. It was really traumatic, terrible for them and I'm so sad and so concerned there are still so many in the cult in Sitio Kapihan and still experiencing this," Ms Bojos told the ABC.

During the inquiry, Quilario denied allegations he has a private army or that he raped minors. And he has filed a counter-affadavit against the Department of Justice investigating him.

"It pains me that I am being judged here. I am still young. I did not finish my education. I can never do those things," Quilario told the Senate inquiry earlier this month.

"We allow children to go out of our premises. We are not detaining them. They are allowed to go to school. No-one is prohibiting them."

Attorney Richard Dano outlined the daily routines for the 3,560 members of the religious organisation in Sitio Kapihan.

According to his evidence, the days begin around 2:30am with prayers and then military exercises — including jogging with backpacks full of rocks.

Members then take part in firearm assembling and disassembling before starting work.

If they were late to any of these events, they'd be beaten, the inquiry heard — just one of the ways the group was alleged to have been able to commit their crimes.

"[There was a culture of] excessive control through rigid rules and severe punishments and the suppression of independent thought … and a charismatic leader who encourages blind fanaticism," Senator Hontiveros said. 

The Senate is also investigating allegations that the group is running an underground shabu — or methamphetamine — laboratory in a bunker near where Quilario and his fellow leaders live. Quilario has also denied these claims.

Four of the group's leaders, including Quilario, were cited in contempt for allegedly lying during the hearing. They are still under Senate custody while the Department of Justice continues investigations.

Philippine government urged to act for children of Socorro community

The Senate concluded its inquiry in late October, after conducting a hearing in the community to consult more closely with villagers still living there.

Senator Hontiveros said what the committee witnessed there was "worse than we expected", noting at least 22 child marriages had been formally recorded by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, including some that had borne children.

"There should be a full investigation on the whereabouts and what is the condition of the children born in child marriages," she wrote on Facebook.

Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa reported the discovery of a "mass grave" where he said two children and one infant had been found.

The matter is now with the Department of Justice, which has assigned a group of prosecutors to investigate the case.

Save the Children believes there are at least 1,500 minors among the 3,500 members of the Socorro community, and has urged the government of the Philippines to act.

"The Philippine government should move quick in terms of further investigation and securing the safety of the children who are left there," child protection advisor Wilma Banaga told the ABC.

"I know that the children would probably have either parents or both parents with them in the community and this can be a challenge, but I still believe that children's rights should have priority over the religious beliefs of parents.

"The longer they stay there, the higher the risks for further abuse. 

"So moving quickly and making sure that these leaders are being brought to justice for the things that they've done [is important]."

Ms Bojos said Cebu for Human Rights would also push the government to take action more generally, requesting a specific law to ban cults.

Senator Dela Rosa said he knew the inquiry would be met with claims about religious discrimination, but defended the need for the investigation.

"Our concern here is that under the guise of beliefs and region, peace and order in society, the safety and welfare of our people are now allegedly threatened," he said.

"Every person has the right to practise his or her beliefs and religion … but this right does not entitle one to inflict harm over another, this right does not entitle one to violate any law of the republic."

Ms Banaga praised the courage of the children who managed to escape and come forward.

"They're very brave to be to do this. Because when you're young you're expected to obey your parents, and in this group, they're expected to blindly obey the leaders," she said.

"I can really sense that the children are really fearful, they may be fearing for their lives, because we don't know what kind of threats they could have received from these people for doing what they did, for escaping and testifying against them.

"So it will take a lot for children to be able to really recover from this kind of experience."

Fears of violence and threats against those still living among 'soldiers of God'

There are reports tensions on the island are escalating and there are fears the senior leaders of the group, known as the Agilas, or soldiers of God, may pose a threat.

When police investigations began in September, videos circulated on social media showing hundreds of SBSI members shouting for justice.

In one, Quilario was seen crying while supporters angrily complained about the alleged harsh treatment against him.

In response to those scenes, Socorro's mayor, Riza Rafonselle Timcang, brought in armed forces and Philippine national police to secure the town and set up a local task force to monitor the violence.

One of the local task force members, Edelito Sangco, said the extra checkpoints and the presence of both police and armed forces has helped, but there remain concerns for members of the community.

"Had it not been for these forces, there was really a threat and an imminent danger for violence escalation," he said.

Mr Sangco said some members of SBSI had taken the charges against Quilario as vindication of their belief in him as the second coming of Jesus.

"According to them, there is a biblical saying that you should 'be happy if you will be persecuted, because the prophets who came before you were also persecuted,'" he told the ABC.

"According to them, what happened to Jey Rence Quilario is biblical. It was already stated in the Bible, that persecution will happen to Jesus."

Ms Bojos told the ABC she is still concerned that the Agilas, leaders of the SBSI community, could become violent towards those who are left behind.

"There are some people who have reached out to the Socorro municipal officers saying they want to leave the cult. But I am concerned the Agilas might stop them and become violent," she said.

"All the people there know some martial arts, they know how to use knives. And the Agilas  … they know how to use arms, they are fighters."

Mr Sangco said he was worried about two of his own sisters, who are members of SBSI. He added that they and other members would be welcome back into the community at any time.

"They are only victims of the sinister plot of those leaders. I miss them. So I would be very happy if they will return to the lowland," he said.

Mr Sangco called on the national and international community to help prevent an impending "humanitarian disaster" if and when people begin to leave the group en masse.

"They have already sold their houses, their properties, because Jey Rence Quilario told them to because it's the end of the world," he said.

"So we are appealing for support, to provide temporary shelter for these people. We're very much willing to welcome them in the community and for them to be to be reintegrated into the mainstream society."


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