That’s the opening line of a memoir I published in 2015. The island in question was Bucas Grande, off the Northern Mindanao coast. Eventually, a sympathetic octopus fisherman, noting our panicked bailing, gave us a tow. And that was the first time I ever set foot in Socorro; a charming coastal town that has recently achieved infamy for reasons you probably know.
Back then, the town’s most notable feature was a luscious fountain I later learned had ostensibly sparked the famous “Colorum” uprising of 1924. Billed in America as a bloody rebellion by religious fanatics, it resulted in hundreds of deaths and the ruthless torching of the town. By the time I visited the dissidents’ hilltop compound a century later, however, the violence had simmered down.
You can imagine my excitement, therefore, upon hearing that yet another strange and ominous “doomsday cult” had sprung up in Socorro. This one, known officially as Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc., comprises about 3,500 members inhabiting a 355-hectare mountain enclave called Kapihan. And just last month, several of its members—including leader Jey Rence Quilario, a.k.a. Senor Aguila—got arrested for serious crimes.
“This is a harrowing story of rape, sexual violence, child abuse, [and] forced marriage perpetrated on minors by a cult,” Senator Risa Hontiveros told the Senate in September. “This cult is armed and dangerous.”
So, naturally, I had to go say hello.
The trip from Surigao City is not arduous. It begins with a roughly two-hour drive down the coast to Hayanggabon Port in Claver, followed by an hour-long boat ride to Socorro. Our first stop was City Hall, where I met Edelito Sangco, municipal agriculturist and chairman of the Socorro Task Force Kapihan.
“I’m their public enemy number one,” he declared, adding that tourism in Socorro has dropped 62% due to fear induced by the widespread media coverage.
In Sangco’s telling, the problem began with drugs. Eventually, he said, it evolved into the believers’ view of Aguila as the reincarnated Child Jesus who would protect them from all harm. To avail themselves of that protection, some members allegedly sold their homes, quit their jobs, left their spouses, and forced their children into unwanted illegal marriages. At its height, Sangco said, the encampment was heavily guarded by armed members especially trained for the task.
“It’s dangerous for us to go there,” Sangco concluded, referring to himself and other accusers.
And so the city provided a police escort for me, my wife, and a friend. Riding in the back of an emergency vehicle driven by a uniformed officer, we scooted for about 25 minutes along winding mountain roads traversing beautiful lakes and streams.
These days the compound is guarded, not by residents, but by a squad of uniformed police. One of them, shouldering an M16 rifle, accompanied us on foot along a series of muddy paths connecting shabby tin roofs.
“The charges are fabricated,” insisted Roharosenyll Dotillos, 54, a former teacher in Socorro who now helps manage Kapihan. “Here we live by the Bible as one family. The love, unity, and cooperation is real.”
Gilbert G. Dizon, a 39-year-old skilled laborer, said residing in Kapihan makes him feel safe.
And Patchulo Curambao, 40, said he came for the simple life. “The allegations,” he said, “are all lies.”
Yet former members in town allegedly swear they are true. So who to believe? I can honestly say I sensed no hostility or disingenuousness at Kapihan. At one point, a large group of smiling children spontaneously welcomed us with shouts and waves. And in a nearby gymnasium, a young drum-and-bugle core practiced before an adoring crowd.
Still, one can’t dismiss the tears of those who claim to have been woefully wronged. The only logical conclusion? Thank God I’m not the judge.
David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Essays on Becoming Filipino, is available on Amazon and Lazada. This column appears weekly in the Manila Times.