Manila, Philippines — The municipal government of Socorro will need additional assistance from the national government and even international organizations to help “reintegrate” around 3,000 locals who joined the Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. in Surigao del Norte, a government task force said.
After selling their houses upon joining the alleged “cult” in 2019, at least 1,000 families still reside in Sitio Kapihan and have no properties to their name, Edelito Sangco of Task Force Kapihan said during an interview with Radyo 630
Task Force Kapihan is a group created by Socorro Mayor Riza Rafonselle Timcang to investigate the SBSI’s alleged illegal activities.
Sangco said that “admittedly,” the municipal government of Socorro does not have enough funds to help all 1,000 families, who “lost everything” when they joined the religious group in 2019.
“But since this is a man-made calamity, a humanitarian crisis, the LGU has no choice but to take on this responsibility,” Sangco said.
In 2019, a "mass exodus" of public school teachers and government employees occurred in Socorro after SBSI's self-styled messianic leader Jey Rence Hilario allegedly used an earthquake event to instill fear that it was the end of the world.
Two DepEd officials confirmed to Philstar.com that part of the mass of families who went up to Sitio Kapihan are some 800 children who were barred from going to school from 2019 to mid-2023.
DepEd Siargao Division Superintendent Karen Galanida told Philstar.com that there is one barangay in Socorro that locals call “ghost town” after all its former residents sold all their furniture and vacated their houses.
SBSI, which Sen. Risa Hontiveros said had all the trappings of a religious cult, has since “allowed” the children to attend school this year after its leaders were slapped with criminal charges related to violations of the anti-child marriage law, illegal detention and kidnapping.
Sangco said that the LGU will set up a temporary evacuation center and distribute food packs from the Department of Social Welfare and Development to the returning Socorro residents, similar to those used by typhoon victims.
“This is what we see as something we can do in the meantime to accommodate them just in case the suspension of their tenurial instrument is really enforced,” he added.
The task force representative also stressed that the presence of SBSI leaders in the town has posed a significant threat to the lives and security of Socorro locals.
Sangco said that SBSI has been committing a “wanton extraction of resources” by chopping trees and damaging water pipes in the Mahambong watershed, an important source of water in Socorro town "adjacent" to the SBSI headquarters.
“SBSI members have been blocking the entry of Socorro water district officials, saying outright that the land does not belong to them but to their god, which is (Hilario),” he said.
“Our town is also threatened because their water source is there with them. So it's better that they are resettled for good. They don't respect the government because their orientation is that they have their own government there,” Sangco added.
Hontiveros first detailed the alleged criminal activities of the group during a privilege speech in September, saying that its leaders have been coercing children to be sexually exploited and to marry adults.
A seven-hour Senate hearing attended by Hilario, members of the task force and at least four first-hand witnesses surfaced allegations of forced child marriages within the group under the threat of “going to hell.”
Sen. Bato Dela Rosa, who led the Senate probe with Hontiveros, has floated a proposal to hold the next Senate hearing inside Sitio Kapihan itself to cut down on expenses.
Hontiveros said in a DZBB interview on Sunday that the live-streamed Senate hearing in Socorro has encouraged more victims to consider testifying against SBSI.
Hilario and three other SBSI members are currently detained at the Senate after Hontiveros and Dela Rosa cited them in contempt for denying that they coerced children to marry and have sexual activities with adults as part of their group’s rules.