Socorro group operating on government-owned land under lease – Surigao del Norte gov

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 27) — The controversial group in Socorro, Surigao del Norte is nestling on 353 hectares of land owned by the government, the provincial governor said Wednesday.

However, authorities would need a search warrant before entering the enclosed and heavily guarded area as the group, Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), has jurisdiction over it under a Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA) for agricultural farming set to expire in 2029.

“This is a government property which is being leased for 25 years,” Surigao Del Norte Governor Lyndon Barbers told CNN Philippines’ Politics As Usual. “The provincial inter-agency task force is trying to gather information in coordination with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”

Barbers explained that the task force is probing possible violations of guidelines in acquiring the PACBRMA lease with DENR -- especially since the agreement is for agricultural farming -- in order to cut the lease short and bring back the authority to the government.

“If there are really violations, we could ask the DENR to cancel the lease agreement even before the agreed 2029,” he explained.

There are around 4,000 members of the SBSI residing in the mountains of Sitio Kapihan.

The Senate is set to hold a hearing on Sept. 28 to look into claims that the SBSI is operating a drug laboratory and the reported presence of armed men believed to be former police officers.

Barbers said the Philippine National Police, along with its drug agency, is currently conducting an investigation into this claim, as he highlighted the challenges of doing so without getting to the area.

“I would say it would take some time because for us to really go inside the property, whether it is a government property, it is being leased by an organization," he said. "We would need a search warrant."

“Getting a search warrant would be difficult on the part of the PNP and PDEA because you have to identify the specific area to search, and the problem with 353 hectares, medyo mahirap halughugin (it’s difficult to search),” the governor added.

Aside from operating an alleged drug laboratory, the SBSI is also being accused of conducting “cult activities,” which involved rape, sexual violence, child abuse, and forced marriage among at least 1,000 children,

The governor said he ordered the creation of a task force in May following reports of child labor and early marriages by a former provincial employee, whose husband is a member of the SBSI.

“She was barred from entering the property and the only reason that she wanted to go back was to get her husband," Barbers disclosed.

"But she was informed that her husband was married to another woman na," he added. "That was the start."

Minor and adult members of the alleged cult were supposedly made to perform acts of forced labor under pain of physical punishment, and were also forced to surrender 40-60% of their social welfare benefits to a certain Jey Rence Quilario, who has styled himself as a “Messiah” with an alias “Senior Aguila.”