By Alex Tizon
Knight International Journalism Fellow
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Posted By Davao Today
THE BODY count of the Maguindanao Massacre has gone up each of the past five days. The count is now at 57, with authorities continuing to sift through the blood-soaked dirt just outside the town of Shariff Aguak. Thirty of the victims were journalists and at least twenty-two were women. The women were raped and their genitals shot at close range.
Expect the numbers to change in the coming days. What will likely not change is the identity of the accused mastermind of the killings: a smug, round-faced blip of a man named Andal Ampatuan Jr., a local mayor and the son of a powerful political patriarch who is allied with no less than the president of the Philippines.
The suspect reportedly ordered the massacre to prevent a rival politician from challenging him in the upcoming gubernatorial election. According to at least twenty eyewitnesses who have testified to the Department of Justice, it was Ampatuan’s plan to ambush the caravan of six cars, kill all the occupants and then bury the victims and their vehicles in large pre-dug pits. Burying the victims, he thought, would erase the evidence.
Ampatuan actually believed he could get away with it. But the plan went awry when word spread that army soldiers were in the area and the attackers panicked, leaving a half-buried massacre scene. So frenzied were those last moments that even the operator of the government backhoe used to dig the pits was reportedly killed to minimize witnesses.
Word trickled out and by Tuesday the whole world knew about the Nov. 23 massacre. For the rest of the week officials have filled the airwaves and front pages with their horrified reactions but it doesn’t take a telepath to know that some of the “horror” was for the benefit of the international audience.
For those not familiar with contemporary life in the Philippines, it must be pointed out that political violence here is a norm, and that people like Andal Ampatuan Jr. are no aberration. There are many more like him scattered like vermin droppings throughout the country. The system creates Ampatuans.
The reason Monday’s incident became international news is because of the high number of victims killed all at once and because so many were journalists and women. Had the killings been spread out over weeks and months, very few outside of the province would have heard of it.
“The massacre in Maguindanao may stand out for a long time for its brazenness, but the forces that shaped it are by no means isolated or peculiar to Muslim Mindanao,” writes Randy David in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. David is a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines. “These forces lurk in many regions of our country….”
I’m in the Philippines to work on a poverty-related media project called Suriin Ang Kahirapan or Audit of Poverty. One of the aims is to create a network of citizen journalists in the country’s five poorest provinces. Maguindanao is one of the Suriin provinces.
In all five of the Suriin provinces, there is a dynastic political family like the Ampatuans and a hatchet man – or two or three – like Andal Ampatuan Jr. Until Monday, none have been foolhardy enough to slay all their enemies in one fell swoop. The usual modus operandi is to knock them off one at a time and as quietly as possible.
For instance, in the Suriin province of Masbate, an island north of Mindanao, there have reportedly been as many as 30 politically related murders over the past year, and many of the killings can be tied to one family that has been in power for years. All know the name but no one will say it out loud. Who would dare? Like in Maguindanao, most of the local police and military take their orders from the ruling family. Those who have dared cross family members end up shot on some lonely stretch of gravel, their corpses no more than road kill. Hardly anyone on the outside knows – or cares – about the killings in Masbate.
In Maguindanao, the Ampatuans have controlled local politics for most of the decade, and the current governor, Andal Ampatuan Sr., had been grooming his son to take over his post. The Ampatuans had grown accustomed to running unopposed in local elections, so terrified were potential opponents.
So when one rival announced he would oppose Ampatuan for the governorship, the clan was incensed. The heretic, a local vice mayor named Esmael Mangudadatu, sent his wife and two sisters – accompanied by a retinue of lawyers and journalists – to the county seat to file his certificate of candidacy, apparently believing that not even the Ampatuans would murder women in cold blood. It was this caravan that was intercepted and massacred. Some of the victims reportedly were forced to eat filing documents before they were shot.
Ampatuan family members “act like gods” in Maguindanao, Leila de Lima told the Armed Forces of the Philippines. De Lima, chairwoman of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, said there have been similar, but smaller-scale killings, linked to the Ampatuan family, but up until now witnesses have been afraid to come forward.
Today, Ampatuan sits in a Manila jail awaiting further proceedings. He was persuaded to turn himself in on Thursday by an emissary sent by President Gloria Arroyo herself. Many believe the administration was forced to act because of overwhelming international pressure. The emissary, special advisor Jesus Dureza, accompanied Ampatuan on government aircraft all the way to Manila where, upon parting, Dureza and Ampatuan shook hands and hugged.
Can you imagine the president of the United States sending an ambassador to negotiate with a man suspected of wiping out 64 people, and then having that ambassador accompany the suspect on private aircraft to the nation’s Capitol where they say good-bye with a hug? A hug!? Can you imagine President Clinton providing red-carpet treatment to Branch Davidian leader David Koresh or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh?
The Ampatuans have long been coddled by officials high in government. The Ampatuans were well-known allies of Arroyo, and have been photographed together with the president in various locations including Malacanang (the equivalent of the White House). The Ampatuans “delivered” Maguindanao province to Arroyo in the last election, and did so with frightening efficacy, signing up entire towns and villages – often with not a single dissenting vote.
The administration, in return, has taken a hands-off approach to Maguindanao. Provincial officials, for example, can choose their own police chiefs and officers, many of whom end up as bodyguards or hitmen. These officials also end up using taxpayer money, intended for anti-terrorist programs, to deputize and arm groups of mercenaries officially known as Civilian Volunteer Officers, or CVOs. The end result is that people like Ampatuan have created their own private armies and rule their territories like warlords.
It came as a surprise to no one that among those implicated in Monday’s massacre are all of Ampatuan’s CVOs, and nearly all of the highest ranking police and military officers in the province. Already their courtroom defenses have become apparent in the few interview snippets that have gone public: They were only following orders. Of course.
Ampatuan and his family hobnobbed with the president. His father was a three-term governor and his brother a governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, of which Maguindanao is a part; his relatives were mayors of half the towns; he was insulated and protected by local police, and he had his own mercenary army to do his bidding in a far-flung region populated by poor and illiterate farmers. Ampatuan believed he could get away with it because he’d been groomed all his life to think so.
There are many others like him in the country’s 83 provinces, rogues with government titles who believe they’ll never be caught. And most of them will be right.
Alex Tizon is working with the PCIJ on a crowd-sourcing project that will help media track government efforts to alleviate poverty in the country’s five poorest provinces, including Maguindanao. As national correspondent of The Los Angeles Times, he has reported on the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and as staff writer for The Seattle Times from 1986 to 2003, received the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism for a series on corruption in the federal Indian Housing Program.