‘The Ampatuans’ Private Army and its Coddled Police Were Waiting’

This is an excerpt from Peace Warriors: On the Trail with Filipino Soldiers, an exhaustive, sensitive look at everyday life inside the Philippines’ military camps, a portrait of soldiers and officers engaged in the country’s endless insurrections. Criselda Yabes, a longtime Asia Sentinel contributor and a prize-winning journalist, spent months in 2011 embedded with the troops. In her book, she delivered these thoughts on the Maguindanao Massacre shortly after she visited the site of the slaughter. Nine years later, justice – although not enough – has come to Maguindanao.

“I would like the killers to return to the scene of their crime so they can see what I see. If they had seen this they might have stopped the slaughter. They could have breathed in the air of the meadow, scanned the panorama of the earth, the rugged fields and thriving plantations, and watched the sparse growth of varied trees beyond, trees that want to live. There is a mosque in the distance. They could have seen that everything around them is too beautiful to be carrying out mankind's most evil chore. They could have given the massacre a second thought. They could have just stopped.

There were floral offerings to the victims, Malaysian mums that would take a while to wilt and dry. Others were scattered on the open pit. Fifty-seven innocent people died here, their bodies like livestock carcasses left to waste. When an Army major rushed to the scene in a ‘pursuit’ operation, he smelled it. The soldiers had come about two hours late for the rescue, fidgeting, uncertain, waiting for orders. The mild breeze carried in the early afternoon atmosphere released an odor that reminded him of the stench in a fish market. Then he saw the mud tracks of a backhoe and the shards of glass on the trail.

Up on the hill, he counted two dozen dead that were left in a rush, the killers leaving their job undone, because they’d been found out. The other victims had already been buried, shot dead in their vehicles, sunk in the hole of a ready-made grave. How did the killers think they were going to hide the massacre of civilians, mostly reporters and media workers riding in a convoy on the road to Maguindanao?

There was a tarpaulin: “You May Rest In Peace While We Seek Justice.”

What justice was left in this land when its governor and his sons, believed to have been the masterminds, ruled on an oath of blood? That they had gone too far was an understatement. People say the Ampatuan clan has raised the level of raw, absolute power by using a backhoe that they think will cover up the horrible deed. And maybe they also think that it’s all right to have done it in their own backyard; it was, after all, not a coincidence that the town where it occurred carries the name of the family.

There is no understatement here. That day, on the 23rd of November in 2009, Maguindanao was on the world news. The backhoe will be the stuff of morbid jokes. The Ampatuans will become a household name to millions of Filipinos who had never heard of them before. They will memorize it with distaste. We are shocked, and then we are numbed, and we asked out loud what this whole thing is about.

So let’s put the cards on the table.

The Ampatuans were under a daring challenge by their rival—Esmael Mangudadatu of Sultan Kudarat, the province next door, who sought to overturn the clan in the national elections six months hence. The Mangudadatus think the old man’s time is up and they want to hear their name in the next drum roll. The Ampatuans had been in power for nearly a decade, chain-linked to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s final term in office, which ended in 2010. The relationship is symbiotic—they derived power from each other. The Ampatuans had a direct line to the palace, which was always just a phone call away. In fact, they could go straight to the ear of the President.

But the elections in May could change all that, so a Mangudadatu decided to push his luck, sending his wife and two sisters to enemy territory to file for his forthcoming candidacy, along with a horde of reporters ostensibly for protection and propaganda mileage, taking the Isulan Highway to reach the provincial capital in the municipality of Shariff Aguak.

Once they crossed the border to Maguindanao, there was no turning back, the Ampatuans’ private army and its coddled police were waiting for them.

They were taking the road to Maguindanao when they were stopped at a checkpoint in a crossing called Saniag. The police were already in place at several points on the length of the highway. They had planned it; they had been at work for three days rehearsing this checkpoint scene. They were not doing their jobs as policemen. They were going to be a party to the spasm of killings, according to the investigation that was to follow. Their unofficial payroll comes from the old man Ampatuan.

The police and the other armed goons ‘escorted’ the Mangudadatu-led convoy onward and stopped at the next crossing called Malating, where, it was said, Datu Unsay, the Ampatuan junior, the son following in the footsteps of the father, supposedly led them to the hill above the lush meadow for the ghastly process. Those who were there were to see nothing, hear nothing. Let the backhoe do the talking. From the highway going north, they turned left to a village called Salman where a small inconspicuous warehouse for harvested crops and a solar dryer stood by the roadside. There was a sign pointing an arrow to an MNLF camp one kilometer away, but there was no such camp. It led to an unpaved track snaking through a hamlet of huts far apart from each other.

The village folk must have seen something but hid out of fear, and they will certainly not speak about what they heard. The victims must have sensed in their deep horror that there would be no escape. Their pleas for mercy were snuffed out.

One way of settling the outbreak of this massacre was, ironically, to declare martial law in Maguindanao—which, thankfully, the military has learned to do with a ‘smiling face’ (as described by the press) and to be done with it swiftly and thoroughly in a matter of days.

The entire force of the national police in Ampatuan’s district was sacked. The Army’s 601st Brigade was transferred out. The military-trained militias were disarmed and disbanded. There were about 3,000 men of the warlord armed with mortars and equipped with Humvees and armored vehicles mounted with .50 caliber machine guns. About one hundred of them who were believed to be involved surrendered peacefully, others panicked and hid their firearms by the roadside and tried to escape.

Some police officers decided to cooperate in the investigation saying Andal Ampatuan Junior, the seventh child known as Datu Unsay after the town in which he was mayor, had fired the first shot, thereby triggering the orgy of killings. The judges fled in fear and refused to issue warrants, inhibiting themselves from laying down the law.

Martial law was to enforce the rule of law, a power given to the executive on the basis that the Ampatuans were supposedly about to incite to rebellion. But in fact, it was crucial that the clan be removed quickly and order restored in the province to suppress a flashpoint.

The private army especially had to be prevented from hiding out with the MILF rebels (who were watching the events from their strongholds in the marsh) for self-protection or going on a rampage among the local population. The military went around with a bullhorn asking people to stay calm. It moved around the markets posting cell phone numbers to report any abuses.

There were lootings and digging of graves where firearms were believed buried by the followers of the Ampatuans. An Air Force helicopter unit called the Vampire Stalkers flew combat missions dropping surrender leaflets across the marshes, where cows stampeded in terror at the sound of the chopper’s blades. It was over in nine days, successful overall under the pressure of public scrutiny.

At past midnight of 5 December, Andal Ampatuan Senior was arrested, he was trying to leave his home in an ambulance to show that he was ill and asked to be sent to a hospital in Cotabato City; instead, he was taken to Davao City where he would be put under the custody of the Eastern Mindanao Command.

At seven o’clock in the morning, his son Zaldy, the ARMM governor, was taken to jail in General Santos City. Three other sons were taken to the 6th Infantry Division headquarters in Awang for questioning. And Junior, the prime suspect, was later put on a chopper and flown to Manila where he was detained.

There would be a trial. On television, there was no hint of remorse on his face. He would plead Not Guilty. It is anybody’s guess now how far the hands of justice will be served against this clan that was once considered to be untouchable.

It took the military three attempts to serve a search warrant into the family compound. It had to be done with transparency, the press was allowed in. They saw three .50 caliber machine guns but that was just a preview of what they would discover in the Ampatuans’ private armory. Inside the house they opened a wall-sized vault similar to what you see in banks; there was no money in it, suggesting that it had all been cleared out in anticipation of a crackdown.

They found a warehouse hidden behind a wall about a meter thick and there they unearthed an astounding display of armaments: officially counting about a million rounds of ammunition, 697 high-powered firearms including recoilless rifles, 60-millimeter mortars, M203 grenade launchers, M-14s and M-16s, Ultramax machine guns, AK-47s, Gahlils, Garands and carbines, and three rockets used by assault helicopters. In addition to this were 38 shotguns and .45-caliber pistols. They were in boxes marked with the suppliers’ name, the local private ARMSCOR, a manufacturer of arms and ammunition, whose sale the national police had authorized. The other boxes were stamped DND GOVERNMENT ARSENAL, which produces more than half of the military’s small arms ammunition, a requirement for all units to have the basic load of their weapons.

This alone could have armed about two battalions of the Army to the teeth.

It was mind-boggling to say the least, finding this in the cache of one political family. There might have been more, but that was as far as the K-9 dogs and the metal detectors could unearth in the sweep of the martial law.

Is this massacre going to be a lesson for the military for the ultimate breakdown of a convenient alliance? The entire run of the show has been a failure and it has blown up to their faces. They were watching and waiting for the Ampatuans to lay bare their horrific drama but they themselves were crippled and stifled by something that had grown bigger than their power, surpassing their own capability to react.

We could label this the mother of all ridos, the most horrifying event in the country’s recent history. Is it a Muslim thing? Yes it is. We can compile cases to study the origins of a rido for the purpose of social science, but we won’t be able to follow its logic, its pattern. It is irrational, it could spark out of the blue, it is sheer madness. But the breeds of warlords like the Ampatuans (and the Mangudadatus as well), their power and greed, their guns and money, their families and networks—it’s a Filipino thing created from a culture of political expediency and accommodation.

The massacre happened in Maguindanao not only because the Muslims are capable of it with their unstoppable urges; it happened in this dead Muslim empire because we failed Mindanao.

For what we saw, too, was the lingering trace of a ‘divide and rule’ strategy that should have been buried long ago when the chance to do it was there.

The government’s twisted vision of peace was arming a political clan to fight alongside its armed forces against the separatist rebels: Muslims versus Muslims. And the leaders thought that would buy them time to find a settlement.

Whenever I ask people in Mindanao, both Muslims and Christians, when peace will come, they often say, not in our lifetime. No one is in a hurry to find peace between wars.