After 10 years of legal wrangling, a Manila court today (December 19) convicted 42 members of a Mindanao warlord’s family of the savage murder of 58 people, 32 of them journalists and the others political rivals, in a massacre that shocked the world and demonstrated the ruthless nature of local Philippine politics.
Brothers Zaldy and Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan, the sons of the late Andal Ampatuan, who died earlier in prison, were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison without parole for the massacre, in which some women were shot or knifed in the genitals and buried in a mass grave dug by excavators.
The Ampatuan clan allegedly led a heavily armed private army estimated to have numbered more than 100 gunmen on November 23, 2009 that stopped the convoy of supporters of political rival Esmael Mangudadatu, including Mangudadatu’s wife and 14 relatives as well as the journalists, led them 2.5 kilometers away to a grassy hillside and reportedly mowed them down, then buried them in what was called the worst spate of election-related violence in the country’s history.
Mangadadatu reportedly sent his wife and family, accompanied by the media workers, to register his candidacy in the belief that women and the mass of journalists would be safe from attack. It was a tragic miscalculation.
According to international press organizations, the murders of the journalists were also the biggest single such killing ever recorded against members of the press anywhere in history.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in a prepared statement by senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin, said “CPJ welcomes today’s convictions for the Maguindanao massacre. While we regret it was a decade in coming, we hope that the landmark verdict heralds a genuine break in the cycle of impunity in journalist killings in the Philippines. “Authorities should leverage this hard-fought precedent to pursue and achieve justice in all other unsolved media killings.”
The Philippines ranks fifth on CPJ's most recent Impunity Index, a ranking of countries worldwide where journalists are slain and their killers go free.
Despite the convictions of the 42, 55 more were acquitted, including another Ampatuan brother, Sajid, the mayor of a Mindanao town. Some 80 suspects remain at large, including 14 members of the Ampatuan clan and, according to Human Rights Watch, raising concerns that the victims’ families and others who testified against the killers are at risk. Indeed, three witnesses have been murdered. Lawyers representing the victims, media groups and victims’ families say they have been threatened or harassed. The Ampatuan family has lost little of the power they accumulated in the decades prior to the killings. In 2012 elections, family members won 19 local government positions in the clan's bastion in Maguindanao Province.
Given the Philippines’ notoriously inefficient and malleable judicial system, appeals could stretch years into the future, increasing the danger for witnesses and opposition groups.
The Ampatuans are considered a textbook example of the warlords that blight Philippine politics, political clans that tower over local fiefdoms and exerting total political control, more often than not through terrorism and mayhem.
As an Asia Society report noted shortly after the massacre, the Philippine military doesn’t have the budget to maintain these “civilian volunteer organizations,” as they are known. They use them to augment their forces in unceasing military actions against communist and radical Islamic forces whose appeal continues because of corruption, injustice and inadequate social services. Instead, they become private armies to be used against their political enemies.
The Ampatuans, however, were – or perhaps still are – a case unto themselves, with a private army said at the time of the killings to be armed with a vast panoply of military weapons from armored personnel carriers to heavy weapons including state of the art machine guns, automatic rifles, mortars and other equipment, according to reports after the massacre. The massacre was said to be only a coda to years of mayhem, kidnappings, murders, bombings and torture without any attempt to check their brutality.
The armies, perhaps 100 of them, continue to operate around the rural edges of the country, although none approached the Ampatuans in savagery. They were particularly encouraged by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who served as president from 2001 to 2010, ostensibly in her effort to help wipe out Communist sympathizers. But like the Ampatuans, they mainly served as a bulwark to keep her in power. In the contested 2004 elections, which she may well have lost in reality, the Ampatuans were considered crucial to delivering the vote in large areas of Mindanao island. Under her reign, the Ampatuans siphoned off millions in taxpayer funds earmarked to run their region, instead augmenting their vast private army, said at the time to number as many as 5,000, and instituting a reign of terror that culminated in the massacre.
Former President Benigno s. Aquino III, who was elected in 2010, vowed to disband the armies when he took power. But he left office with them more or less in place, unable to dent their hegemony.
They play a disheartening role the violence that characterizes Philippine politics. According to a March 2019 study by New Mandala, a website hosted by the Australian National University’s (ANU) Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs in the College of Asia and the Pacific, at least 132 politicians were injured or killed between 2016 and 2019 across 115 violent incidents, most of them at the barangay level. In 90 incidents targeting political incumbents, 70 politicians were killed, while 10 of 13 non-incumbent office seekers were also slain. Even former or otherwise retired politicians faced violence, seven barangay chairmen and one vice mayor were killed out of 12 incidents.
“Whether incumbents, challengers, or former politicians, the majority of the victims are believed to have been targeted by private armed groups or guns-for-hire, since 89 of 115 incidents were the work of unknown or non-affiliated actors,” according to the study. “Non-electoral political violence, including insurgent violence constituted a minority of incidents, with Islamic State-affiliated and Communist militants identified as perpetrators in just 22 incidents. In addition, 4 incidents were the result of PNP’s anti-drug operations, which includes a “misencounter” with a mayoral candidate running in Butig, Lanao del Sur, who was killed in Cagayan de Oro.”
Commenting on the Ampatuan verdict, Human Rights Watch Southeast Asia representative Phil Robertson said the verdict, which he described as “momentous,” “should help provide justice to the families of the victims, and build toward greater accountability for rights abuses in the country. Advocates should use this verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long.
“More broadly, this verdict should prompt the country’s political leaders to finally act to end state support for “private armies” and militias that promotes the political warlordism that gave rise to the Ampatuans.”