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Philippines massacre: The story behind the accused Ampatuan clan

The Philippines massacre of 46 people on Monday on Mindanao appears to have been politically motivated, with fingers pointing to a powerful local clan.

By Staff writer / November 24, 2009

Photographers clench fists as they offer candles for the victims of election-related violence in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, during a protest condemning the killings of journalists, outside the Philippine National headquarters in Manila on Tuesday.

Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters

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Many Filipinos are pointing to the massacre of 46 unarmed people in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao Monday as evidence of the deadly influence of a dynastic clan that has been nurtured by the central government for almost 20 years. Nothing is yet proven, but survivors of the attack, national politicians, and police officials all say the likely perpetrators were loyalists of Andal Ampatuan, a former provincial governor who has used his private army to control politics in the province for a decade. Mr. Ampatuan was term-limited out of the governorship this year. In his three election campaigns, no local politician dared to run against him.

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His son, Andal Jr., was gearing up for a similarly unopposed run to replace his father. But Ismael Mangudadatu, a former ally of the Ampatuans, had other ideas. On Monday morning, he dispatched a convoy of cars (mostly women and journalists, on the theory that would afford some protection against attack) to file papers in the provincial capital Shariff Aguak to run against the younger Ampatuan. Mr. Mangudadatu remained at home.

The people in the convoy never made it. Instead, they were waylaid when they came to Ampatuan (the clan's stronghold), dragged from their cars, and summarily executed. Survivors alleged to reporters in the Philippines that Andal Jr. led the gunmen.

Many of the victims were buried in mass graves that survivors said appeared to have been dug before the assault. Among the dead were Mangudadatu's wife, Genalyn, and two of his sisters. At least 12 of the victims were Filipino journalists. The provincial police chief was sacked and a government spokesman said local police officers also appeared to be present during the murders.

The murders led Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to declare a state of emergency in the province. Her government is now dealing with a looming scandal, with opposition politicians asking how the murders could have happened in broad daylight and on a major road regularly patrolled by soldiers and police. The attacks appear to show the problem with her government's tolerance of warlords.

Warlordism has been endemic for generations in the Philippines, from the main northern island of Luzon to Mindanao, the largely Muslim island that hosts at least three armed separatist groups. Mindanao also has freelance kidnap-for-ransom gangs and protection rackets tied to the large army and police presence.

The US got its first extended taste of counterinsurgency on Mindanao, where Moro fighters centered in the powerful local clans tied up US forces for 14 years as America sought to colonize the country (the Moro rebellion ended in 1913). The island's Muslim population has had an uneasy relationship with the central government ever since, and two major separatist groups – the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – were born there.

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