The politically motivated massacre of 57 people in the Philippines in November, the worst case of election-related violence in decades, prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government to promise to rein in the country's warlords.
Now that promise is being put to the test, with a trial in Manila for members of the Ampatuan clan accused of carrying out the killings. But here in Shariff Aguak, the clan's stronghold, many people still speak of the Ampatuans in whispers, if at all. Some are loyal; others are plain scared.
“It’s very sensitive to talk about these things. We can’t speak. So we don’t,” says a local official.
Testimony in the weekly pre-trial hearings in Manila has been gripping. Eyewitnesses tell how a convoy of politicians, relatives, friends and reporters were abducted last November, taken to a hillside near this provincial capital, and 57 of them were shot dead. Videos of grave exhumations are played; distressed relatives leave the room.
The Ampatuan scion, Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., is the prime murder suspect. His arrest and that of other Ampatuans appears to spell the clan’s political downfall, as leaders vow to see justice done.
An aura of violence has long surrounded the Ampatuan political dynasty in this largely Muslim corner of the Philippines. After an election in 2007, local school administrator Musa Dimasidsing told a national commission on electoral fraud that he'd personally witnessed ballot stuffing. He was murdered soon after. The crime was never solved.
Nor is it certain that the clan’s ruthless grip will ease, even if the charges stick against Andal Jr. and his accomplices. Hundreds of heavily armed militiamen are still on the run. Relatives of trial witnesses have been harassed; at least one has been slain. A judge in Manila, where the case was transferred, declined to take it on, citing the safety of his family. And the authority of Andal Ampatuan Sr., the detained clan patriarch, still holds here.
An early test will be elections in May, when a rival clan is vying for the post of governor. The clan, the Mangudadutus, were the targets of the Nov. 23 massacre. The wife of Esmail Mangudadatu led the convoy, which sought to file her husband’s candidacy papers in this Ampatuan stronghold, believing – wrongly – that whatever the animosity between the clans, no women would be harmed.
Much of the Philippines is ruled by political dynasties who divide up the spoils and deliver votes to national allies. The Ampatuans have been a powerful force in the electoral coalition of President Arroyo. Many of the political clans have private armies and deal firmly with opponents. But few rivaled the political clout and fearsome firepower of the Ampatuans, who had over 2,400 gunmen on the payroll.
After the massacre, security forces recovered weapon caches inside the high pastel walls of the clan’s mansions. The arsenal held high-powered assault rifles, rocket launchers, artillery pieces and nearly a million rounds of ammunition. Some rifles were illegal imports. “We don’t have that in our inventory,” says an army officer. Their fleet of 23 cars reportedly worth nearly $1 million included two Humvees.
The events surrounding the massacre underscore the reach of Andal Sr., a grade-school dropout and staunch ally of Arroyo's, who has publicly disowned Andal Sr. since the killings. The alleged plotters included the provincial police chief. Over 1,000 police have since been transferred while several accused of taking part are in detention. Two senior military officers were also moved to other areas after it emerged that they had refused to escort the convoy.
The Philippine election commission, known as Comelec, has come under national scrutiny. Three weeks before the massacre, Comelec switched the location for filing candidacy papers to Shariff Aguak, forcing the Mangadadatus to enter their rival’s stronghold and setting up a fatal confrontation.
That decision was taken by Comelec in Manila and shows that the writ of the Ampatuans runs all the way to the top, says Elisio Mercado, a Catholic priest who runs the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in Cotabato City here on Mindanao. Like many here, he singles out the clan’s ability to deliver votes to Arroyo, particularly in a close 2004 race that was dogged by allegations of vote-rigging.
“It’s the first time that Malacanang is beholden to a warlord. Normally it’s the other way around,” says Father Mercado, referring to the presidential palace in Manila.
Arroyo also expanded the number of gunmen assigned to elected officials in insurgent-plagued parts of Mindanao. The Ampatuans cited the threat of incursions by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has bases here, as justification for their large private army.
In fact, say security officials and local traders, the Ampatuan militia was used to spread fear and exact revenge on anyone who crossed them. The Philippine Human Rights Commission is investigating reports of multiple past killings. The new police chief says his files reveal no such cases.
This reign of terror was felt keenly in this gritty town, named for an ancestor of the Ampatuans, says a security official. “No robbery. No petty crime. They were afraid,” he says.
Civil society groups have asked that May’s election, in which Andal Sr. is a vice-governor candidate, be held early so that more poll observers and security officials can monitor the voting. That would require legislation in Congress, which breaks up next month ahead of the elections.
The massacre has raised concerns over governance in Muslim areas of Mindanao, which lag far behind other Philippine regions on development indicators. Some Filipino politicians have held up the Ampatuans as an example of why Manila should not devolve more power to these areas.
Amina Rasul, who runs the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, an advocacy group in Manila, says that warlords like the Ampatuans emerged from decades of conflict and bouts of military rule. She says national leaders share the blame for nurturing local warlords in return for votes.
“It’s reversible. We need to think how to reverse it before it becomes really impossible,” she says.