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.

Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

In 1990, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created for the Muslim provinces of the island, ostensibly to give the local population more power over their own affairs and suck the life out of Mindanao's various insurgencies. But in the 1990s, the Armed Forces of the Philippines continued to aggressively hunt down local militants using the paramilitary loyalists, much as similar civilian forces were created by Colombia's military in the 1960s. One paramilitary leader who worked with the Army's 6th Infantry Division was Andal Ampatuan.

With his close military ties, Ampatuan's rise has been meteoric. He has served in the Philippines Congress and as the governor of Maguindanao. His family's rise to political dominance has closely tracked that of Arroyo, who became president in 2001. Since Ampatuan first became governor in 2000, five of the province's towns have been renamed for his relatives, including the provincial capital now known as Shariff Aguak, after his father.

In a long 2008 report on the Ampatuan clan's influence and strength, reporter Jaileen Jimeno wrote that "only one family wields real power in Maguindanao: the Ampatuans, led by... acknowledged patriarch, Governor Andal Ampatuan." She quotes Michael Mastura, a former congressman from Maguindanao, as saying of Ampatuan's local power, "the word ‘impunity’ does not even suit it.”

He has cultivated the relationship with the presidential palace by running a reliable election machine in his area. Ampatuan was widely alleged to have rigged the local vote in the 2004 election, which saw ARMM vote overwhelmingly for Arroyo. In 2005, his son Zaldy became ARMM governor. In Zaldy's last reelection, in 2008, he received 90 percent of the vote. In 2007, all 12 candidates whom Arroyo had backed for senator in Maguindanao won. After that election, local school administrator Musa Dimasidsing told a national commission on electoral fraud that he'd personally witnessed ballot stuffing. He was murdered with a shot to the head soon after. Mr. Dimasidsing's murder remains unsolved.

In 2006, Arroyo issued Executive Order 546, which legalized the then-informal, and technically illegal, paramilitary groups of men like Ampatuan. "The (Philippines National Police) is hereby authorized to deputize the [paramilitaries] as force multipliers in the implementation of the peace and order plan," Arroyo's order reads. The order's effect was to institutionalize paramilitary groups like Ampatuan's across the country.

At least four of Ampatuan's sons are also town mayors and most of them have gunmen of their own. Estimates of the size of his own personal militia range from 200-500. He often travels in a convoy with "technicals," pickup trucks with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on the load bed, armed by loyalists and family members.

"Arroyo returns the favors by letting (The Ampatuans') rule Maguindanao like a fiefdom," Jarius Bondoc wrote in The Philippine Star. "All economic initiatives need the Ampatuans’ assent; state funds are released through them. Even the posting of police and military generals are cleared with them."

Ampatuan has been a target of violence himself. In 2006, he survived an ambush that he said was laid by the MILF. The group denied trying to kill Ampatuan, but the former governor's personal gunmen have often fought with the MILF. The group said it had killed 20 of Ampatuan's militiamen in a firefight in 2006.

More violence could be in the offing. Though the government is hoping that the state of emergency will tamp down the situation, the Mangudadatus are powerful in their own right. Blood feuds in Mindanao traditionally run long, and hot.

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