Philippine Mass Murder: Politicians and Monsters

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Filipino media workers in Manila protest the controversial resolution that cleared two prominent Ampatuan clan members of involvement in the Maguindanao massacre, April 19, 2010

Which profession has produced more fictional superheroes: journalism or law? I recently asked this question at a dinner in General Santos City in the southern Philippines. The journalists around the table were quick to note that both Clark Kent (Superman) and Peter Parker (Spiderman) worked for newspapers. The lawyers came up with one lesser-known superhero — Matt Murdock (Daredevil) — and then fell silent. Lawyers are the same wherever you go. They hate losing.

It was a light-hearted interlude in an otherwise grim evening. Moments before, we had been discussing video evidence so horrific that one lawyer had vomited during its presentation in court. Last November gunmen allegedly employed by the Ampatuan family, a powerful clan allied to outgoing Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, massacred 57 men and women in nearby Maguindanao province. Some women — mostly relatives or supporters of a political rival who dared run for governor against Andal Ampatuan Sr. — were murdered and mutilated; one victim had 16 bullet wounds in her groin area. The bodies, some smashed flat inside cars by a mechanical digger, were then buried in mass graves on a remote hillside.

The massacre was the single deadliest event ever recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists, with at least 30 journalists and media workers among the dead. Their grieving colleagues sat around the table with me, along with public prosecutors tasked with bringing the killers to justice. A total of 197 people have been indicted and a trial is under way in Manila. But will anyone ever be convicted for the Philippines' worst case of election-related violence? With global outrage subsiding and a new President about to take office, there is a real chance that the trial will stall.

Andal Ampatuan Jr., the alleged ringleader and son of warlord Andal Sr., is now under arrest with five other clan members. He proclaims his innocence, although one of the family's guilt-stricken gunmen, now a witness, will testify otherwise. "My conscience can't take it anymore that innocent people were killed," the man told Al Jazeera. Is Arroyo's conscience as tortured? It should be. Andal Sr. was a "small-time politico" until Arroyo's government began pumping billions of pesos into the province, according to a report on the massacre published by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. This massive injection of public funds, ostensibly to aid development, did little to change the lives of ordinary people in Maguindanao, which remains one of the country's poorest provinces. But, the report says, it propelled Andal Sr. to "undreamed-of heights of power and wealth." His clan built dozens of mansions, bought scores of luxury cars and wielded absolute power with a heavily armed private army of — by Arroyo's own admission — 2,413 men.

In return, it is widely believed that the Ampatuans gave the only commodity their unfortunate subjects are blessed with: votes. Arroyo and her administration's candidates won landslide victories in Maguindanao in 2004 and 2007 elections. Many Filipinos believed they were rigged, but who would dare say so when local police, judges and election officials had likely been bought off or terrified into silence by the Ampatuans? The Crisis Group describes the Maguindanao police as "a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ampatuan family." Among the 197 accused are 63 police officers and four soldiers. Security concerns due to an insurgency in the south meant that the Ampatuans also enjoyed close relations with the military, which helped equip their formidable private army.

Although the law finally seems to have caught up with them, the Ampatuans still have three main assets. The first is cash — lots of it. The clan's undeclared fortune could run into hundreds of millions of dollars, more than enough to pay for the dozens of lawyers now defending it. Second, influence: it seems they still have enough friends in high places to interfere with the trial. Last month's dismissal of murder charges against two Ampatuans, Zaldy and Akmad, suggested that Philippine justice is "impotent when the accused are politically influential," said the chief state prosecutor Carlo Arellano. The charges were later reinstated after a public outcry.

Other friends might wait until campaigning is over. Right now, the Ampatuans are electoral kryptonite — no candidate wants to be publicly associated with them. In February, Manny Villar, a presidential candidate, dismissed as "black propaganda" the claim that he had cozy relations with the clan. And when last month Villar's main rival, front-runner Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino Jr., got an endorsement from Andal Jr., who called him "the only one capable of bringing out truth and justice," Aquino was quick to distance himself from it. (The massacre has not dimmed the Ampatuans' own lust for public office. The clan fielded 68 candidates on May 10, reported the agency MindaNews. At least 23 of them are immediate family members of Andal Sr.)

And the third advantage? Terror. Fear of the Ampatuans is such that, after the massacre, "no Maguindanao official wanted to register the victims' death certificates, and no company wanted to provide the police with a backhoe to retrieve the bodies," reports the Crisis Group. And even though the trial is taking place a thousand kilometers from Ampatuan territory, the first judge recused himself from the case, citing personal security. If a judge is that scared, imagine how the witnesses feel.

They are under protection, of course, as are the public prosecutors I met in General Santos; men with pistols and M16 assault rifles sat at the next table. But as interest in the case evaporates, so might this security detail. "One day I'll be going to court on my own again," predicted one lawyer matter-of-factly. He and his fellow prosecutors have another enemy — time. Philippine courts move at glacial speed. Witnesses get tired, scared or both. (In April, the brother of one witness was murdered in Maguindanao by two assassins on a motorbike.) Only a swift trial stands a chance of delivering a verdict.

Superman, Spiderman, Daredevil: we never came up with any other names that night. But there was no need. The lawyers risking their lives in the name of justice, and the journalists who continue to do their jobs despite the slaughter of their colleagues — these are the real superheroes. Will the next leader of the Philippines show the same guts? One administration created the Ampatuan monster. Another must slay it.