Behind the Philippines' Maguindanao Massacre

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Bullit Marquez / AP

Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. holds his detainee number while being photographed inside his detention cell at the National Bureau of Investigation

Even for a country long hardened to election violence, the massacre of at least 57 defenseless civilians on the main southern island of Mindanao, many of them relatives and supporters of a local politician and a large group of journalists, sets a new low. This troubled corner of the Philippines usually makes headlines for its long-running Muslim separatist rebellion. But the killings starkly exposed a nationwide malaise: the fierce competition for regional power among the country's small élite of a few hundred families and clans that control an inordinate amount of the national wealth — and the desperate lengths some will go to protect their hold on power.

The prime suspect behind the massacre, who was taken into custody on Thursday, is a member of one of Mindanao's leading Muslim political clans: the Ampatuans. They are close allies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration in Manila and rule Maguindanao, a hardscrabble province in an autonomous area for Muslims. Andal Ampatuan Jr., a Maguindanao mayor in his 40s, was expected to be charged with murder, according to local reports, quoting justice authorities. Ampatuan denies involvement: "The reason I came out is to prove that I am not hiding and that I am not guilty," he told local reporters.

On Monday, on a highway cutting through a banana grove, a large force of gunmen — reports say around 100 — intercepted the convoy of family members and supporters of Buluan vice-mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, also from a prominent local Muslim clan. They were on their way to the provincial capital to file his candidacy papers for Maguindanao's governorship in next year's general elections. It's a position that Ampatuan's father had occupied unopposed since 2001 and which Ampatuan planned to contest to keep the seat in the family. The Mangudadatu group was herded to what appears to have been a prepared killing ground in a hilly area a few kilometers from the highway. Television footage showed bullet-ridden bodies sprawled around the vehicles; others had been thrown into a mass grave and covered with earth. There are signs that the killing was done at point-blank range, using high-powered firearms. A mechanical digger at the site was used to bury some of the bodies and vehicles. It is presumed everyone in the group died.

In interviews with local media, Mangudadatu told of death threats over his challenge for the governorship, and has publicly accused Ampatuan. He did not join the convoy, but filled it with female relatives, including his wife and two sisters, and supporters, as well as a large group of journalists to cover his candidacy. "Among the conventions that govern clan and political-related violence in the region is that women, children and the elderly are off-limits as targets," wrote Manuel Quezon III, a prominent political commentator, on his website. Besides those connected to the Mangudadatus, 27 local journalists were among the dead. The victims also included two lawyers and 15 people entirely unconnected with Mangudadatu: they were in two vehicles a short distance from the convoy and taken along with the others for execution. Mangudadatu has said he received a mobile-phone call from his wife Genalyn shortly after the group was stopped; she identified the gunmen as "Ampatuan's men." According to media reports — so far unconfirmed by the authorities — some women were raped and bodies were beheaded and mutilated with chainsaws.

President Arroyo condemned the atrocity as a "supreme act of inhumanity that is a blight on our nation," and pledged to bring the murderers to justice. Amid rising public outrage at home and international condemnation, she is under pressure to deliver. The authorities have already come under fire for failing to quickly bring in members of the Ampatuan clan for questioning, inevitably raising suspicions that the administration was treating them with kid gloves. The question is whether — as one local columnist put it — Arroyo is ready to "throw the kitchen sink at a loyal ally." She is widely believed to have benefited in the 2004 presidential election from votes controlled by the Ampatuans, leaving a hefty political debt. Indeed, her main rival Fernando Poe Jr., a hugely popular movie star, reportedly failed to get a single vote in three Maguindanao towns. "At the core of this horrid incident is a flawed election system that depends heavily on local political clans and warlord families to deliver votes on election day," says Pete Troilo, security analyst at risk consultants Pacific Strategies & Assessments.

Murder has long been the ultimate political tool for eliminating rivals here. Those in the firing line are mainly at the level of local politics, such as governors, mayors and elected posts in community units called barangays. And, crucially, local government power can be a considerable source of wealth generation. "Many regard these posts as personal entitlements and their enemies are rival political families," says Benito Lim, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. "If they cannot come to an arrangement, then eliminating a rival is an option."

The authorities are now desperately trying to prevent a revenge-driven clan war — or "rido" as it is called in Mindanao — between the two families. A day after the killings, Arroyo put two southern provinces and a city under a state of emergency and deployed more troops to the area. All permits to carry firearms there have been canceled. "Retaliatory violence can be expected although a small chink of hope remains that Mangudadatu may rise above rido and avert further bloodshed," says Ian Bryson, a regional analyst at Singapore-based Control Risks.

Both families have blood ties and were allies until the Mangudadatu's last year announced their challenge to governorship. The Ampatuans are not a family to be crossed: the clan is known to run its own private army; some estimates put its strength at between 200 and 500 men. To be sure, warlordism is not unique to Mindanao; it afflicts other parts of the archipelago and the northern province of Abra is practically a byword for political vendettas. But it is highly prevalent in Mindanao's conflict-affected areas where there is a large array of armed groups that include separatist rebels, civilian militias and well-established crime syndicates. Not surprisingly, the massacre has intensified calls on the authorities to disband these private armed groups.

On Wednesday the military began disbanding a 350-strong paramilitary force called Cafgu (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit) in Maguindanao while investigating allegations that members were among the gunmen who waylaid the convoy. Cafgu and a clutch of other civilian outfits armed by the security forces have long been used in counter-insurgency operations against Muslim rebels — and were at the disposal of the Ampatuans as part of their armed group. Indeed, another disturbing thread in this tragic episode is the control exercised by local governments generally over the police, especially in deciding key appointments. Four police officers are under investigation for their possible involvement in the Maguindanao killings. Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno told a news conference that there appeared to be a "total misuse of our law enforcement in the area." Until the central government gets a grip on Maguindanao and the wider south, such misuse and the concomitant lawlessness will tragically persist.