Filipinos blanched as newscasts and newspapers displayed photos of bloated, mutilated bodies unearthed from a hillside in Ampatuan town, Maguinanao. The November 23, 2009 massacre was the most dramatic display of naked power in a decade. Fifty eight people murdered; the remains of one victim have not been recovered.
It was a spear thrust into the country’s democratic heart, a symbol of how powerful political clans hold hostage many areas in the Philippine archipelago. Filipinos had steeled themselves against the mounting murders of activists and journalists under the administration of President Gloria Maapagal-Arroyo. The Ampatuan town massacre showed the nation was not immune from the kind of barbarity oft seen only in failed states.
It wasn’t just the numbers of persons killed. It wasn’t even the breaching of a Maguindanao taboo on targeting women in the intermittent flare-ups of family feuds. It wasn’t just the arrogance that decreed 33 journalists, three lawyers and six hapless commuters be collateral damage in the Ampatuan clan’s feud with the Mangudadatu family.
What was chilling about Nov. 23 was that the alleged perpetrators were not just excitable henchmen of a local politician. Military reports quickly identified the suspects as a mayor and practically the entire local security apparatus: senior police officials, ordinary cops and para-military forces euphemistically called “civilian volunteers.”
The Ampatuan massacre trial features 195 suspects, including 16 police officers and 29 members of the political clan. Over half of the suspects remain at large. Although a Mangudadatu now sits as governor of Maguindanao province, very few residents dare speak out of the massacre or other atrocities that marked the decades-long Ampatuan rule.
Impunity carries a very long and very heavy stick in this country.
The Human Rights Watch report,“They Own The People,” opens with a quote from militia member Suwaib Upahm: “In Maguindanao, the word of the Ampatuans was the law. It was either you said “yes” to [them], or you got yourself killed for daring to say “no.”
The group interviewed Upahm in March this year; he claimed to have used a grenade launcher to kill a witness to the massacre. On June 14, 2010, Upahm himself was killed while awaiting world of his enrolment in the government witness protection program.
Reports by rights watchdogs estimate that least 50 other persons were killed allegedly on the behest of the powerful clan. These included rival local officials, a judge, women and children and a friendly weapons supplier, the better to get his wares for free.
The Maguindanao carnage was unique for the number of victims and the boldness of its perpetrators. But as HRW stressed, the November 2009killings “were an atrocity waiting to happen.”
Long before Mrs. Arroyo institutionalized their private army, the Ampatuans were entrenched in politics. They loaned their 2,000 to 5,000 men and provided logistics to give the military a “multiplier force” against Moro secessionist rebels.
This armed force increased political clout. When the clan engineered the 2007 shutout of opposition senatorial candidates, 27 sons, grandsons and relatives of its patriarch, Andal, Sr., had occupied mayoral positions. The old man himself served as governor from 2000 to 2009.
Firepower, in turn, helped consolidate and expand their political power. Troops raided Ampatuan strongholds days following the massacre and found enough arms and ammunition to equip a brigade.
A report obtained by dzMM and TV Patrol anchor Ted Failon includes half a million rounds of M-16 ammunition.
The 601st Infantry Brigade, then commanded by Col. Leo Cresente Ferrer, also found in just one compound two 81mm mortars, a 60mm mortar, two 90mm and one 57mm recoilless rifles, 4 M-60 machine guns, a caliber .50 Barrett sniper rifle, an Ultimaz light machine gun, an AK-47, a Heckler and Kock light support machine gun and 200 high-powered guns. Ferrer estimated the armaments to be worth P1.4 million.
Most of that arsenal came from the Department of National Defense (DND).The HRW noted that Mrs. Arroyo had a signed an executive order allowing local government officials “to legally buy an unlimited number of weapons without any obligation to report the type or number purchased.”
But while Mrs. Arroyo may have coddled the Ampatuans but she wasn’t the only leader to do so. They have been untouchable for decades. Nor do the Ampatuans have a monopoly on warlordism.
In March 1987, the Washington Port reported that military officials estimated there were 260 private armies, including “communist and Moslem groups, private security forces, religious fanatics and mercenaries loyal to political kingpins.”
That figure excluded the dreaded Marcos-era Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF), estimated to be 45,000-strong.
In May of this year, a commission formed to probe the Ampatuan massacre said there were 107 private armed groups, and that a crackdown had led to 127 firearms confiscated, 130 members arrested and the number of groups whittled down to 35.
The independent Verafiles media group also quotes police as saying there are still 68 private armed groups, 25 of these operation in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). “These private armies are said to carry about 800,000 unaccounted firearms,” the report said.
The militant Bayan Muna said most of the 30 murders reported during the last elections were also the handiwork of private armies. The Amnesty International claims the number of private armies increased from 68 in December to 117 in February 2010.
President Benigno Simeon Aquino III made a campaign pledged to abolish private armies. But there is a big caveat that comes with this pledge.
“The Aquino administration has been repeatedly called upon to issue an executive order banning all paramilitary and militia forces in the country. But no such directive has been issued to date,” the AI stressed.
The HRW won’t be surprised by the inaction on this issue. In April, according to an abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak report, the rights group bewailed Mr. Aquino’s “narrow” definition of private armies.
"He waxed eloquently about his desire to rid the country of private army. He repeated this a number of times.... Unfortunately, he was playing word games," the news report quoted HRW executive director Kenneth Roth after his dialogue with different presidential candidates.
"When we asked him whether he vows to rid the country of private armies meant that he was going to end reliance on special CAFGUs, the civilian volunteer organizations (CVOs), and police auxiliary units--in other words, the real paramilitary forces that are used as private armies. He said no. Those were all force multipliers in his view," Roth added.
Aquino, he added, singled out "forces that are completely autonomous from government authorized forces." His report was slammed by the Aquino campaign.
But aside from rebel groups – and even then, not always – there are no forces completely independent from state security forces. The Ampatuans are a classic case. Many of the suspects in the killings of journalists are either active or retired cops or soldiers, or CVO members.
In 2005, the situation in Abra, a perennial northern Luzon hotspot, was so bad that then Interior and Local Government Secretary Angelo Reyes had all 529 cops in the province, including the police commander, relieved. Four years after, politicians were still ambushing their rivals.
The official line is that, CVOs are necessary to fight communist and Moro secessionist rebels.
While the country does have some nagging insurgency problems, even United Nation bodies expressed alarm as more than a thousand legal activists were felled by suspected cops and soldiers during the Macapagal-Arroyo administration.
Things were not helped when Mrs. Arroyo simpered as she described as a “hero” a military officer widely called the “butcher” for leaving a trail of slain activists in his postings.
The Armed Forces insisted that activists were fair game, attributing their killings to encounters with rebels – even when the murders occurred just outside factory gates or in residential neighborhoods. Military officials even claimed at one point – as if to justify the extra-judicial killings – that a party-list group was actually commanding the New People’s Army (NPA). It was seen by many sectors as a joke – but one that exacted bloody instead of laughter.
In the first five months of President Benigno Aquino III's government, 22 activists have been murdered, according to the human rights group Karapatan.
Nobody is calling President Aquino a fascist or a dictator. But there is clear worry, even among centrist forces, that a Chief Executive known for his love of guns could fail --despite his pledge to be the opposite of his much-maligned predecessor -- to wrest control from the lords of fear.