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Philippine massacre exposes political underworld

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The BBC's Alastair Leithead visits the site of the Maguindanao massacre

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Maguindanao

Elections and violence go together in the Philippines, but the massacre of 57 people on a small, secluded hilltop in Maguindanao province, on the south island of Mindanao, at the end of last year took it to a new level.

The gruesome images filmed in the immediate aftermath betray the brutality with which the largely female members of a politically-ambitious family and 32 journalists were kidnapped and assassinated.

At the local market, justice campaigners sell DVDs of the raw video footage eerily set to Maguindanao freedom songs.

They leave little to the imagination.

Muslim women shot in the groin, in the face, in the head; bodies crumpled and bloodied in the back of bullet-sprayed vehicles; and a man seemingly shot as he tried to run away.

Doomed convoy

On 23 November last year, Ismael "Toto" Mangudadatu's wife and her aides drove through a rival family's turf to register his name for the forthcoming local elections.

Aquiles Zonio at the massacre site
Many journalists sacrificed their lives here, but this is my second life and I am ready to sacrifice it for the sake of press freedom
Aquiles Zonio
Daily Inquirer correspondent

Also in the convoy was a large group of journalists. Although aware of the danger, they felt safety in numbers.

Aquiles Zonio, a correspondent with the national newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was delayed and missed the convoy. A forgotten laptop charger saved his life.

"A hundred heavily-armed men stopped the convoy and took them off the main road. Then they were mowed down with high-powered firearms," he said.

He showed me the mass grave where many of the bodies and the vehicles were found, crushed and buried by an earthmover.

Dozens of heavily-armed soldiers escorted us to the site and stood guard. Two months on, it is still a dangerous place.

So far only one man has been charged with multiple counts of murder - Andal Ampatuan Junior, a local mayor and member of a powerful mafia-like family that ran Maguindanao province.

At a bail hearing in Manila, he sat quietly in court, handcuffed and surrounded by police. He pleaded not guilty.

An eyewitness described how he had watched the mayor start the shooting.

'Patronage politics'

Two hundred other members of the clan and their supporters have been arrested. The guns uncovered during a brief period of martial law are evidence of the private army they were allowed to run.

Ampatuan family mansion
The Ampatuan family mansions stick out in the impoverished province

"The Ampatuans are still the warlords of this province - they have around 3,000 armed followers and are above the law," said Mr Zonio.

Police and military vehicles stand in the compound marked "seized evidence" - local officers have been accused of an element of complicity in the killings.

"No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo promised, but many feel she owes the Ampatuans for election victories in 2004 and 2007.

Maguindanao is one of the poorest parts of the country and so the grand, high-walled and gaudy Ampatuan family mansions stand out even more.

They are a sign of the wealth and power these families have allegedly been allowed to acquire in exchange for delivering votes and political support to the leadership in Manila.

Their private armies were encouraged to fight the overlapping insurgencies which have added to the decades of lawlessness in this part of Mindanao.

"It's a typical phenomenon in the Philippines. Power is held by a few families and the president relies on these few families to be elected on a nationwide basis. It is patronage politics," said Harry Roque, a prosecution lawyer acting for a number of the dead journalists.

"To give you an idea of how valuable the Ampatuans are to the president, in the last election the administration made sure that none of the opposition candidates for senator even got a single vote in Maguindanao," he said.

Family campaign

The families of those killed are leading a campaign to ensure justice is done.

Nancy de la Cruz and her five grandchildren
Gina de la Cruz's mother cares for the five children she leaves behind

Twelve of the journalists are buried in one small cemetery plot - their matching headstones neatly arranged in three rows of four.

Some of the families came to lay flowers and light candles.

Among them was Nancy de la Cruz, whose daughter Gina has left behind five children; Louisa Subang, whose husband Ian was killed on their wedding anniversary; and Myrana Reblando, whose husband Alejandro, known as Bong, was killed.

She broke down by the graveside as she remembered seeing the video footage of the massacre scene.

"I am always asking why did they do that to them? They were helpless people just doing their jobs," she said.

Perilous time

A recent report described the Philippines as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists - worse even than Iraq or Afghanistan.

Many have been killed for exposing the activities of these powerful families.

Mr Zonio is not going to stop his lucky escape affecting his work: "Nobody is safe in this country - I myself, I feel it," he says.

"Many journalists sacrificed their lives here, but this is my second life and I am ready to sacrifice it for the sake of press freedom, for the sake of democracy."

The brazen scale of this massacre and the crude attempt to cover it up shows the impunity with which these families have been allowed to operate.

This time it appears the warlords have gone too far for the government to ignore, but taming powerful families in the long term is a much bigger challenge.



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