[ANALYSIS] What the Ampatuan massacre verdict did not – and could not – address

For a nation starving for justice, the non-parole reclusion perpetua conviction of the masterminds in the 2009 slaughter of 58 Filipinos, including 32 journalists, in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao, merits a collective sigh of relief. Imagine all the symbolism that goes with it: a heavily armed and feared clan bowing to the judgment of a female judge under an administration that promotes fear, violence, and the rape of law. 

In a land of scarcity and impunity, we celebrate justice, no matter how hollow. 

Now, to the hard facts.

That these grisly murders could even happen in peacetime was what the world could not fathom in 2009 and even years after the Ampatuan massacre. But we did not suddenly wake up one morning to the unfettered power of the Ampatuans. We know who and what had enabled them over time, and what continues to enable their likes today.

I could think of 4:

1. Presidents, senators, and command votes

For decades, the Ampatuans delivered command votes that could make or break the victory of a presidential candidate running on a tight margin, or a senator clutching at straws for the last two slots of a 12-person tight race. (READ: Ampatuan aide says Arroyo ordered governor to rig 2017 polls)

Maguindanao, the province under their iron-fist control for a long time, had anywhere from half a million to more than 600,000 votes in any given election. Enabled and empowered by the president –  as in the case of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was closely allied with the clan – those Maguindanao votes suddenly trippled in meaning, because the Ampatuan patriarch wielded power, too, over other warlords under the then-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

In backroom deals with senatorial and presidential candidates, Andal Ampatuan Sr (who died while serving time in July 2015) would commit the entire ARMM vote along with his army that could muscle its way through villages and voting precincts.

Prior to the plebiscite for the newly-formed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in January 2019, we identified the power brokers there. Check the map here, and imagine that in the Ampatuans’ heyday and with the backing of Malacañang, they wielded influence over most of these warlords. (Read the Human Rights Watch's 2010 report on the Ampatuans and Mindanao

 

2. Roads to corruption and election

That taxpayers' money fattened the Ampatuans and their bank accounts is a reality not unique to them. That the OIC governor of Maguindanao at the time of the 2009 massacre – Sajid Ampatuan – could still win as town mayor years after the murders and could still misspend public funds through ghost roads, bridges, and buildings, is proof of the resilience of the Ampatuan business model in politics. 

Sajid is facing 197 counts of corruption before the Sandiganbayan. Yet, he was reelected in 2019. He even got acquitted in the massacre. And he had the gall to skip the reading of the verdict last Thursday, December 19, while on bail. This Ampatuan heir, who remains in power, is free – let us all take that in.

In a 2012 investigation, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said that the Ampatuans owned 500 hectares of land in Maguindanao, Cotabato, Davao City, Sultan Kudarat, and Makati City. Note, for example, that after the massacre they sought refuge in Davao City – Duterte country – because they owned properties there.

In their heyday, the Ampatuans built a mansion that was bigger than the provincial capitol, travelled in style with their bulging Louis Vuitton bags, and regularly shocked posh shops in Greenbelt Makati for shelling out hundreds of thousands of pesos in one go. 

Come election time, the millions that they pocketed from government contracts would be handed back to the taxpayers – to those in charge of filling up the ballots before election day or to the voters who would still march to the precincts to give a semblance of democracy at work.

Surely, we have heard about or know of politicians and public officials like them who do the same today?  

3. Compromised police, military 

After the massacre, then-president Arroyo was forced to impose martial law in Maguindanao. It took awhile for her to choose a military commander to implement it because nearly all the generals assigned in the region were under the clan’s good graces.

The armed forces had to appoint a no-nonsense Army general who had spent years in Luzon, the now-retired Anthony Alcantara, to ensure that the Ampatuans’ armory was seized, their safehouses padlocked, and their access to the capitol denied. It was rough and tough, Alcantara recalled over breakfast a few months ago. 

The Ampatuans and their troops had more high-powered guns than the soldiers and policemen assigned to secure Central Mindanao. They had more deployable cash than military camps and police stations, so that, at some point, police and army generals lined up to the Ampatuan mansion to get funds for their operations. The family bankrolled state agents’ Christmas parties and other extracurricular activities. 

Note that of those charged in the murders, 62 were cops. At least 36 of them were acquitted. (READ: Journalists, lawyers call for state accountability after Ampatuan verdict)

How could they possibly impose martial law on them? Alcantara, who had no ties to the clan, simply grit his teeth, gathered his trusted men, bypassed the shadow Ampatuan chain of command in his own institution, and went to work.

It would be the height of naivete to believe that this situation no longer exists in towns and provinces still run by warlords who have cops and soldiers on their payroll.

4. Journalism under the gun

Journalists based in the provinces, especially in conflict areas, live under the gun – literally. In a province run by the Ampatuans, for example, a reporter is often confronted with two choices: turn a blind eye to their abuses and live, or expose them and die.

Many journalists have straddled the middle lane; here, one can still keep a healthy distance from these warlords and expose their wrongdoing, but perhaps not too often and not too compelling enough as to land them in jail. 

But is there a place to hide when you’re dealing with an armed clan that knows where you live, where you mother works, where your children go to school?

Some of the media practitioners who were on the Mangudadatu convoy that fateful day of November 23, 2009, were allied with the Mangudadatu clan, as they were constantly harassed by the Ampatuans. We say this not to spite the memory of the dead but to illustrate the complexities of a landscape that stunts local journalism through gangster politics.

And so we take stock of what the Ampatuan verdict means to us journalists. We take stock of what this means to leaders and politicians who have enabled and continue to enable the Ampatuans and their ilk, to the military and police that have failed to arrest 80 of those charged and who – over the years – have chosen to secure warlords more than those who deserved protection, and to a society that rejoices over a verdict that took 10 years to reach and allowed 56 to go scot-free.

As we take a break for much-needed reflection this Christmas, we must also take stock of what the verdict means to this nation that has allowed – and continues to allow – all this to happen. – Rappler.com