Because they could
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan () - November 22, 2010 - 12:00am

A year ago this week, our news desk watched as a seemingly endless stream of images of mutilated bodies entered our photo network.

They were the first pieces of evidence that a gruesome massacre had taken place on a secluded hilltop in Maguindanao.

Senior journalists tend to be jaded, especially those of us who chased murder stories and were regular visitors of morgues in our crime reporting days.

But in that week of Nov. 23, even the most jaded in our newsroom was shocked, and we all asked the same question: How could this happen in our country?

One year after the Maguindanao massacre, our question is: Could it happen again?

The realistic answer is that it could, although to a lesser degree, with fewer fatalities. The cynical answer is that the nation might see an even more atrocious crime, unless the environment that created Andal Ampatuan Jr. is eradicated.

*   *   *

Witnesses have testified that Andal Jr., principal accused and son and namesake of the clan patriarch, personally shot dead many of the victims, ignoring pleas for mercy.

Why did he do it? Because he could. Because he believed he could get away with the slaughter.

The rest of the gang then followed their leader in the turkey shoot. Why? Because they could. When all the hostile elements had been “neutralized” – the favorite euphemism of “salvaging” experts in this country – the backhoe was called in.

A reasonable speculation is that Andal Jr.’s impunity resulted from getting away with previous murders in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which he and his clan ruled like a fiefdom.

ARMM residents talk in whispers about the unusual brutality of Andal Jr., saying that decapitation is a hallmark of his kills. The stories need to be verified. But security officers also note that most of those decapitated in the ARMM were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the brutal response to security problems kept the separatist group and other troublemakers at bay in the autonomous region.

That was one less headache for the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which provided the ARMM leadership – all related in some way to the Ampatuan clan – with the firepower and resources needed to maintain peace and order.

Following a foiled ambush on one of the Ampatuans, Malacañang approved the creation of militias as “force multipliers” in the ARMM. The paramilitary forces received weapons, ammunition and funding from the national government.

It has been noted that while the Ampatuans have been a warrior clan in Mindanao since the Spanish period, patriarch Andal Sr. gained a legitimate political foothold in what would become the ARMM when he was appointed by P-Noy’s mom, President Corazon Aquino, as officer-in-charge of Shariff Aguak after the 1986 people power revolt.

Through a combination of patronage and intimidation – a common mix in many parts of the country – the Ampatuans consolidated political power and controlled the people of the ARMM. The clan could guarantee votes for its favored candidates in every elections, including an improbable zero for political enemies – all the more reason for politicians to court the support of the Ampatuans. Two of the major vote rigging scandals during the Arroyo administration occurred in the ARMM.

Other sins have been alleged against the Ampatuans, including smuggling and drug trafficking. What is clear is that public office created immense wealth for the clan. In one of the country’s poorest regions, clan members built mansions and tooled around in luxury vehicles, reportedly running over anyone who failed to get out of the way.

The Ampatuans were SOBs, with Andal Jr. alleged to be the worst of the bunch, but they were the Arroyo administration’s SOBs. Until the Maguindanao massacre.

There are many other political warlords out there, though probably none as bad as the worst of the Ampatuans. These other warlords were created by the same system that bred the impunity of the Ampatuan clan. In their independent republics the laws of the land do not apply; they consider murder as the ultimate political tool. And like the Ampatuans, they believe they can get away with anything.

*   *   *

What has changed since last year, when we were mesmerized by the sight of a backhoe pulling out of a mass grave vehicle after crushed vehicle, piled on top of twisted bodies?

The biggest change is that the Ampatuans have lost their stranglehold on power in the ARMM. Andal Jr., his brother Zaldy, their father Andal Sr. and several other key members of the clan are being held without bail. Andal Jr. is reportedly being kept awake by ghosts in his cell. His nemesis, Esmael Mangudadatu, is now governor of Maguindanao. Mangudadatu is an Ampatuan relative, but so far he appears to be a decent governor and a better human being.

About 200 massacre suspects have been arrested and face trial, with several wanting to turn state witness. But hundreds more are at large, with the capability to harass or murder witnesses. Several have reportedly joined groups such as the Abu Sayyaf. The trial has moved slowly, with the most optimistic prediction placing its resolution in 10 years, although efforts are being made to speed up the process.

The Ampatuan private army has been dismantled, but the Aquino administration has not scrapped the militias or the force multiplier concept. It remains to be seen whether the new ARMM leadership will eventually create its own private army.

Enforcement of gun laws in the ARMM and other areas of Mindanao remains weak.

An encouraging development is that the new Aquino administration doesn’t look keen on propping up its own local SOBs in the name of national security and political support. But some critics detect troubling signs that this perception may be inaccurate. P-Noy should prove his critics wrong.

A year after the worst political crime in our history, we wonder if the massacre could happen again. That’s the stuff of nightmares. It need not become reality.

ABU SAYYAF AMPATUAN AMPATUANS ANDAL ANDAL AMPATUAN JR. ANDAL JR. ANDAL SR. ARMM CLAN MAGUINDANAO
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