The massacre on 23 November 2009 of 57 men and women by the private army of a warlord allied to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo shocked the country and the world. The immediate trigger for the killings was the decision of one man, Esmail "Toto" Mangudadatu, to run for governor of Maguindanao province, which for the last decade has been the fiefdom of the Ampatuan family. Political patronage by successive governments in Manila, most notably by the Arroyo administration, allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked power, including the possession of a private arsenal with mortars, rocket launchers and state-of-the-art assault rifles. They controlled the police, the judiciary, and the local election commission. In the wake of the massacre, there are opportunities for new measures in the areas of justice, security and peace. The question is whether anyone in a position of power will seize them.
The Ampatuans' exercise of absolute authority was made possible not only by political patronage from Manila, but also by laws and regulations permitting the arming and private funding of civilian auxiliaries to the army and police; lack of oversight over or audits of central government allocations to local government budgets; the ease with which weapons can be imported, purchased and circulated; and a thoroughly dysfunctional legal system. The family also took advantage of the conflict between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to position itself as a loyal counter-insurgency force, even though it used the green light obtained for arming civilians more to expand its own power than defend the state.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the government declared martial law to facilitate the arrests of the Ampatuans and pursue their private army, which included dozens of police. It lifted it after a week, and it remains to be seen whether any of those arrested will actually be tried and convicted. Fear of retaliation by the Ampatuans extends even to Manila, where a judge withdrew from the case involving the only member of the family indicted for multiple murder, citing the security of his own family.
Domestic and international anger over the massacre, which involved mutilation of the women victims and constituted the single biggest death toll of journalists ever in a single incident anywhere in the world, could lead to progress on a number of fronts if:
- the perpetrators are quickly brought to trial;
- the government ends all private and local funding of police and military auxiliaries; asserts far stricter control over procurement and issuance of firearms; and bans civilian militias;
- the international community offers assistance in a range of fields from forensic analysis and witness protection to funding an analysis of the Philippines' security needs; helps freeze the suspects' assets abroad, if any; and places them on an immigration blacklist;
- the MILF and the government work together to pursue suspects of the Ampatuan private army to give momentum to peace talks; and
- the Philippines and international media and civil society keep the case front and centre in the public eye to demand prosecution of the perpetrators and broader reforms, even as the Philippines moves into election season in 2010.