BANGKOK, Thailand — It was once assumed that, in the violence-marred world of provincial Philippine politics, campaigns could at least scare off hired killers by traveling with females and journalists.
That assumption evaporated on Nov. 23, 2009, in the coastal province of Maguindinao. On that day, gunmen blitzed the convoy of a campaign that dared to challenge the Ampatuan family, a powerful political clan.
A full 58 members of the entourage, including 32 journalists and a local mayor’s wife, were killed. Many of their corpses and some of their vehicles were dumped into a pre-dug pit nearby.
Three years later, the killings keep coming. Six witnesses have been slain since. After disappearing in May, an alleged driver for the 100-person hit squad was dismembered with a chainsaw. Members of the Ampatuan clan remain in office, and though some stand accused of plotting the crime, none have been sentenced in a trial ground to a crawl by their defense team.
Even by Philippine standards, dragged down by hits on reporters and politicians, this massacre stands out as appallingly flagrant.
The bloodbath begs the question: Is there no crime money and power can’t absolve in the Philippines?
“Our enemy is very powerful,” said Grace Morales, a 36-year-old widow and mother of three. Her husband and sister, both journalists, were murdered in the massacre. “Many members of the clan continue to hold government positions. The families of the victims are nobody against the powerful Ampatuans.”
These days, those with the money and motivation to order a hit on Filipino journalists can take solace in the dismal statistics.
Only Iraq and Somalia rate worse than the Philippines in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ rankings of nations with extremely high impunity towards murdering media workers. According to the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, at least 128 journalists have been slain because of their work since the mid-1980s. These crimes have produced a mere 10 convictions, according to Melinda Quintos de Jesus, a director at the center.
“These attacks and threats from diverse quarters including political warlords … local government officials, who feel the criticism is a bit unruly, and businessmen who use guns for hire,” she said.
This phenomenon appears driven by a cocktail of factors. The Philippines’ rampant gun culture and weak courts, paired with a forceful and bombastic reporting style, drive the killings up, Quintos de Jesus said. It doesn’t help, she said, that many reporters consider death threats a rite of passage on par with a Purple Heart.
“The media style is bold and powerful. The use of language is daring and provocative,” said Quintos de Jesus, who spent much of her career as a print journalist. “Many journalists say that if they were the ones criticized in this manner, they might reach for some instrument of attack and threat as well.”
In the Philippines, anyone seeking a hired killer need not reach far, Quintos de Jesus said. Her research suggests that hit men can now be secured for as little as $275.
“The method is very familiar: two men on a motorcycle. One to drive, one man to take the gun and shoot,” she said.
Filipinos are sadly accustomed to these strikes on reporters, activists and local politicians.
But the body count of the Maguindinao massacre — in which an entourage traveling with the campaign of local mayor Esmael Mangudadatu was snuffed out in moments — suggests that justice for even the most heinous killings can be stalled indefinitely. (Mangudadatu, detecting peril, did not join the convoy that day. He was later elected governor of Maguindinao.)
Police have named 197 suspects in the attack, but 94 have never been arrested, according to Amnesty International, which has decried the case’s “very slow wheels of justice.” The organization’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, Polly Truscott, said that the “reluctance to effectively bring the Maguindinao killers to justice may well embolden the perpetrators of ruthless political violence.”
“Every day that you work on these cases,” Quintos de Jesus said, “you feel that you’ve taken a big hammer and knocked yourself in the head.”
Donations have helped victims’ families hire a prosecution team capable of taking on a defense headed by Sigfrid Fortun, known in the Philippines as an attorney to the wealthy and famous. In interviews with the Manila press, Fortun has repeatedly insisted that even infamous political clans deserve fair representation no matter their reputations.
Though three full years have passed, the trial is still entangled in bail proceedings. The cases are further complicated by settlement offers. Victims’ families have been repeatedly approached by emissaries sent by the Ampatuan clan with offers of more than $610,000 in settlement money, Morales said.
“Many of those who died were breadwinners,” she said. “Those they left behind were ordinary housewives with no work experience.”
Though marked by sorrow and exasperation, there is at least one encouraging aspect to this tragedy, Quintos de Jesus said.
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To date, none of the victims’ families have relented to cash settlement offers that could help release the eight accused clan members from prison. “I’m really astounded that they’ve been able to resist given the great need they have,” said Quintos de Jesus, who has helped document families reduced to eating scraps of food in the wake of their loved ones’ killings.
Morales, out of work and left to support three kids, insists that no financial offer will derail her pursuit of a conviction against those who killed her husband and sister. “We want those responsible to pay for their crimes,” she said. “I cannot understand why, until now, the masterminds have not been convicted.”