Since Nov. 23, 2009, the Philippines has had two presidents and is well on its third one. But the horrific events that forever marked that date in Philippine history and made for shocked headlines all over the world have yet to find reckoning.
Elections have always been a bloody business hereabouts, but the worst election-related violence the Philippines would see was the Maguindanao Massacre, in which, on that grim day in November, 58 people—32 of them media workers—were killed in one blow. The media workers had joined family members and election supporters of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu who were on their way to the capitol to file his certificate of candidacy.
But they never got there. Mangudadatu’s candidacy for Maguindanao governor was a challenge to Andal Ampatuan Jr., whose father had long held the office; in the best traditions of dynastic politics, the son was running on the self-entitled premise that the position was his to inherit. But in the face of a rival political family’s challenge, the Ampatuans, one of the most powerful clans in the region, decided—according to later testimony—on a step so heinous that even now it boggles the imagination.
In a remote strip of road in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan—yes, the town even bears the name of its overlords—Mangudadatu’s convoy was ambushed by armed men. Reports say even Ampatuan Jr., then mayor of the neighboring town of Datu Unsay, took part in the killing spree.
Fifty-eight persons were summarily mowed down, and, in a diabolic coda to the crime, were dumped en masse in common graves dug up by a hastily conscripted backhoe operator. Everything in the crime scene, including the bloodied vehicles of the victims, were scooped up and dumped into the pits, then covered up.
The perpetrators must have imagined it was a perfect crime—no traces, no witnesses, the Ampatuans in full control of the place. Except: How in the devil’s name can the sudden disappearance of 58 people be explained away just like that?
When the news finally broke and the victims’ bodies were exhumed, the Philippines and the world immediately knew the incident constituted a black milestone: an act of election-related mass killing unprecedented in its savagery and cold-blooded planning, and, in particular, the single deadliest attack against the media, as the Committee to Protect Journalists has called it.
In the days following the sensational news, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was forced to disarm the Ampatuans—her staunch political allies who, according to a separate inquiry into her “Hello, Garci” cheating scandal in the 2004 polls, were mainly responsible for the rigged numbers she got from their bailiwick.
Eventually, 197 individuals were haled to court for the massacre, including the Ampatuan father and son. Not all of them are currently on trial; only 106 so far are being tried at Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. One of the principals, Ampatuan Sr., has since died.
Not one suspect has been charged in the massacre. A number of witnesses have died under suspicious circumstances, while families of the victims have been reportedly plied with bribe offers by the Ampatuans to drop the charges. The youngest Ampatuan under detention, Sajid Islam, was released on bail in 2015. And the family’s defense lawyer in 2014, who claimed that the Ampatuans were merely “framed to seize political power,” is now President Duterte’s chief legal counsel.
That seven years have gone by and no one has been made accountable for one of the most barbaric crimes in recent memory is itself a crime. As Fr. Rey Carvyn Ondap, who officiated at the Mass at the crime site on the seventh anniversary of the massacre, mournfully put it: “This is no longer an Ampatuan massacre; this is a judicial massacre.”
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