Finally, justice!

By: Artchil B. Fernandez

Christmas came early for the families of the victims of the horrific Maguindanao Massacre. Concluding a ten-year trial of the suspects, Branch 221 of Quezon City Regional Trial Court, a special court tasked solely to try the case, pronounced two prominent members of the Ampatuan monster clan and 41 others guilty beyond reasonable doubt of murdering of 57 people, including 32 journalists. They are sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or imprisonment of up to 40 years, without parole.  Eighty of the accused are still at large.

Ten years ago, at the twilight of the regime of “president” Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) the nation and the world were shocked in disbelief of a crime so gruesome and so terrible. Fifty-eight people, some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, were brutally gunned down in Sitio Masalay, Ampatuan, Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. Thirty-two media workers died on that day and their killings were considered as the world’s single biggest attack on journalists.

The Maguindanao Massacre is the worst manifestation of warlordism in the country, and a constant reminder of the culture of impunity that reigns today.  It’s already the 21st century but the massacre highlights the fact that many parts of the Philippines are still ruled by barbarians where the whim of the warlord is the supreme law. This is the condition that made possible the macabre massacre.

In 2009, Maguindanao is the fiefdom of the Ampatuan monster clan. The clan considered the province their personal property, their kingdom. They were enraged to learn that Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, then a vice mayor of a small town wanted to challenge one of the principal accused, Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. for the governor post in the 2010 election. How dare this upstart to even think of running for a position in their territory?  To teach this nonentity a lesson and make him an example to others, the monster clan planned to kill him.

The hellish plot was revealed by Sukarno Badal, former vice mayor of Sultan Sabarongis town in Maguindanao and head of the 300-strong private army of the Ampatuan monster clan in his testimony in the court. Turning state witness, it is Badal’s testimony that secured the guilty verdict for the prosecution.

Badal testified that on July 20, 2009, the Ampatuan monster clan held a meeting at the Century Park Hotel in Manila presided by the clan’s patriarch, Andal Ampatuan, Sr.  In that meeting, the monster clan decided to kill Toto Mangudadato and the persons involved in his candidacy. This is made clear in the decision of Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes.

“The purpose had been laid out in these meetings: to not just prevent, but kill all persons transporting the candidacy papers of Datu Toto to Shariff Aguak. The method had also been ascertained: numerous men, firearms, checkpoints, Sanggukos (large trucks fitted with machine guns) and a backhoe would be used to accomplish the murder objectives.”

In his testimony, Badal heard Andal Jr. told his father that “anyone who tries to take away our power must all be killed, especially those Mangudadatus.” The Ampatuan monster clan had the illusion that they live in 12th century Central Asia, imagining themselves as a Mongol tribe.

On that fateful day, November 23, 2009, the Ampatuan monster clan and their private army led by Andal Jr., waylaid the Mangugadatu convoy which included the 32 journalists. First to be killed were Eden Mangudadatu sister of Esmael Mangudadatu and his wife Gigi. Court records showed they were shot on their genitals and were molested before murdered. The journalists locked their cars but were sprayed with bullets and no one survived.

Those who were not part of the convoy but happened to be around when the Ampatuan monster clan executed their diabolical plan were also killed without mercy. Among them were Nonie and Cecil Lechonsito, on their way to a hospital in Cotabato City for Nonito’s CT scan. They were accompanied by Mercy Palabrica and Darryl de los Reyes, office staff of Nonito who was a government employee. All of them were butchered along with others who were merely passing by.

After the evil deed was done, a backhoe was on hand to hide the grisly act. The Ampatuan monster clan was so dumb to assume they can conceal from the world their terrifying crime.  Or they were so drunk with power they believe they can get away with anything, even with the most gruesome handiwork. They were in a rude awakening when a few days later they were rounded up including the patriarch Andal Sr., who died in detention of cancer in 2015.  Instead of preserving their power, the Ampatuans lost it.

While justice is finally served to the victims of Maguindanao Massacre, Filipinos must not forget the context of why it happened. True the Ampatuan monster clan perpetuated such enormous monstrosity but they were not able to pull it off or thought they can get away with it if not for the patronage of the power that backed and nurtured them until they did the indefensible and unconscionable. That power emanated from Malacañang and at that time GMA wielded that power. GMA as the patroness of the Ampatuans had blood in her hands.  She used the clan to prop up her rule and allowed them to rule Maguindanao with impunity. It was their closeness with GMA that emboldened the Ampatuans to slaughter fifty-eight people thinking they are untouchable.

Warlordism, political dynasty, patronage politics, rent-seeking politics and worst forms of traditional politics created the condition for the Maguindanao Massacre to happen. As long as the system that breeds these evils exists, similar incident may occur again in the future.