On November 23rd, 2009 over 100 armed men descended on a convoy belonging to Filipino political candidate Esmael Mangudadatu. The candidate was not traveling with his entourage, which consisted of dozens of people including family members and journalists. With a bounty put on Mangudadatu’s head, gunmen consisting of private bodyguards, off duty soldiers, policemen, police auxiliaries, a civilian armed forces group, and hired assassins converged on the convoy simultaneously.
Mangudadtu had been warned by his political rivals of what would happen if he chose to run for governor, and stayed behind when he sent his convoy ahead to register his candidacy. Previously, a group of armed Ampatuans showed up at his residence to deliver the message in no uncertain terms.
Esmael’s convoy was halted on the way to file Mangudadtu’s Certificate of Candidacy by the Filipino National Police and Auxiliary. What followed was the ruthless slaughter of 58 civilians, including the rape and murder of women as well as the mutilation of their bodies. Additionally, 34 journalists traveling with the convoy were also executed.
Both Ampatuan and Mangundatatu are powerful families in the Muslim-dominated Mindinao Island of the Philippines. They have to be courted by the political establishment in order to be elected to office. Both families essentially constitute private Armies, the heads of each acting as shoguns over their personal fiefdoms. Perhaps the Western comparison is between medieval feuding family clans such as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As news of the massacre spread, the surrounding area was placed under martial law on December 5th, 2009.
The Filipino security forces who participated in the massacre have been released, as they are innocent until proven guilty, but it is believed that the bulk of the killing was done by Ampatuan hitmen and goons, the Ampatuan private militia as it were.
Reports of mutilation are further complicated by the fact that many of the bodies received additional damage when they were dug out of the ground. The security forces responding had only the tools and backhoe available as there was no CSI type unit out in the countryside. Therefore, reports of beheadings may be incorrect.
Under-reported, and nearly ignored, the culprits of the Maguindanao massacre almost slipped under the radar entirely after committing this brazen act of mass murder. The backhoe that was being used to bury the bodies and the vehicles driven in the convoy was identified by police flying over the kill zone the next day. Emblazoned on the side of the backhoe, it said, “Datu Andal S. Ampatuan Sr. Governor.”
When the convoy was initially halted, Mangundadtu received a phone call from his wife at 9:30AM who was in one of the vehicles. His wife managed to tell him that they had been stopped by Andal Ampatuan Junior, along with his men, who was sporting an M4/M203 grenade launcher. She also reported seeing the local mayor along with Ampatuan Jr. It was not until the morning after the massacre that Mangundadtu chartered a helicopter to look for his wife and signs of the convoy and stumbled across the mass grave.
The massacre itself did not stop Mangundadtu from partying it up over the next several days. There has been speculation that, as a Christian in a Muslim family, he considered his sister to be expendable. Having previously faced off with the Ampatuans, Mangundadtu knew full well that something was going to happen when he sent the convoy ahead to register his candidacy. Mangundadtu may also have thought that the convoy would be safe as the Ampatuans would not dare to fire upon unarmed civilians, including women and the media. Whatever the case, the decision to send the convoy without him proved to be disasterous.
Once the mass grave was identified, the Filipino Army moved in, declared a state of martial law, and secured the area. Not all the bodies had been buried as the gravediggers had to run as the Army approached. In the meantime, the Ampatuans and any freelancers participating in the massacre scattered to the four winds. Commandeering the Ampatuan backhoe found at the grave, they began the excavation. Having dug the huge pit, the Ampatuans had pushed entire vehicles filled with bodies into the hole and then flung additional corpses in, before filling in the grave.
The Army uncovered the grizzly scene as they attempted to piece together what had happened. Cars were riddled with bullet holes, the bodies of many of the women had been shot in the genitals. Finally, the dead were transported to the morgue after being recovered by the police.
At this point the Army initiated a crack down on the Ampatuans, raiding their buildings and facilities. This included the many mansions owned by Andal Ampatuan Sr. Andal Ampatuan did not believe in banks, he had his own vault inside his house and weapons caches buried under banana trees across his property. When Marcos was kicked out of the country in 1986, the reign of the Ampatuan began. Each subsequent Filipino president had slept in his house, which was more like a fortified military compound.
When the Army broke through a false wall in one Ampatuan warehouse they discovered military hardware, not unlike the private hoards that were found elsewhere. The caches uncovered included mortars, Israeli Tavor assault rifles, .50 caliber machine guns, ammunition, M60 machine guns, sniper rifles, and much more. As the Army moved in to secure these weapons caches, the BIFF Muslim terrorist organization swept in first, knowing where the secret stashes were located. In many cases they liberated the weapons before the Army arrived.
Not helping matters was the fact that the Army would also strip the weapons they did find, selling the parts for money and only turning in the bare metal receivers. The Ampatuans also were forced to turn in their registered weapons, but this was just a drop in the bucket compared to what they obtained illegally.
As a part of post-9/11 counter-terrorism initiatives, the United States began helping allied countries to crack down on terrorist organizations, of which the Philippines has several. Part of this initiative included the transfer of weapons from the United States Government to the Filipino military. This military hardware was then confiscated and sold by corrupt Filipino Generals, the weapons ending up in the hands of the Ampatuans, among others.
Only two alleged perpetrators of the massacre await trail and possibly conviction. To this day, no one has been convicted of the massacre. It is estimated the trial of Ampatuan Sr. would last for two hundred years, as this is how much time it would take to sift through the large scale crime and all of the attackers and conspirators involved. At least six witnesses have been assassinated before they could testify. Others have subsequently been placed in witness protection.
Judges in Manguindinao did not even dare to initiate legal proceeding against the Ampatuan clan so the trial had to be moved to Manila. For now, and into the foreseeable future, there will be no justice for the victims of the massacre of Maguindanao.