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Saturday, May 18, 2024

A triumph of justice

"We should exert every effort to see to it that the Maguindanao carnage does not happen again."

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The court verdict finding members of the Ampatuan clan guilty of multiple murder for the Nov. 23, 2009 Maguindanao massacre is a triumph of justice in this country, even if it took a decade to reach.

The delay in the dispensation of justice in this particular case is not surprising, maybe it is even excusable, because of the big number of the accused: 197 of them, with 80 still at large. But the accused who were meted the maximum penalty of life imprisonment truly deserve the sentence considering the gravity of their offense.

We therefore commend Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes for taking on the case—at least one other judge had declined to handle it—and wading through testimonies of witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense in the course of 10 long years.

Rep. Esmael Mangudadatu, who lost his wife, sisters, cousin and aunt in the killings, is correct in saying that the court verdict would serve as "an important precedent" for the justice system and democracy in the country. 

Media groups have called the Maguindanao massacre the worst case of political violence in the country. But there were other similar incidents in the past, though not on this scale. Lawyer Nena Santos who represented some of the families of the victims in the massacre, noted that "there were already so many killings in Maguindanao allegedly perpetrated by the [Ampatuan] clan [but] many people who were victims were afraid to go and file a case because of the fear of how powerful the clan was."

The lawyer added: "The brazenness is there because they thought they controlled the police, the military [and] the political arena there in Maguindanao. And they were close to [President] Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, so that emboldened them to [carry out] this heinous crime."

UP professor Francisco Lara Jr. pointed out in a trenchant analysis years back that the Maguindanao massacre “signifies the emergence of a new type of warlord whose powers depend on control of a vast illegal and shadow economy, and an ever-growing slice of internal revenue allotments…Political authority may enable control over the formal economy, but the bigger prize is the power to monopolize or to extort money from those engaged in the lucrative business of illegal drugs, gambling, kidnap-for-ransom, gun-running, and smuggling, among others… These illegal economies and a small formal sector comprise the ‘real’ economy of Muslim Mindanao.”

The Maguindanao massacre raised the bar on just how far political warlordism can go, in particularly gruesome fashion. If 58 people can be killed because one political clan did not want another to even challenge its dominance, then we have an untenable situation that will be a litmus test of government’s resolve to restore peace in Mindanao.

At the height of their power, the Ampatuan clan is said to have built a private army consisting of 2,500 men equipped with sophisticated weaponry that wielded effective control over some municipalities. The discovery of a huge arms cache believed owned by the Ampatuan clan and enough to equip two army battalions showed very clearly the extent of political warlordism in the province.

The Ampatuans managed to build a sizeable private army consisting of members of paramilitary units—paid out of government funds, by the way—and they accumulated a vast arsenal of weapons—again, courtesy of the government, as these were clearly marked as having come from the armed forces and the national police.

The nation rightly expressed outrage over the Maguindanao massacre and did not stop in demanding justice for the 58 victims. But if the government hopes to put an end to the violence in Muslim Mindanao, it should not only dismantle the private armies of political warlords, but also address the problem of poverty.

Maguindanao is the second-poorest province in the country, with 60.4 percent of families living below the poverty level, surpassed only by Zamboanga del Norte with 64.6 percent. The ranking is based on various government poverty indicators, including the lack of housing, lack of access to clean water and sanitation facilities, incidence of malnutrition, and income level, among others.

The Maguindanao massacre tells us very clearly that the road to peace in Mindanao as a whole is strewn with many obstacles. The gruesome killings underscore the perversion that seems to be the hallmark of Maguindanao politics. If we thought we had seen the worst political violence, the Maguindanao carnage certainly surpasses them all—and should remind us that we should exert every effort to see to it that it does not happen again.

ernhil@yahoo.com

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