A LETHAL combination of warlord politics, the privatization of police, military and paramilitary groups, and a fatal underestimation of the capacity for brutality of the local tyrants who rule with the gun over some 100 localities in this country resulted in the killing of 58 men and women, including two lawyers and 32 journalists and media workers, on November 23, 2009.

Because carried out to prevent the relatives of a candidate for governor from filing the latter’s certificate of candidacy, the Ampatuan town massacre has since been described as the worst incident of election-related violence in the Philippines. But it has also earned for the country the distinction of being the venue for the worst single assault on journalists and media workers in history.

The Ampatuan Massacre has since then become a test of the capacity of the justice system to prosecute the sub-humans — to compare them to animals is to insult such noble beasts as lions, wolves and tigers — who planned and implemented the mass murder. The accounts of various witnesses to the planning and execution of the crime have revealed a level of cruelty and contempt for human life on the part of the alleged perpetrators that, despite the country’s sorry record in extrajudicial killings, torture and mindless violence, still shock not only foreigners unaccustomed to such barbarity, but some Filipinos as well.

At one point, said one of the witnesses, a member of the Ampatuan clan said they would spare the media. But someone objected, and said they too should be killed so there will be no witnesses. As if what was being decided was the fate of flies, gnats and mosquitoes, not the life or death of human beings, it was agreed without even the semblance of any discussion to kill the media people too.

The casualness and sheer nonchalance of it is not only key to how such an atrocity was possible. It is also a disturbing indicator of how far down the evolutionary ladder have evolved not only those who rule the fiefdoms certain communities have become, but the rest of us as well. The collective indifference to, and toleration of, the parody the political system of patronage, corruption, deceit, and violence has become is as much the creation of the ruled in this country as it is of their rulers, whom the supposedly sovereign people endow with political power every time the mockeries we call elections (we also call them exercises — in futility) take place. Whether the perpetrators will be successfully prosecuted and punished or not will test not only the justice system. Even more fundamentally will it be an indicator of our ability to rise above the savagery of the ruling system to the level of common humanity.

The signs are far from encouraging. The trial of the accused planners and the killers who actually did the shooting in the Ampatuan massacre is proceeding at a snail’s pace, hampered at every turn by the efforts to delay the proceedings through, among other means, the filing of a succession of motions for the judge to inhibit herself from trying the case. Only a handful of the 197 accused are on trial, but the cross examination of witnesses against the whole lot has also been agonizingly slow, given the legal technicalities that have to be observed. There are estimates that the trial could take a decade to conclude.

But worst of all are the reports of attempts to bribe the kin of the slain, and of the privileged treatment some of the accused individuals have been receiving while in custody, including the court room’s being used between hearings as their reception hall and massage parlor. The latter disturbs because it confirms fears that wealth and power no matter how ill-gotten decides not only the conditions of detention of the worst criminals, but also the outcome of their trials. The country has been down this road before, having seen how, from the moment they’re charged, wealthy and powerful individuals are not only given special treatment; they also manage to intimidate or buy off witnesses and even the kin of their victims, and are able to escape punishment.

How the justice system can overcome all this to provide the victims the justice that have eluded so many others has put the system itself on trial. But our determination to see justice done and to sustain our outrage is also being tested.

What is not on trial but should be — if indeed the Ampatuans are guilty of planning and carrying out the massacre — is the late, unlamented Arroyo regime. During the nine years in which she was in power, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made sure that her Ampatuan allies kept firm control of Maguindanao by strengthening the paramilitary forces in the province.

Not only did the regime arm the Civilian Volunteer Organizations, it also turned a blind eye on the privatization of the police and military forces in the province and their transformation into private armies. It also ignored the vast corruption that enabled the clan to access public funds, and by doing so encouraged it. It was all supposed to be in furtherance of augmenting the capacity of the armed forces and the police to address the military challenge posed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But it was even more fundamentally to assure her and her candidates the votes of the province in the elections of 2004 and, were it not for the disruption caused by the 2009 massacre, of May 2010 as well.

The Arroyo regime can’t be put in the same court as the Ampatuans. But its role in strengthening rather than dismantling the centers of warlord power, and the ensuing human rights violations of which the Ampatuan Massacre is the prime example, is the proper subject for investigation of the so-called Truth Commission the Aquino III administration has created. Only by going beyond looking into corruption during the past regime, and by putting it on trial for its role in the Ampatuan Massacre and its other, equally egregious human rights violations can the Truth Commission begin to come that much closer to being worthy of its name.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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