By any measure, the warlords of Mindanao outdid themselves on November 23 last year, with the sheer callousness of the massacre that left 57 people dead and half-buried in mass graves thrusting their bloody local differences back into newspapers around the world.
For years, foreign editors have preferred to ignore the civil conflict that has dominated the region since the 1970s. The fact is life on the west coast of Mindanao can be just as dangerous as the southern provinces of Afghanistan or the hinterland of Iraq. But a combination of fatigue and a lack of relevance to the outside world had pushed the insurgencies and tragedies of Philippine militia life firmly towards the bottom of the international news agenda.
There were exceptions–in 2000, for example, when local bandits masquerading as freedom fighters crossed the maritime border into Malaysia and began kidnapping Western tourists and ransoming them off.
That outfit was the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which, along with the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), grew in notoriety once their ties to Islamic independence groups in Mindanao were laid bare in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist strikes against New York and Washington.
It was then that the United States declared the Philippines the second front in its ‘War on Terror’ and poured millions of dollars into the country’s south, dispatching troops and advisors in an attempt to shore-up the position of Filipino President Gloria Arroyo.
At that point, Arroyo had only just replaced her predecessor Joseph Estrada, but was already providing a welcome relief for traditional allies of the Philippines who had lost patience with the gross corruption that had thrived over the previous three years.
However, the massacre has highlighted troubling inconsistencies in relations between the government and the powerful family militias. And, with a general election scheduled for May, the incident has raised serious doubts about US efforts so far in combating insurgencies and securing the area.
Insurgents, Guns and Clans
Al Jacinto’s family has published the Mindanao Examiner for four years. It’s a typical local newspaper, and one that takes home-town issues to a level noticeable to outsiders.
Jacinto wears many hats: publisher, reporter, editor, sales executive.
He has covered the civil war in Mindanao and surrounding islands from all angles and broadened the family’s interests into film and TV production with cable channels in Basilan, Sulu and Zamboanga City.
When news of the single biggest massacre of journalists in history broke, Jacinto says he was interviewing the regional army spokesman in central Mindanao.
‘I was holding back tears,’ he says. ‘The killings of the journalists came as a shock to all of us. I have some friends who were brutally killed.’
‘We live in a small world in the Philippines–anything bad that happens to a journalist is one deadly stab in our heart. We’re journalists; we are only messengers of truth.’
The trigger for the massacre was a decision by Esmail ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu to enter the race for the governorship of Maguindanao Province, which was run as a private fiefdom by the Ampatuan family for the previous decade under the political patronage of Manila.
The slaughter in November was immediately blamed on the Ampatuans, any challenge to the authority of whom had been most unwelcome. But the bloodiness of their capabilities was tragically underestimated that day.
A convoy of 31 journalists and 16 political activists and supporters set off to file a certificate of candidacy on behalf of Toto, who planned to run against Andal Jr. Ampatuan in upcoming elections.
However, the convoy was ambushed by 100 armed men and steered off the main road where the men and women, including Toto’s wife and sister, were shot with M-16s or butchered with machetes before being buried in hastily dug shallow graves.
Another 10 witnesses who happened to be passing by suffered the same fate. The bodies of the women were mutilated.