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The massacre on Monday of women, lawyers, and journalists by alleged gunmen of the Ampatuan clan shocked the nation. But people in Maguindanao have always known that you defy the Ampatuans at your peril. In 2008, journalist Jaileen Jimeno, then of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, ventured into Maguindanao, dared probe the hold of the Ampatuans over the province, and made it out alive. She reported on a place bristling with guns and on a clan supported by the Arroyo administration because the Ampatuans can virtually guarantee victory at the polls. SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao (September 4, 2008) — The sound of sirens precedes the passing of a long convoy of 4×4 sport utility vehicles. As if on cue, jeepneys and private vehicles begin moving to the right side of the street, where they all then ground to a halt. “Kailangan tumabi ka, kasi babanggain ka nila. Palalabasin nilang kaaway ka (You have to get out of their way, otherwise they’ll hit your car. And then they’ll make it appear you’re one of their enemies)," explains an old man watching the scene by the roadside. Asked if he knows whose convoy of black, heavily tinted vehicles is whizzing by, the man replies without hesitation: “Si Governor. Ganyan ang mga sasakyan niya (That’s how his vehicles look like)." In the last two weeks, this southern province has become one of the sites of a cat-and-mouse battle between soldiers and rebels from a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), displacing thousands of people. But the armed clashes aside, residents here know that only one family wields real power in Maguindanao: the Ampatuans, led by its acknowledged patriarch, Governor Andal Ampatuan. It may not only be peace between combatants but respite from political clans that Maguindanao needs. The Ampatuans are just the latest in a long line of political dynasties that have thrived in Mindanao. Yet while the Ampatuan clan has lorded over Maguindanao only since 2001, its members already have a hold over key government positions, elective and appointive, and not only in the province itself. In 2005, Andal Ampatuan’s son Zaldy, then 38 years old, became the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the youngest ever to head the regional government. And if the results of the recent ARMM polls are any indication, the Ampatuans seem to be digging in for the long haul. The baby-faced Zaldy took more than 90 percent of the votes among seven candidates in the ARMM elections held just a few weeks ago. His closest rival Indanan Mayor Alvarez Isnaji got just a tad over two percent of the votes. It did not help Isnaji any that he was battling kidnapping charges filed by the Philippine National Police (PNP) against him and his son Haider, midway through the campaign. But Ma. Krizna Gomez of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) observes: “We were all surprised to not see any election campaign materials (other than Zaldy Ampatuan’s) around the province. The dynasty runs deep into the entire political set-up and this is capped by the election result itself." Guns, Palace blessing Andal Ampatuan has four wives and over 30 children, and intermarriages with other political clans have made his political stock stronger. But political analysts trace the clan’s formidable clout to two main factors: guns and the blessings of Malacanang. They even note that no less than the Palace made it legal for the Ampatuans to have hundreds of armed men and women under their employ. The 1987 Constitution bans private armed groups. In July 2006, however, the Arroyo administration issued Executive Order 546, allowing local officials and the PNP to deputize barangay tanods as “force multipliers" in the fight against insurgents. In practice, the EO allows local officials to convert their private armed groups into legal entities with a fancy name: civilian volunteer organizations (CVOs). Interestingly, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued the EO just weeks after a bombing in the Shariff Aguak public market that killed five people. Andal Ampatuan, who has survived several other ambushes, was said to have been the target. According to a military officer who served for 16 years in ARMM — five of them in Maguindanao — Andal Ampatuan employs about 200 CVO members. The officer adds that Ampatuan’s sons and relatives maintain armed men, supposedly for their protection. (Andal’s eldest son Saudi was killed in a bomb blast in Shariff Aguak 2002.) “Everybody carries firearms, mga paltik (homemade guns)," says the military officer. “Or (they) either borrow from the military or the PNP, or they buy." A soldier who spent five years on assignment in Maguindanao says of the CVOs here: “They support the internal security requirement of the capitol or the municipio." He adds that while some of the CVOs are paid by the local government in areas where they serve, they are often “borrowed" for personal use by local officials. And whenever they board the back of spiffy pickups that are staples of Ampatuan convoys, these CVO members typically lug long firearms. At times, the convoys of 20 vehicles or more also begin and end with pickups mounted with big machine guns. Indeed, long before the military resumed chasing the MILF in earnest across the region, Maguindanao was already dotted with checkpoints. Soldiers manned entrances to municipal halls, and armored vehicles hogged major road networks. PCIJ tried for months to interview Andal Ampatuan here and during his visits in Manila, but Maguindanao provincial administrator Norie Unas repeatedly said the governor does not grant interviews. Instead, it has been Unas who has fielded questions from PCIJ. In an interview with PCIJ late last year, Unas said that the older Ampatuan’s political stance has earned his clan several enemies, hence the need for heightened security. Unas explained that while previous Maguindanao leaders played footsies with secessionist forces, “Governor Ampatuan is not really sympathetic to the MILF or other forces wishing for a separatist Muslim state." But Datu Michael Mastura, former congressman of Maguindanao’s first district, seems less than convinced by the argument. “I will tell you, the word ‘impunity’ does not even suit it. It’s inappropriate," he says, referring to the Ampatuans’ chronic show of force. Pointing to the clan’s numerous bodyguards and vehicles, Mastura wonders aloud: “Just imagine, how do you maintain them? How do you house them?" No one here is ready to come forward with any answers to that, but at the very least, the presence of armed men and women helps explain why residents would rather not do anything to cross an Ampatuan. One journalist who unwittingly did is certainly thankful that all he got was a dressing-down from the provincial governor. The journalist had helped a colleague get in touch with the Ampatuans for an article that the governor apparently perceived to be unflattering. The helpful journalist says he was summoned to the governor’s mansion and there received a tongue-lashing. “I just sat there," he recalls, “and took it, not saying a word." ‘Hello, Garci’ then 12-0 in ‘07 To some political analysts, it is easy to explain why the Ampatuans command solid hold on Maguindanao: The clan enjoys close ties with the Palace in faraway Manila, simply because the clan has managed to deliver the votes for administration candidates. [Find out how the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus, another powerful clan, became allies only to turn into bitter rivals] In its 2007 Elections Forensics Report, the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) noted: “The Ampatuan dynasty based in Maguindanao province is Arroyo’s present conduit in helping ensure her influence over the whole of Mindanao, which hosts many of the country’s grizzled but otherwise powerful political clans." During the 2004 presidential elections, “(Governor Andal) Ampatuan addressed the political requirement of Arroyo," says Bobby Tuazon, CenPEG’s director for policy study, publication, and advocacy. “She needed somebody to control the votes." In the controversial “Hello Garci" recordings, then elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano was heard saying that Maguindanao would not be “much of a problem" for President Arroyo. His words turned out to be more than prophetic, with Maguindanao giving Arroyo 193,938 votes, against the 59,892 votes obtained by popular action film star Fernando Poe Jr. In Ampatuan and Datu Piang towns, Poe even scored zero, and in the capital Shariff Aguak and other Maguindanao towns, received just a handful of votes. In the 2007 congressional and local elections, the 12 senatorial candidates of the administration’s Team Unity slate made a clean sweep of the polls in Maguindanao, or scored 12-0, to be exact. Family members and allies of the Ampatuans who ran for local positions also clinched wins. Maguindanao officials have since brushed off suspicions of election fraud, saying local candidates did not bother campaigning for their own seats. They say that “negotiations" were held before the elections to “amicably" settle the battle for positions. Besides, they note, many of the Ampatuan candidates had run unopposed and thus had devoted time to campaign for the administration’s senatorial slate. In his interview with PCIJ last year, Maguindanao provincial administrator Unas said political contests here are settled even before any balloting through “consultation and consensus-building." “People are critical of our system and ridicule us for the manner by which we choose our leaders," he said. But, he asserted, it is a system that works for the province, “not that demo-democracy." “We know that the Manila system does not fit us," Unas said. “We have stabilized the political landscape because there’s no contest every election. This is one better way for us Muslims coming out with our leaders." CenPEG fellow Ely H. Manalansan Jr., however, insists that shura or the Islamic practice of consultation was not a factor in Team Unity’s 12-0 win in Maguindanao. He says that even Islamic experts dismiss such an assertion, adding, “(It) merely serves as a justification for the widespread and systematic fraud perpetrated by the administration during elections in Mindanao." Last year, public schoolteacher Musa Dimasidsing had also revealed that days before the 2007 vote, he had seen teachers and students writing and then putting their thumbmarks on ballots. Days after he spoke up, Dimasidsing was shot dead; his murder remains unsolved. No ‘Big Man’ monopoly CenPEG’s Tuazon, though, cautions against stereotyping this conduct of elections as unique to Maguindanao and ARMM. “Oligarchs also rule in Luzon and Visayas, and you will see a lot of similarities in what is happening there in the Moro homeland," he says. “Ampatuan is no different from (Luis) Chavit Singson," points out Fr. Eliseo Mercado Jr., who briefly chaired the government peace panel with the MILF. Singson, former governor of Ilocos Sur in northern Luzon, has built a reputation for keeping an iron grip on his home province. Unas himself acknowledges the perception that Ampatuan is a warlord. Reached by phone by PCIJ recently, he said, “May katotohanan din siguro. The same way na may perception na warlord sina Joson (of Nueva Ecija) at Singson, (Probably there’s truth to that. The same way there is a perception that the Josons and the Singsons are warlords)." But the provincial administrator denied that the capitol pays for the CVOs protecting Ampatuan and his clan. He said that the CVOs are hired and funded by town mayors, while those who guard the governor are made up of soldiers, policemen, and civilians “who, as Muslims, will die for their leader." This relationship between leaders and the governed, said Unas, has its roots in the history of Muslim communities down south, and is found not only in Maguindanao. Poverty, mega projects In Mercado’s view, the resiliency of the Ampatuan clan will rest mainly on its ability to deliver the needs of its constituents. Then again, if Mercado is right, the Ampatuans’ days in power may be numbered, based on the province’s sorry showing in several sectors. For one, despite the Ampatuans’ expanded powerbase, Maguindanao’s poverty numbers are worsening. In 2000, the poverty incidence was recorded at 59.3 percent. It grew to 60.4 percent in 2003, and rose further to 62 percent in 2006, turning Maguindanao into the third poorest province in the country. For another, Maguindanao’s spending for education remains low, even as the elementary teacher-to-pupil ratio has worsened to 51 in school year 2005-06, from 43.9 in school year 2000-01. These dismal statistics are among the reasons why, according to the Philippine Human Development Report (PHDR) of 2005, only 39.7 percent of adults in Maguindanao have six years of basic education, compared with the national average of 84 percent. Too, the PHDR reveals that Maguindanao has the second lowest life expectancy in the Philippines at 52 years, edged out only by Tawi-Tawi’s 51.2 years. The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) reports as well that the number of health stations in the province has remained stagnant at 163, from 2000 to 2006. Amid worsening poverty and education services for its population of 600,000 as of last year, Maguindanao has been pouring money into new town halls and a bigger capitol. The latter is now estimated to cost the province about P116 million, or nearly twice as much as the original price tag of P60 million. According to Unas, Andal Ampatuan had asked President Arroyo for help in funding the new capitol project. Arroyo, Unas said, committed an initial P20 million, paving the way for construction work to start. The renovation project has since evolved into a government center that will feature other huge structures, including a sports-and-culture center that would cost P80 million. Young guns, young terror ALL OVER the world, the practice of engaging children and teenagers in criminal gangs and private armies continues unabated. The Philippines is no exception. A little-known academic study documents how minors are being recruited down south in private armies better known as civilian volunteers organizations or CVOs. These groups help keep village adults in a perpetual state of fear and obeisance, even if some of the “volunteers" have not moved past puberty. The 80-page study was conducted across a five-month period in 2003 by researchers led by Agnes Zenaida Camacho of the University Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UCIDS) at the University of the Philippines. It focused on three towns of Maguindanao and the use of minors by the pagali or clan to keep itself in power. The researchers interviewed 10 young CVO members, who had to be assigned pseudonyms in the report, for their own protection. Most of the young CVO members were recruited into the armed group as replacement for their fathers who had been killed in action, the researchers learned. Of the 10 interviewees, only two were 18 years old at the time they started working for a pagali. One interviewee was drafted into CVO service when he was only 10 years old, and the seven others, in their early teens. Maguindanao is not lacking in funds. On top of benefiting from foreign and ARMM-funded projects, it received an internal revenue allotment (IRA) of P555 million in 2005, which grew to P633 million the following year. Yet of the P590 million budget the capitol lined up for 2006, P124 million or 21 percent was set aside for the provincial governor’s office alone. Over P185 million or 31 percent, meanwhile, went to the salaries and benefits of the capitol’s 587 employees. The people’s view The people in Maguindanao offer a common opinion of Andal Ampatuan as “mabait (a good person)." One resident says, “If you need a job, he’ll provide one for you." Another intones, “We don’t say no to him because he takes care of us." But such positive comments almost always come with a caveat: “Basta sundin mo ang gusto niya (As long as you do as he says)." “He is like a pharaoh, that’s what people call him," says Mastura, himself a member of one of Mindanao’s prominent families. “You don’t go against his wishes." The one person who has tried to keep the Ampatuans in check, albeit in his own turf, is Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Over the years, Duterte, who is known for his tough stance against crime, has repeatedly warned various clans — not only the Ampatuans, to be sure — against “misbehaving" in Davao City. But Duterte has also zeroed in on younger Ampatuan scions for using sirens whenever they drive around Davao. In 2006, Duterte let it rip when three Ampatuan youths were arrested in his city for possession of high-powered firearms, including rifles fitted with telescopic sights, and rounds of ammunition. “Davao City is not your kingdom," a fuming Duterte reportedly said. “If you want to show off, you better do it in your place, not here." Unfortunately for Duterte, Maguindanao has no known nightlife to keep privileged youths entertained and occupied. Once the sun sets in this province, the roads turn empty, save for one or two vehicles rushing to their destinations, and the occasional convoy of huge, black cars and pickups flashing their lights and sounding their sirens. Invariably, the convoy carries an Ampatuan as passenger. - PCIJ Click here for Jimeno's full article with photos, map, and table of Ampatuans in government.