Carlos H. Conde
Research, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Ten years ago, news of the Maguindanao Massacre in the southern Philippines shook the world. On November 23, 2009, a hundred gunmen hired by the powerful Ampatuan clan stopped a six-vehicle convoy and executed 58 people, including a political opponent’s family members and 32 journalists. A decade later, justice remains elusive as many suspects have not been brought to trial or remain at large.
Next month, a court in Manila is expected to announce its verdict in the case. Among those facing judgment are Andal Ampatuan and Zaldy Ampatuan, the sons of the late head of the Ampatuan clan, and dozens of other suspects. But the slow process to reach this point highlights the many problems in the Philippine justice system. Victims’ families remain indignant about the glacial proceedings but hopeful the judge will render justice in the case.
The 2009 massacre prompted calls to fix the Philippines’ political, criminal, and judicial systems. While there have been efforts for judicial reform, legacies of dysfunction in the country remain alive and well. Political dynasties still rule, particularly in rural areas like Maguindanao. The police remain corrupt and inefficient, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has done nothing to change that. Duterte’s long run as mayor of Mindanao’s Davao City was fueled by family and crony politics that enabled him to defeat political enemies and rule above the law. The Ampatuan’s bloody rule in Maguindanao benefited from the same political culture that Duterte relied on.
The Maguindanao Massacre exposed the rot in that corrupt and violent political culture. Duterte campaigned and won the presidency in 2016 promising to not only eliminate illegal drugs but also to tackle common crime and corruption. His failed approach has included a murderous “war on drugs,” increased attacks on political and social activists, and a blind eye to corruption, all solidified by his government’s increasing authoritarianism. Convicting those responsible for the Maguindanao Massacre would serve as a wake-up call that justice is possible in the Philippines and a human rights-abusing status quo is unacceptable.