Philippine taxpayers 'funded death squad'
Raissa Robles in Manila
Filipinos who are shocked by the barbarity of the Maguindanao massacre that killed 27 journalists and 30 others might not realise that they helped pay for it. The killers were militiamen and police officers, armed and funded by the taxpayer, government investigators said.
Killings carried out by politicians' private armies are commonplace in the Philippines, especially in election season. But Monday's carnage in the southern Philippines exposed the unsavoury trend of political warlords placing their henchmen on the state payroll.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno noted the alarming development this week: 'You know, when there is a local official with criminal intent ... they should not be given the ability to use legal institutions to foster their personal agenda.'
The briefing by Puno and military and police commanders was held after they succeeded in arresting Andal Ampatuan Jnr, a town mayor and member of the powerful Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao, on suspicion that he led this week's bloodbath. The slaughter has set a world record for the number of journalists killed while reporting on a democratic exercise.
The reporters were covering the largely female entourage of a candidate's wife who was on her way to file her husband's nomination for governor, despite death threats from Ampatuan's father, three-term Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Snr, who wanted his son to succeed him.
In daylight and despite the presence of several police checkpoints, the group was blocked by around 100 uniformed, armed men, state investigators said.
Their vehicles were forced off the highway at gunpoint and the women were raped before being killed. Others were buried alive while some died inside their cars as the vehicles were smashed by an excavator or backhoe with the markings 'province of Maguindanao'.
'What has happened here has been a total misuse of our law enforcement personnel in the area and complicity by law enforcement personnel of the commission of this crime,' Puno said.
'The police forgot that they should defend the Republic of the Philippines, not their godfathers.'
Learning from the tragedy, the government would 'identify areas where the chiefs of police and provincial [police] directors may have become so close to the local officials as to lose their impartiality'.
In future elections, officials' operational control over the police force in their area would be withdrawn, the minister added. The police have initially identified nine provinces across the nation as next year's election hot spots because rivals there maintain large private armies.
The government had a long-standing policy to disband private armies but lacked the political will to enforce it, analysts said. In some instances, such as in Davao city, a clandestine army is used to fight crime through vigilante-style killings, which has also resulted in the deaths of innocent people.
Human Rights Watch released a 103-page report this year which had conclusions similar to those made by Puno in connection with the Maguindanao massacre. In the report on the mysterious killings in Davao - which rose from two in 1998 to 124 last year - the New York-based NGO said: 'We found evidence of complicity and at times direct involvement of government officials and members of the police in killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad.'
It concluded that 'the words and actions of long-time Davao city Mayor Rodrigo Duterte ... indicate his support for targeted killings of criminal suspects', but did not name him as the mastermind.
Instead of firing Duterte, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed him her 'anti-crime czar'. Like most Philippine leaders before her, she has chosen to seal alliances with warlords who can deliver votes, rather than dismantle their private armies.
Arroyo's critics have said she has long turned a blind eye on the Ampatuan clan's wrongdoings. Human Rights Commission chairwoman Leila de Lima reported receiving many complaints of 'chainsaw' deaths being blamed on members of the Ampatuan family. No one has been prosecuted because witnesses were too scared to come forward, she said.
In light of this, the response to this week's massacre is viewed as a test case. The government has promised an impartial investigation but many are sceptical, especially after witnessing the treatment of the suspect. A cabinet minister escorted him, without handcuffs, by chartered plane to Manila.
Presidential spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo summed up Arroyo's relations with the suspect's family.
'If we will see later on that the Ampatuans are found guilty, based on the investigation, then whether ally or not they will not be given special treatment and they should be punished,' she said. 'But it doesn't mean that we are no longer friends with them if they are guilty. I think that should be treated separately.'