Sharif Aguak, Philippines (AFP) – Leaders of a Muslim clan accused of carrying out the Philippines’ worst political massacre remain a major security threat in their home province even from behind bars, locals say.
Residents in the southern province of Maguindanao still talk about the Ampatuan family in hushed voices, because saying anything bad about the clan could bring bloody reprisals from loyal militiamen who have eluded arrest.
“Their forces are still very much around. You may not see the family’s leaders anymore, but you can still feel their presence,” said Jun Dadula, a long-time government employee, whose name was changed to protect his identity.
Dadula has lived all his life literally under the shadows of the Ampatuans — his family’s modest bungalow is not far from the mansions owned by Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his sons in Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital.
He described Ampatuan Sr. as a benevolent godfather to those who were loyal to him, but a vengeful and violent man to those who went against his will.
“No one dares to go against them,” he said as a column of military tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolled the main highway amid heightened tensions just ahead of the first anniversary of the massacre on Nov. 23.
Clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., his son and namesake, and four other relatives are among 196 people charged with murder for the November 23 massacre of the 57 people — 32 of whom were journalists.
They are being held in a detention center a long flight away from Maguindanao, in Manila, while awaiting trial — a process that could take years — yet have access to mobile phones and other forms of communication.
Last year’s murders were meant to stop a politician from a rival family, Esmael Mangudadatu, from contesting the governorship of the province.
Mangudadatu eventually won the post in May national elections after the Ampatuans lost their political support from then president Gloria Arroyo amid the fallout from the massacre.
But Mangudadatu, whose wife was among last year’s victims, said many of the clan’s loyal armed followers continued to elude a police manhunt by hiding in Maguindanao’s remote hilly areas.
He blamed them for the murders of at least five potential witnesses, including a former Ampatuan militiaman gunned down in July whose death has been widely reported.
“They remain very dangerous and can receive instructions any time (from the Ampatuan leaders) through mobile phones,” Mangudadatu told Agence France-Presse.
Illustrating the security threat, Mangudadatu has chosen not to set up his governors’ base in Shariff Aguak, preferring a town with fewer Ampatuan links, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
He will travel on Nov. 23 to the massacre site on the outskirts of Shariff Aguak, along with other relatives of the murdered people, for a one-year anniversary commemoration service.
However they will only go protected with heavy military security.
Ampatuan Sr. rose to prominence in the 1970s as a leader of a paramilitary group before entering politics as a mayor in Maguindanao province.
He later became provincial governor, and consolidated power and wealth by allegedly taking over vast tracts of land by force and by eliminating other families that were seen as a threat, according to Human Rights Watch.
The family’s power grew even stronger under the patronage of Arroyo, who used the Ampatuans and their militia of up to 5,000 men as a proxy force against Muslim rebels who have waged a decades-long insurgency in the southern Philippines.
Human Rights Watch said in a report that the Ampatuans remained in control in some parts of Maguindanao even after a security crackdown following last year’s massacre that led to the clan’s leaders being arrested.
It noted that eight of the 34 mayors who won in the May 2010 elections were Ampatuan relatives.
The continued violence has left people like Bai Nena Sahrik with little hope of seeing her 10-month-old granddaughter grow up in a place where she can play without fear of being abducted or harmed.
“We are still very, very afraid,” said Sahrik, as she lined up to receive a cash dole-out at a dilapidated municipal building in a town named after the Ampatuans.
“Everyday, we are reminded of them,” she said, pointing to a fading campaign picture on a wall showing Zaldy Ampatuan, one of the clan leaders in jail awaiting trial. (Agence France-Presse)
PHOTO: Principal accused Andal Ampatuan Jr.