The Long View
Caught in the act
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:43:00 11/29/2009
THEIR TRACK RECORD AND THE EXTENT OF their preparations for conducting the massacre in the town named after themselves suggest the Ampatuans had the methodology of mass murder down pat and fully expected to make it difficult for anyone to prove they did it. But they weren’t able to tidy up the scene of the crime.
The question I keep asking myself is, why?
The plan may have been ambitious, but there seemed little reason why it shouldn’t go off without a hitch. Since the Mangudadatus hoped a combination of respect for tradition and the presence of media would enable them to formalize their challenge to the Ampatuans, the Ampatuans decided to call their bluff, regardless of the large size of the Mangudadatu convoy. Days in advance, that now-notorious backhoe trundled off to the planned liquidation site, even as the PNP and AFP declined to provide security to the doomed convoy, which proceeded down a highway past checkpoint after checkpoint that failed to notice anything was amiss.
This paper’s very own correspondent, who was supposed to be part of the press contingent covering the Mangudadatus, sensed something was afoot when alerted by the manager of his hotel to the recent departure of motorcycle-riding lookouts. These lookouts would have torn down the highway, past those checkpoints, to inform the killing team the convoy was en route, and quite possibly, to the site where the backhoe was in place in order to dig pits big enough to dispose of both bodies and vehicles. Neither the AFP nor PNP, for obvious reasons if one assumes both services were in the pockets of the Ampatuans, noticed all this activity when throughout the country, the military and police keep an eagle eye on anyone riding around on a motorcycle and regularly harass motorcyclists.
GMANews.tv’s timeline of events says the massacre and the disposal of the bodies took place between 10:30 a.m., the time Genalyn Mangudadatu called her husband to tell him their convoy had been intercepted, and 3 p.m., when Philippine Army units (responding to a call they claim to have gotten at 11 a.m.) arrived on the scene. After being stopped, the convoy was diverted to the scene of the actual killings, a journey of half an hour or 2.5 kilometers from where the convoy was first halted.
Then the massacre took place. The actual murders were estimated to have taken about an hour to carry out (hence the last distress signal was a 12 noon text message sent by journalist Noel Decena to his brother, Joseph, saying their situation was “critical”). The ditches were dug. Whether dead or dying, the members of the ill-fated convoy and others who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time were dumped in. Everything was going to be literally covered up.
Here’s where it gets very curious. The AFP, which had suddenly gotten very energetic after PA units were alerted at 11 a.m., sneaked up to within a kilometer of the mass graves when the killing team apparently got wind of the approaching army units. They had to flee, leaving not only unburied corpses and bullet-ridden vehicles, but also the backhoe that made retrieving the buried bodies and vehicles that much easier and which itself tagged the Ampatuans as the likely perpetrators of the mass murder.
The call made by the doomed wife of Esmael Mangudadatu is generally viewed as the act that ruined the well-laid plans of the Ampatuans. But they would have been blamed by the aggrieved family anyway, and as we now know, the Ampatuans were prepared, in turn, to blame the MILF for the massacre. Had they had enough time to tidy up, as it seems they fully expected they’d be able to do, they would’ve had no problem sticking to their story as the Mangudadatus, the media and everyone else engaged in a protracted search for a convoy that seemingly vanished into thin air; even if the freshly covered pit had been found, it would have taken time to dig up what had been buried.
What ruined things was the appearance of the Philippine Army, not stealthily enough to actually catch anyone in the act (though soldiers later said they heard the backhoe’s engine rumbling and could see smoke belching from it), but preventing the tidying-up operation from being completed. Reporters on the ground haven’t detailed the route taken by the PA units during the four hours it took from initial alert to arrival on the scene (whether it was remarkably fast or remarkably slow) but the end result turned the tables on the Ampatuans, who’d viewed themselves as overlords with the national government thoroughly subordinated to them.
Instead, they’ve had to sacrifice Andal Ampatuan Jr. to the authorities, as the administration plays good cop, bad cop, with Gilbert Teodoro Jr. anointing the Mangudadatus and the President and the interior secretary insisting the only Ampatuan they have a problem with is the one in custody.
The Ampatuans themselves have hunkered down for an extended siege, protected not only by their battalion-strength private army, but their extended political and clan network of supporters and subordinates. New York Times correspondent Carlos Conde says he is developing a story concerning the Mangudadatus, now the anointed of the Frankenstein coalition, and who are preparing to topple the Ampatuans and in the process entrench themselves as the new overlord of their fellow warlords. Where once Esmael Mangudadatu had no children in office unlike Andal Ampatuan Sr., now he is preparing to run one of his sons to replace him, even as he himself seeks the governorship.
It will be a bloody business in Maguindanao come May 2010. Not least because it’s probably sunk in, by now, that the Ampatuans’ power had become so unprecedented as to require elimination: the old balance of power with Manila on top must be restored. Whoever wins – Teodoro’s anointed Mangudadatus or the President’s friends the Ampatuans – the winner is PaLaKa.