Ampatuan clan remains powerful
SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao—The Ampatuan clan remains influential in Maguindanao province, holding sway even in the villages five years after its patriarch and his sons were arrested and charged with murder over the massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in Ampatuan town.
Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) agrees that fear still grips areas influenced by the clan.
“They still have the capacity to launch partisan operations. There are still killings, even of witnesses. They still have a private army. They are still in the local government and the influence of the patriarch still exists,” Hataman said.
Former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., his sons Andal Jr. and Zaldy, and close to 200 of their followers are detained and being tried by a Quezon City court for the Nov. 23, 2009, massacre.
Regional government and military officials and residents have cited incidents in recent months as proof of the Ampatuans’ continuing political influence.
On Nov. 18, two former followers of the clan were ambushed by armed men while on their way to Buluan town on board a tricycle to meet prosecution lawyers who were waiting to get their sworn statements against the accused.
Dennix Sakal, who worked as a driver for Ampatuan Jr., was killed. His companion, Butch Saudagal, a former bagman of the clan, was wounded.
On Oct. 22, two Philippine Army soldiers were shot and killed inside a hospital in Datu Hofer town, also in Maguindanao.
Military authorities believe that rebels from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were behind the attack “orchestrated” by a
BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama has denied that his group was involved, but claimed that it was an operation of a faction of the Ampatuan clan that went wrong.
A vendor at the public market in Shariff Aguak town, who identified herself only as Rahima, said in an interview with the Inquirer last week that fear among the people remained and that there were some changes after several suspects in the massacre were detained.
“Be careful. The loyalists and supporters of the Ampatuans are still roaming around here. They do not show their guns and power as before but believe me they are just around the corner ready to move if needed,” Rahima said.
The influence of the clan is so deep that they still control the affairs of the local government down to the barangay (village) level, she added.
“We are just trying to make a living here, but we are afraid. It’s a fear hard to describe. When there are members of the clan or their supporters around, my initial reflex is to bow my head and not look at them,” Rahima said.
For Hataman, however, Maguindanao is relatively safer today.
“You can now pass by that area at night. I know because I pass by that area even at midnight with no escorts. Before, you would rarely see vehicles on that road, except military and police vehicles,” he said.
While acknowledging that the Ampatuans still control some parts of the province, Hataman said the clan’s power was waning and they would completely lose influence in a few years.
“They still have power, but … I think they have weakened by 60 percent. And one of the reasons is that they are already divided. And this weakening will continue and [it will be gone by] 2016,” he said.
Bloodline doesn’t count
There is infighting in the clan, as shown by a shooting in Datu Hofer town and Mayor Zahara Ampatuan’s removal from office in Shariff Aguak town.
Zahara, wife of Anwar Ampatuan, one of those charged in the massacre, has gone into hiding after a warrant was issued for her arrest for alleged involvement in the murder of Shariff Aguak council secretary Alfredo Amilista on April 3.
A nephew of Ampatuan Sr., Alehol Ampatuan, was shot dead outside his house in Shariff Aguak before he could testify for the prosecution in the Maguindanao massacre case, private prosecutor Nena Santos told the Inquirer.
Alehol Ampatuan’s family, however, had a different story, claiming the killing stemmed from “envy and suspicion.” They did not elaborate, though.
Shariff Ampatuan, younger brother of Ampatuan Sr., spoke disapprovingly of the massacre. Two years ago, a grenade exploded in the compound of his house.
“There were attempts on my life,” he said.
There were unreported killings in the province as other members of the clan began to criticize the way Ampatuan Sr. handled things in Maguindanao.
These included the murder a few months ago of businessman and former Shariff Aguak municipal councilor Doro Ampatuan.
Doro Ampatuan, a first cousin of Ampatuan Sr., was shot dead in his home, in the presence of his family.
Officials believe the remaining branches of the clan are competing with other groups to fill the power void left by the arrest of the Ampatuans.
Hataman said the clan’s influence was limited to the towns of Datu Unsay, Datu Hofer, Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak. “And these are not regular working governments,” he said.
During the 2013 elections, the wives of some of those accused in the massacre won. Zaldy Ampatuan’s wife, Jaihara, is mayor of Datu Hofer; Andal Ampatuan Jr.’s wife, Reshal, is mayor of Datu Unsay; and Zahara is mayor of Shariff Aguak.
Other Ampatuans were elected as mayors as well. Among them were Sandria Sinsuat-Ampatuan in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town, Benzar Ampatuan in
Mamasapano town, and Zamzamin Ampatuan in Rajah Buayan.
Hataman does not count Zamzamin among clan members influenced by Ampatuan Sr. He describes Zamzamin as independent-minded.
Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, in earlier interviews, described Zahara and Zamzamin as “good Ampatuans” who were sincere in providing services to their constituents.
Hataman said serving justice was taking too long in the Maguindanao massacre case. “The wait has been too long, most especially for the victims and even for the suspects,” he said.
New regional gov’t
Hataman said he was pinning his hopes for an end to impunity and political patronage in Maguindanao on a new Bangsamoro regional government, expected to be established before the end of President Aquino’s term in 2016.
For Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division, the government missed the opportunity to end the Ampatuans’ influence in Maguindanao when it declared a state of emergency in the province weeks after the massacre.
Like Hataman, Hermoso said Maguindanao was safer now but he admitted that there are still killings, private armies and clan wars.
Five years after the Maguindanao massacre, uprooting warlordism in the province remains a difficult task, Hermoso said.
He added, however, that the security sector was working hard to dismantle the private armies and bring charges against their members.–Karlos Manlupig, Inquirer Mindanao
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