Monsters, Inc.

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Considering that there were about 100 defendants and 58 victims (officially down to 57, as ruled by the judge), we should probably count our blessings that it took only a decade to resolve the Maguindanao massacre case.

And there is rejoicing, of course, that Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court’s Branch 221  found the principal defendants – almost all the members of the Ampatuan clan – guilty as charged and sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.

There is disappointment over the exclusion of the 58th fatality, for lack of a corpus delicti – the body of photojournalist Reynaldo Momay has not been found. This excludes the victims’ heirs from any award for compensation or damages.

And there is disappointment that 56 of the defendants were acquitted, including Mayor Sajid Islam Ampatuan of Shariff Saydona Mustapha town in Maguindanao and Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan Sr. due to reasonable doubt. I haven’t gone over the 761-page decision yet, but offhand, I’m wondering if those cleared, especially Sajid Islam, should have been convicted for complicity in a conspiracy to commit mass murder.

Zaldy Ampatuan will probably whip out again the VIP jailbirds’ ultimate weapons against incarceration – a neck brace and a wheelchair – as soon as he sees the entrance to the New Bilibid Prison.

Let’s hope authorities will not indulge him again. There is enough injustice in this massacre as it is without the masterminds being given the VIP treatment as prisoners.

Solis-Reyes heard this case in a special annex of her courtroom that was set up at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, where most of the convicts were held without bail. The camp is home to the National Capital Region Police Office, allowing its personnel to secure the court annex and prevent the accused mass murderers from escaping.

As we have seen, however, a detention facility is only as secure as the resistance of its custodians to corruption. But with the New Bilibid Prison under constant scrutiny these days, NBP personnel might hesitate to give any of the new VIP prisoners an opportunity to flee. They might also hesitate to grant special passes so the VIPs can spend their incarceration in an air-conditioned private hospital room outside the NBP.

*      *      *

With a guilty verdict handed down, there are more challenges ahead. One is to catch the 80 suspects who remain at large and bring them to justice.

All guilty verdicts are automatically on appeal, and those convicted can be expected to put up a spirited fight for their acquittal. Let’s hope the road to final judgment won’t take another 10 years.

Alongside fighting the appeal is another challenge: the pursuit of the Ampatuans’ wealth for forfeiture by the state, and payment of civil damages to the victims’ families.

Freeze orders have been issued by the courts on bank accounts, real estate property and other identified assets of the clan of accused mastermind Andal Ampatuan Sr., who died before justice could be served.

Prosecutors believe, however, that substantial amounts of cash have been stashed away by the clan the old-fashioned way – not in banks where there is a paper trail, but perhaps in boxes, chests or baul buried somewhere, or concealed within walls the way South American narcos do with their mountains of dirty money.

Nena Santos, private lawyer for the families of 38 of the victims, has claimed she was offered P300 million by the camp of the Ampatuans to withdraw from the case. The Ampatuans have denied this.

Santos is preparing a case against a retired police officer who reportedly offered P25 million to the family of the victim whose cell phone, which she hid in her genitals before she died, was used as a critical piece of evidence in the case. The money would have been in exchange for the phone, which was found in the corpse during the autopsy.

Over the past decade, witnesses have disappeared or recanted their stories, and 80 suspects remain at large. The prosecution believes these developments can be possible only if money is being mobilized to obstruct justice.

For sure the Ampatuans are aware of the big fight ahead – over their questionable assets.

In one of the poorest regions in the country, the Ampatuans thrived, driving around in convoys of luxury vehicles with their private armies, living it up in fortified mansions. How do local executives in third-class municipalities and impoverished provinces, with their modest salaries, manage to accumulate that kind of wealth?

*      *      *

This brings us to another challenge: eliminating the environment that creates monsters and breeds impunity.

The Maguindanao massacre was just the worst manifestation of this environment. The Ampatuans were the warlords of Maguindanao and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Even Andal Ampatuan Jr.’s ruthlessness and sociopathic violence served a purpose. Cops and soldiers who were assigned in the ARMM talk of Islamic separatists being terrified of incurring the ire of Andal Jr., because of his reported propensity to decapitate and mutilate anyone who crossed him.

Through patronage and fear, the Ampatuans ruled the ARMM. It was said that they could deliver whatever number of votes were needed by their political allies during elections. And what powerful allies they had.

The Ampatuans might have been Monsters, Inc., but they were like that saying about SOBs: as long as they’re your SOBs, they’re OK.

Apart from delivering for their allies during elections, the Ampatuans enjoyed favor at Malacañang for keeping the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Abu Sayyaf and other threat groups in check. Among the memorable moments as details of the horror in Maguindanao were coming out in trickles in 2009 were interviews at Malacañang, during which then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo could not condemn her staunch allies the Ampatuans.

There are other political warlords still out there – running their fiefdoms like gangsters, naming streets and villages and government projects after their family members, freely using public money for private purposes, and controlling every aspect of the local criminal justice system.

That kind of control created the impunity that made the Ampatuans believe they could get away with the massacre of 58 people.

After their sentencing, the challenge is to eliminate that impunity from other warlords.

As Nena Santos put it, this fight is just getting started.

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