Much of the increasingly lawless southern Philippines is today under a state of emergency following a brutal mass killing that has left at least 46 people dead in one of the country's worst bouts of political violence.
The bullet-riddled bodies of 24 people were found buried in shallow graves yesterday in a remote farming area of Maguindanao province, adding to the 22 corpses police had already discovered on Monday that had been dumped along a dirt road. Local officials said the victims, including 14 women and several journalists, were shot at close range and then hurriedly piled on top of one another in a pit dug up with a bulldozer.
And there were warnings that the death toll was only likely to rise. "We still have to check one other suspected mass grave," the national police chief Jesus Verzosa told local reporters while inspecting the area. As grieving relatives took away the their loved ones' bodies for burial, troops were looking for 40 people still missing, using shovels and their bare hands to dig up the grassy hillside.
Political violence and gun law has plagued the Philippines for decades, especially on the restless southern island of Mindanao, where the government of President Gloria Arroyo has courted strongmen and local clans to keep order. The violence traditionally worsens before elections, when jockeying for power and patronage is at its most intense.
Communist and Muslim-backed insurgencies – and over one million unlicensed weapons – add to the chaos. In some areas of the island, warlords with private armies dwarf the influence of the police and central government, openly targeting rivals for intimidation and assassinations. Extra-judicial killings of street criminals, politicians and even children are a growing feature of life.
As recession sharpens rivalries ahead of nationwide elections due in May next year, President Arroyo yesterday was forced to send élite police and army units into the two provinces in a bid to restore the rule of law. "There is an urgent need to prevent and suppress the occurrence of several other incidents of lawless violence," she said.
But critics say the investigation into the murders is likely to be hobbled by the President's close connections to the main suspects, the Ampatuan clan, which has dominated Maguindanao for years. The clan's patriarch, Andal Ampatuan, is a close ally of the Philippines' ruling coalition and has consistently delivered the district to Mrs Arroyo in previous elections. In return, he has used his large Muslim family to build a powerful network of local tribute.
Witnesses to the massacre say the victims were working for a rival Muslim candidate for governor and were on their way to file his nomination in next year's elections. The wife of the candidate, Ismail "Toto" Mangudadatu, was reportedly caught up in the massacre, as were a number of lawyers and journalists. Up to 100 bodyguards working for Ampatuan carried out the killings, according to survivors quoted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The scale of the latest killings has shocked this impoverished nation, with newspapers lining up to criticise Mrs Arroyo.
"Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day," Reporters without Borders said. "This time, the frenzied violence of thugs working for corrupt politicians has resulted in an incomprehensible bloodbath. We call for a strong reaction from the local and national authorities."
Philippine observers said, however, that the most likely immediate response to the killings is retaliation by Mangudadatu's followers. "Arroyo's government is beholden to support, especially during election time, from people like [the] Ampatuans," Professor Julkipli Wadi of the University of the Philippines told ABS-CBN news yesterday. "The administration does not have enough political will to disarm the Ampatuans."Reuse content