MAGUINDANAO // A tiny strip of yellow police tape tied to a tree is all that is left to mark the site of the worst political massacre in modern Philippine history. Ten months ago on a remote hill, 57 people were butchered by militiamen led, it is alleged, by the son of one of the region's most powerful warlords. Today, the site is deserted. There is no monument to those who were slaughtered, which included 32 local journalists. Tall grass has consumed the mass graves in which cars were once buried with the slain occupants inside.
The man said to be behind the November 23 massacre was Andal Ampatuan Jr, the mayor of Datu Unsay, a small town in the predominately Muslim province of Maguindanao, in the southern Philippines. His father, also named Andal, was governor of the province, one of the poorest in the country. The Ampatuan clan had ruled Maguindanao with impunity for the best part of a decade. "They had the guns and they had the money," said one resident who did not want to be identified.
The seeds of the massacre were sown when Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu, the vice mayor of another town in the province, decided to run against Mr Ampatuan Jr for governor in last May's national elections. Mr Ampatuan Sr had served three terms as governor. Philippine law limits the number of terms a politician can serve so he could not run again. His chosen successor was his son Andal, who thought he would be unopposed.
After receiving numerous death threats, Mr Mangudadatu decided to send his wife, sister, a pregnant aunt, other female relatives, lawyers and journalists to file his candidacy application in the provincial capital. He believed that Muslims would not attack women and journalists. A few kilometres from Datu Unsay, armed militias stopped the convoy. Mr Mangudadatu's wife rang her husband and told him what was happening. It was the last time he heard from her. All mobile phones were collected and the convoy was taken up a three-kilometre dirt track to what has become known as the "killing fields".
The Ampatuans rose to power partly because Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was president at the time, allowed the clan to build private armies to help fight a Muslim insurgency in the south.The Ampatuan clan also provided Mrs Arroyo lots of votes. In the 2004 presidential elections, the Ampatuans delivered nearly 200,000 votes. In the 2007 senatorial election, Mrs Arroyo's 12 candidates won in Maguindanao. The opposition did not get a single vote in 20 of the 22 towns in the province.
Mrs Arroyo let the clan run Maguindanao like a fiefdom. All economic initiatives went through the Ampatuans and state money was released through them. Even the posting of police and military generals were cleared with them. The Ampatuans were senior members of Mrs Arroyo's political party, but were expelled after the massacre. Another of Mr Ampatuan Senior's sons, Zaldy, was Mrs Arroyo's choice for governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao of which Maguindanao is part.
But in the wake of the massacre, the military, police and the region's voters have dismantled the Ampatuan dynasty. Shortly after the killings, Andal Ampatuan Jr was arrested and charged with murder. His trial, however, has been suspended since February while lawyers argue about procedure. He has pleaded not guilty. In February, Mr Ampatuan Sr and 196 others were indicted for the killings. Among those indicted were Zaldy Ampatuan, local government officials, police officers and members of the clan's militia. Of the 196, about 150 remain free. Voters reacted to the massacre by electing Mr Mangudadatu governor on May 10. A slate of Ampatuan candidates for other offices were all defeated.
The gleaming edifices the Ampatuans built for themselves are still visible. But Mr Mangudadatu has refused to hold office in them, preferring to run the province from his home town. The pink- and peach-coloured luxury homes and the Mindanao regional offices are now mostly deserted. A sign hanging across a road leading to the town says: "Welcome to Datu Unsay Municipality." Ben Hao, an army colonel who is the spokesman for the military's civilian operations in the region, said: "No one has dared to take it down ? the Ampatuans may have physically gone, but their presence is still felt."
Critics say Mrs Arroyo turned a blind eye to the Ampatuans' excesses. Although Mrs Arroyo severed her alliance with the Ampatuans after the murders, relatives of the victims say they believe she continued to protect them until her term as president ended on June 30. Under Mrs Arroyo, the investigation came to a standstill. Since the killings, witnesses have been murdered or intimidated. A key witness was murdered in June after the department of justice refused to put him into a witness protection programme. Suwaib Upham came forward in March and claimed he had taken part in the massacre.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Mr Upham outlined in graphic detail how senior members of the Ampatuan clan had plotted the killings. He said chainsaws were used and some people were butchered with machetes. Representatives of the Ampatuans have approached the families of the victims to try to buy them off, it has been reported. Under Philippine law, if a family accepts compensation, then the case is dropped. Benigno Aquino, the new president, has promised that "justice will be done".
At the massacre scene, Col Hao noted that the road leading to it cannot be found on any map. "It was built by the Ampatuans for only one purpose," he said, looking out across the valley. "Down there among the tall grass is where the Ampatuans buried their dead ? not just the 57 who died here but others. Local people will tell you that some nights you could hear gunfire and later on the sound of cars leaving the site."