November  26, 2009

By Carlos H. Conde

MANILA — The death toll in Monday’s election violence rose to 57 on Wednesday, the Philippine authorities said, as 11 more bodies were recovered.

The regional police commander in Maguindanao Province, Josefino Cataluna, said the bodies were dug out from a shallow pit near a grassy hilltop where police officers and troops had found 46 others after Monday’s attack, The Associated Press reported. He said the victims included the family of a gubernatorial candidate and 18 Filipino journalists who accompanied his relatives in filing his election papers.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the contiguous provinces of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat and in the city of Cotabato on the southern island of Mindanao. The measure gives the police and army the authority to apprehend and detain those who carried out the slaughter.

The southern Philippines has been plagued for years by secessionist and Islamist insurgencies. The United States sends $1.6 billion annually in military and economic aid to the Philippines, with much of it aimed at a shadowy Islamist group, Abu Sayyaf, which has ties to Al Qaeda.

The authorities said that this week’s election violence had nothing to do with those groups, but that it was rooted in rivalries among local clans that the government had empowered as a way of combating the insurgents. One clan, the Ampatuans, is considered the closest political ally of Mrs. Arroyo in that part of the southern Philippines.

There are at least 250 political dynasties scattered throughout the Philippines, according to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a nonprofit group. For many of them and particularly those in the south, politics is literally a blood sport, with the clans’ power and income riding on the outcome of elections. As a consequence, violence has become a fixture of elections here; at least 126 people died in the 2007 elections, and 189 in 2004.

Opponents were quick to accuse the Ampatuans of engineering Monday’s attack. Esmael Mangudadatu, the vice mayor of Buluan, a town in Maguindanao, whose family is the chief political enemy of the Ampatuans, said on national television that survivors had implicated supporters of the Maguindanao governor, Andal Ampatuan. The Ampatuans have not made any public statement since the killings. 

Mr. Mangudadatu said about 100 armed men had abducted the group, which included his wife, Genalyn, and other female relatives. They were on their way to the election office on Monday to file candidacy papers for him.

Mr. Mangudadatu attributed the attack to his decision to challenge the Ampatuans for the governorship. Governor Ampatuan is the patriarch of his clan, which has dominated politics in the province for decades.

In a statement, Reporters Without Borders denounced the massacre: “Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company