I still remember the last time I saw Marlene Esperat. How could I not? She was wearing a red dress and matching high-heeled shoes. Her eyes sparkled with glittery makeup.
Marlene was a journalist in the province of Sultan Kudarat, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where she exposed the rigged bids and ghost projects that lined the pockets of local officials. She faced death threats because of her exposés and was at that time under police protection.
“I want to look pretty when the assassins come to get me,” she said.
Not long afterward, on a Thursday evening the week of Easter in March 2005, a gunman walked into Marlene’s home while she was dining with her children. “Good evening, madam,” he said, and then shot her in front of her daughter and two sons.
Filipinos agree that their country’s failings are rooted in a broken justice system. Cops and courts are seen as corrupt. And there is a widespread belief that the scales of justice are rigged.
Marlene comes to mind because this is a time for remembering. This month marks the tenth anniversary of what the Committee to Protect Journalists called the single deadliest attack on the press in recent memory.
On 23 November 2009, some 200 armed men ambushed a convoy of vehicles on a lonely highway in the province of Maguindanao, an hour’s drive from where Marlene was killed. They murdered 58 people, 32 of them journalists. After a long, drawn-out trial, in which the perpetrators and their lawyers have used every trick to thwart the law, a decision on the case is imminent.
More than 140 Filipino journalists have been killed since 1992, but only a few of their murderers have been brought to justice. That is why a lot is at stake in the court’s decision on the Maguindanao massacre. Whatever the outcome, it will be seen as a verdict not just on the accused, but also on the quality of justice in the Philippines.
The impunity with which journalists have been killed is part of a larger malaise. More than 30 years ago, not long after a popular revolt ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a government commission was set up to investigate the roots of the country’s longstanding communist and Muslim insurgencies. The commission found a thirst for justice so profound, it drove many to take up arms.
To this day, Filipinos agree that their country’s failings – crime, corruption, armed rebellion – are rooted in a broken justice system. Cops and courts are seen as corrupt. And there is a widespread belief that the scales of justice are rigged.
But first, Marlene, and why her memory haunts this moment. The outrage over her murder prompted a swift response. The gunman and his two accomplices were convicted in less than two years. That is a record for the Philippines, where murder cases normally clock 10 years before they are decided.
During the trial, the gunmen confessed they had been paid PHP120,000 ($2740) by two officials of a local state agency whom Marlene had accused of stealing funds meant for poor farmers. The killers are now serving life terms, but the masterminds have neither been arrested nor tried. A few years ago, one of them was photographed in a public gathering seated between the governor and an army brigade commander. The police chief was just a few seats away.
President Rodrigo Duterte, a former state prosecutor, has told Filipinos the justice system is so corrupt, drastic measures are needed to address the country’s woes, primarily drugs and crime.
Such impunity was in full display in Maguindanao. The Ampatuan clan, whose members planned and led the massacre, boasted of stupendous wealth in one of the country’s poorest provinces, having amassed vast tracts of land and acquired opulent mansions. At that time, the family patriarch, Andal Sr, was governor of the province, and clan members held nearly all the Maguindanao mayoralties. The family maintained a 2000-strong private militia and had enough weapons to arm two battalions. They also had the support of high officials in Manila for whom they had delivered votes.
During the trial, one witness was ambushed on his way to give testimony. Another was found dead, his body chopped to pieces. A third was standing at a busy market when two men on a motorcycle gunned him down.
The Ampatuans are hardly outliers. Over the many years I have reported on the Philippines, I have seen how the rich and powerful bend the justice system to their will.
President Rodrigo Duterte, a former state prosecutor, derives his appeal from this dysfunction. He has told Filipinos the justice system is so corrupt, drastic measures are needed to address the country’s woes, primarily drugs and crime.
The drug trade has thrived because drug dealers have connived with corrupt police, judges, and politicians. Duterte’s iron-fisted approach, which has resulted in thousands of dead drug suspects, was aimed at breaking this impasse. Never mind due process. Or human rights. Vigilante justice is better than no justice at all.
Regrettably, Duterte’s solution to a broken system is to break it even more. Vigilante justice may be satisfying in the short term, but it weakens institutions and wreaks havoc on the rule of law.
“The more you encourage people to take the law into their own hands,” the human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno told me, “the less meaning the legal system has for the people.”
I have spent the past year tracking down victims of the drug war in the warrens of Manila’s sprawling shantytowns, in the hope of getting an accurate count of the casualties. The mothers and widows of the drug war dead told me they had given up on the justice system, just as Mr Diokno had feared.
Fewer than 80 of the thousands of drug-related killings have been prosecuted since Duterte took office. Witnesses are afraid to testify and victims see the process as long, costly, and corrupt. Cases have been brought to the International Criminal Court, prompting Duterte to withdraw the Philippines from the ICC and threatening to arrest ICC prosecutors if they enter the country. He has also banned investigators from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Despite this, many in the human rights community believe that as long as Duterte is president, only international mechanisms can hold his government to account.
In Manila, as in Maguindanao, impunity rules. There are few victories in the war against it. If the massacre victims get justice, it will be an important win. But we need plenty more.