Rust never sleeps: The corrosive power of Mindanao’s warlord clans

It has been ten years since the brutal massacre of 58 people in Ampatuan, Maguindanao in the Philippines on 23 November 2009. This is the last of a three-article series on the violent incident written at the time. We remember and reflect on the lessons from the tragedy that shook the nation as we re-release the analyses that still hold true today.

First published March 2010

An unintended consequence of the Maguindanao massacre was to draw attention to a huge underground economy that undergirds the political authority and legitimacy of Mindanao’s political entrepreneurs. The revelation by US authorities over the palpable impact of “narcopolitics’ in the May 10 2010 elections, and the recent busting of small-scale drug labs in Metro-Manila, Cotabato City, and in several towns of Lanao del Sur underscore this reality, alongside the discovery of a huge cache of arms and ammunition controlled by violent clans.

Yet to confine the dynamics of power at the subnational and national level neglects a new source of politico-economic power which explains the resilience of warlord clans—their links to supra-national criminal networks engaged in the lucrative arms and drug trade in Southeast Asia and their increased access to considerable amounts of foreign aid and reconstruction assistance in conflict-affected areas. These have enabled warlords to embellish their legitimacy and tap into new sources of wealth and power that corrodes and transcends the nation-state.

The discovery of cocaine shipments in Davao City and in Philippine waters off Eastern Visayas underlies a shocking reality that stares the nation in the face – the Philippines has become an important trans-shipment point for high-value drugs such as cocaine and heroin, apart from being a global supplier and consumer of methamphetamine hydrochloride (shabu), and a wide user of methylene dioxy-methamphetamine (ecstacy).

For international security agencies, these events herald a tipping-point in the narcotics terms of trade. They demonstrate how the Philippines has evolved as a major crossroad in the global trade in illicit drugs, provoking security specialists to intensively monitor local drug networks and identify the Muslim and Christian warlords embedded in the Triad and other criminal gangs in Asia.

Meanwhile, international pressure has forced local intelligence operatives to trace the origin of weapons used in the Maguindanao massacre and their links to national, cross-border, and regional gun-running syndicates, accentuated by the recently aborted smuggling of firearms from Indonesia and the landing of illegal firearms in Sulu.

The discovery of high-value weapons in the Ampatuan arsenal is alarming due to their politico-military implications. One, they expose a rupture in the logistics chain that underlies military assistance programs between the Philippines and the United States. The possession of a Barrett sniper’s rifle also implies that warlord clans may be engaged and harnessed in the dirty job of political assassinations. Two, they demonstrate the potential repercussions of outsourcing armed violence to local warlords – and how such practices can be manipulated by a warlord clan bent on liquidating its political opponents, instead of Moro rebels and communist insurgents.

It highlights the alliances that lurk behind the trade in illegal drugs, illicit weapons, and the nation-state. Controlling the illegal drug trade undoubtedly requires big investments in firepower, exhibited by the awesome resources of warlords who can enlist and equip hundreds of paramilitaries. Meanwhile, continued access to weapons and the means to lug these around requires the approval of the State. These uncover an elite bargain that includes the de-facto sanctioning of a growing trade in “lootable” resources such as drugs. It begs an important question: how often has the Philippine State turned a blind eye to a clear and present danger in exchange for political support?

The issue resonates in the huge amounts of foreign aid targeted towards an impoverished region reeling from both local and rebellion-related conflict. It is no secret that development assistance targeted to Maguindanao province and the ARMM regional government meant the forging of project arrangements with their overlords. The mix of fiscal resources and foreign aid has enabled government consumption expenditures in the ARMM to grow faster than in any other region in Mindanao, despite the negligible tax revenues from these areas. How ignorant or aware were aid agencies that they were negotiating with political entrepreneurs with a long history of corruption and violence?

While it is reasonable to expect official donors to deal directly with local government executives as the official channels for welfare provisioning, it is naïve to suggest that aid givers were ignorant of the dangers these entailed. Yet several project officers interviewed by the author cannot help wondering if their aid money ended up in the giant mansions and expensive vehicles owned by warlords, their profligate spending in the gambling capitals of the world, their purchase of the means to kill, and the procurement of expensive infrastructure equipment including the infamous backhoe.

The potential connections between violence, government spending, and aid money presents a real dilemma that will linger long after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo leaves the political stage. It will continue to fuel the gnawing questions and growing concerns among donor higher-ups about whether the integrity and viability of development programs were compromised in Mindanao. It provides the backdrop behind the temporary suspension of Mindanao operations by aid agencies such as the USAID, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the World Bank.

Despite their often-violent outcomes, the links between warlords and shadowy regional and global syndicates adds another layer of legitimacy and credibility to the warlord clans. Combine this with their ability to reverse national electoral outcomes and what emerges is a new-type of warlord with a national and global profile.Drawing from the scholarship of conflict specialists such as Mark Duffield and William Reno, these new conditions would seem to mimic the situation in other civil wars in Eastern and Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, in the case of Mindanao, warlords have found a way to manufacture consent-based political authority by allowing local people to engage in the same underground economy that survived and thrived under devolution.

This explains why the complexion of Mindanao’s “strong men” has gained lustre over the past decade: they were enabled by the State to capture a large share of public funds, emboldened by a regional shadow economy that enlarged their resources, and connected to bilateral and multilateral aid agencies that helped strengthen their credibility and legitimacy. These factors made political office more lucrative and the ability to engage in violent and protracted conflict a desired skill.

They also displayed the changing perceptions of political legitimacy in the region. Neither Islam, nor a politician’s primordial links to the royal houses of Sulu, Lanao, and Maguindanao are now sufficient to secure political office. Neither are the links to rebel armies, nor the ties that bind local “strong men” to national political elites. These layers of legitimacy will not be enough to overcome the contestation for power by ruthless entrepreneurs whose power knows no boundaries, and whose violent practice defies all norms.