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Election Violence Hits New Heights in Philippines

BY Larisa Epatko  November 27, 2009 at 4:30 PM EDT

Authorities dig cars and bodies out of graves in Philippines; AFP/Getty Images

The massacre of 57 people traveling with a candidate for provincial governor in the southern Philippines is bringing new pressure on the government to crack down on election-related violence.

This week, authorities in Maguindanao, in the southern Philippines, made the grizzly discovery of 57 bodies of those who were attacked while traveling in a convoy to file candidacy papers for provincial governor.

Among the dead were the wife, two sisters and supporters of gubernatorial candidate Ismael Mangudadatu, along with 18 Filipino journalists traveling with the group, and the occupants of two cars that happened to be passing by at the time, news outlets reported.

The convoy was stopped at a checkpoint, the passengers taken to a grassy hilltop and systematically killed, said Carlos Conde, who has been reporting from the region for The New York Times and GlobalPost.

The alleged mastermind of the massacre, Andal Ampatuan Jr. — mayor of Datu Unsay and son of the provincial governor of Maguindanao — turned himself into authorities and was brought to Manila where he faces seven counts of murder, according to CNN.

“Civilized society has no place for this kind of violence,” said Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in a statement. “No effort will be spared to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable to the full limit of the law.”

Mangudadatu, escorted by soldiers, filed his election documents on Friday, saying, “Only death can stop me from running,” quoted the Associated Press.

Revenge killings and fighting among rival political families are common in Maguindanao province, about 560 miles south of Manila, although Monday’s violence was the worst in recent memory, said Conde.

“Elections in the Philippines are historically and perennially — they’re always violent — they only vary in degrees, for instance in the number of people killed every election period,” he said. “It has always been a problem for the Philippines, particularly in Maguindanao.”

Because of the violence and the sheer number of casualties, there’s now intense pressure on Arroyo to crack down, not just on Ampatuans, but also on political warlords, he added.

Conde describes more of the background of this week’s political violence in this audio interview.