MANILA, Philippines – A year after 57 people were killed in the Philippines' worst political massacre, journalist Reynaldo Momay's daughter still has no body to prove her father was the 58th victim. Her evidence is both scant and horrifying: his denture dug from a mass grave.
The remains were recovered on a grassy hilltop near the main highway in southern Maguindanao province on Nov. 23, 2009. But the body of Momay, 61, a photographer for a small-town newspaper, is still missing, leaving Reynafe Momay-Castillo unable to prove that he too was slain.
The massacre was the worst atrocity in recent Philippine history: A local warlord and town mayor, Andal Ampatuan Jr., the scion of a powerful clan in the impoverished, insurgency-wracked province, is accused of leading an ambush on an election convoy and ordering about 200 gunmen to mow down the family and supporters of a political rival — almost all of them women.
Among the dead were at least 32 media workers and their staff, making it the worst single killing of journalists anywhere in the world.
It exposed the abuse of authority and unchecked violence that is part of Philippine politics. Political clans in some regions overshadow the weak central government and perpetuate their hold on power for generations, often ruthlessly eliminating rivals with the help of private armies.
Ampatuan Jr., the prime suspect in the massacre, surrendered days later, hoping for a lenient treatment in the hands of his political ally, then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Ampatuans delivered crucial votes in their province for Arroyo and her nominees in the 2004 and 2007 elections, and she helped them get elected to top posts in an autonomous Muslim region that includes Maguindanao. Amputuan Jr.'s father and brothers have also been charged along with dozens of other people. Of 197 accused in the case, more than 100 are in hiding.
Newly elected President Benigno Aquino III has vowed to end that culture of impunity — and the massacre trial is his litmus test. But justice is already proving elusive for many of the families.
At least one potential witness has already been gunned down and properties of witnesses who testified against the Ampatuans attacked. A lawyer for another witness was shot in the neck.
Glena Legarta, wife of slain reporter Bienvenido Jun Legarta, said families of the victims continue to get offers of money from apparent go-betweens of the Ampatuans in exchange for dropping the case.
She said that just last week she refused an offer of 8 million pesos ($183,000). Ampatuan's lawyer, Sigfried Fortun, denied any bribe offers.
A recent report from New York-based Human Rights Watch warily notes a policy of arming civilians in far-flung villages to fend off attacks by Muslim and communist rebels in Maguindanao. As long as the militias exist, the report says, they can be manipulated into doing a politician's dirty work.
The government says it will disband ill-disciplined and rogue paramilitary units but that the army and the police force need them because security forces are stretched thin.
On top of all these obstacles to justice, Momay's family faces yet another.
Momay's name is not in the official list of victims because his body has not been found, Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon said.
Still, his daughter is among the regulars at the trial, held once a week in a newly constructed courtroom inside Manila's maximum-security prison. She quit her job as a nurse at a provincial hospital because relatives of the Ampatuans would sometimes seek treatment and she could not bring herself to attend to them.
"My presence at the hearings is meant to remind the government that there is still one more missing," Momay-Castillo told The Associated Press in an interview, wiping away tears. "It is meant to tell them that I am still searching and they need to help me."
Romel Bagares, one of the private lawyers assisting state prosecutors in the cases of slain journalists, said that they had submitted affidavits to the National Bureau of Investigation — the Philippine equivalent of FBI — seeking to have Momay recognized as a 58th victim. He said a resolution of the case is still pending.
It's unclear how long the review will take in a system that many, including Aquino, acknowledge is excruciatingly slow to deliver justice. Criminal court cases often go on for dozens of years, hampered by law enforcers' weakness in collecting evidence, bureaucracy, and a backlog of cases.
A prominent senator, Joker Arroyo, has said that at the current rate, it may take 200 years to complete the trial, at which more than 500 witnesses are scheduled to testify — though the government promises to finish it in Aquino's six-year term. Only five have taken the stand since September.
Momay's family wants to add a little bit more to that mound of evidence. A dental technician has said that the upper left denture found at the grave site was the one he made for Momay. Jose Pablo Bayarbar, an independent Peruvian forensic expert who examined the mass grave, confirmed the match.
In addition, Momay's editor at Midland Review, a small regional paper, said he received a call from Momay that morning that he was joining the convoy.
"When you say 57 victims, I cannot agree because even if I have not seen my father's body, he is still a victim," said Momay-Castillo.