MAGUINDANAO, Philippines -- In the Philippines, some politicians employ private armies to intimidate voters and attack their political rivals. A brutal massacre carried out by one such group has put pressure on the government to dismantle these political militias and put the spotlight on one man who is standing up to the group.
Toto Mangudadatu has paid a high price for running against the Ampatuans, a powerful, political dynasty that ruled in Maguindanao for a decade.
"It was the people who persuaded me to run to put a stop to the abuse of power by the Ampatuans," Mangudadatu said. "They followed their own law and killed whoever went against it. I knew that running for governor could cost us our lives."
On a fateful day in November of last year, Mangudadatu's wife was on her way to file his certificate of candidacy along with several of their supporters, when the entire group was murdered and buried in a mass grave. Before she was murdered, Mangudadatu wife managed to talk to him on her cell phone and identified his rival, Andal Ampatuan, Jr. who had assaulted her.
Ampatuan and his other relatives were arrested and are facing multiple murder charges.
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo is trying to deal with the looming scandal of tolerating warlordism that has gone out of control. The horrific massacre that shocked the whole world also led President Arroyo to order the dismantling of 132 private militias across the country.
"It opened the eyes of our national officials that they should not allow politicians or celebrities to have huge private armies because in the end, you are not able to control it," said Magpet Mayor Efren Pinol.
Maguindanao is considered as the most dangerous province in the Philippines especially during elections. Because of the abusive rule of the Ampatuans and its militia of 500 men, it is also the province with the biggest number of internally displaced people because of regular encounters between the military and rebel groups.
"Many of our people who are victims of the Amapatuan's abusive rule are forced to join the rebel groups," Mangudadatu said. "Evacuation centers attract more funding from international groups. But as you can see, our province remain poor while the Ampatuans live in mansions."
The bodies of the 57 victims, 27 of which were journalists, were found in the area. Their bodies were mutilated, some of the women had been raped. The families of the victims have been crying out for justice.
But the challenge to the present administration and the whole Filipino people is to ensure credible and fair elections.
Mangudadatu knows that many uncertainties and challenges await him. He told CBN News it is his nine children who inspire him to continue the fight.
"This morning I got a letter from my daughter," Mangudadatu said. "It said, 'Dear Papa, I love you Papa because you are so brave and proud of me. Thank you.' Every time they do this to me. It reminds me that I should be strong for my countrymen."
As election draws near, believers all over the country, especially in the most critical areas like Maguindanao, continue to be down on their knees, interceding for the nation.