Fear fuels booming illegal gun trade in the Philippines

Efforts to eradicate the country’s millions of illegal guns after a recent string of shootings are so far failing to make a dent in a nation where many do not trust the authorities to keep them safe

BY Jason Gutierrez  /  AFP, MANILA

Sun, Apr 14, 2013 - Page 14

Bespectacled and clean-shaven, 37-year-old Jomari Paraas could pass for a typical office employee in the Philippines, except for the six guns he has in his backpack that he will soon sell.

The father of two is a prolific player in the country’s enormous and lucrative weapons black market, which has been under scrutiny following a spate of high-profile massacres and shoot-outs this year.

“Why do I trade guns? Because there is a demand for it and it’s extra income,” said Paraas, a former communist guerrilla whose day job as a community organizer for a non-governmental organization is not enough to pay his bills.

Speaking to foreign media in a crowded Manila slum where he was planning to sell the six guns, Paraas said he had been a firearms trader for more than a decade, starting in his late 20s when he quit the rebel movement.

For security reasons, “Paraas” is a made-up name, but his real identity has been vetted by a Philippine expert on security issues who advises local law enforcement officials on the gun trade.

Paraas started selling used guns and knock-offs of foreign brands made by illegal gunsmiths in the central and southern Philippines, before moving to more expensive weapons smuggled from abroad.

The US-made .22 caliber Magnum Black Widow revolvers in his bag were ordered by a buyer through a shadowy network of small-time gun runners who take advantage of the city’s urban squalor to peddle their wares.

Their clients range from security-conscious housewives, to slum dwellers and members of “private armies” employed by political warlords.

“They are light and easy to move, and in demand from many people because they primarily use it for self-defense,” Paraas said of the revolvers, which he sells for 5,000 Philippine pesos (US$120) each. “Higher caliber guns and automatic rifles can also be bought, at a higher price.”

The proliferation of firearms in the Philippines has been in the spotlight since January, following a series of shooting-related deaths, including of two children hit by stray bullets on New Year’s Eve.

A drugs-crazed gunman also killed seven people in a slum rampage and a shoot-out linked to a gambling turf war left 13 dead, among them corrupt police and military officers.

The Philippines has a strong gun culture dating back centuries, with a history of armed struggle against Spanish and US colonial rulers. Today, people typically carry guns because they lack confidence in the country’s security forces to protect the public, security analysts and firearms traders say.

There were 1.2 million registered firearms in the Philippines last year, with another 600,000 unlicensed firearms in circulation, national police data show.

Getting a license to own a conventional gun is easy, subject to police clearance and security checks that include psychological tests, and firearms shops sit alongside clothes outlets in malls. However, getting one without a police clearance can be even easier.

Security analyst Ed Quitoriano, who regularly advises foreign embassies on threat issues, said there could be as many as 4 million unlicensed guns across the country.

The gun culture can be unsettling, particularly for foreign visitors.

Private security guards with loaded, sawn-off shotguns infest the crime-plagued cities, protecting small and large private businesses.

Traffic wardens deputized by the police, but with little security training stand at intersections with revolvers hanging off their hips. Restaurants, nightclubs and banks often have signs asking patrons to leave their firearms at entrance counters.

Foreigners are warned by long-time expatriates to avoid any incident that could escalate into violence because of the potential for a gun to be used on them.

This month, an Australian man was shot in the head from point-blank range at a beach resort that he managed, with police suspecting an aggrieved former staff member may have ordered the murder.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III launched a high-profile campaign at the start of the year to get unlicensed guns off the streets.

Yet government data shows this has so far netted fewer that 2,200 firearms, highlighting what Quitoriano said was Manila’s lack of resolve and capability to tackle the issue.

Quitoriano said many powerful figures — including soldiers, police and politicians — have profited from the firearms trade, part of a huge corruption problem that plagues all sectors of society.

“Many of the unlicensed guns that leak into the gray market actually come from legal imports and government purchases,” he said.

Quitoriano said the climate of fear has fueled the black market.

“If the public trusted the government more, there would be no need for them to protect themselves by arming,” he said.

Alexander Reyes, who owns self-defense specialty shop Aquila Firearms and Ammunition Corp at a Manila mall, agreed.

“It used to be for prestige because guns equate with power,” Reyes said. “But nowadays, it is mostly for protection. The police cannot protect you 24/7.”