Mon, Dec 08, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Illegal guns flourish in the trigger-happy Philippines

LAST RESORT In a society where individuals don't trust the authorities to protect their interests, people are taking the law into their own hands with homemade firearms

REUTERS , Danao, Philippines

A Filipino gunsmith holds a pistol while waiting for his turn to test fire in a field in Danao town in central Philippines. Illegal gunmakers on the Philippine island of Cebu are expecting a brisk sales ahead of next May's presidential elections.


Jose, a 35-year-old Filipino, is looking forward to brisk business ahead of presidential elections next May.

But he is not in the market to provide campaign placards or even the food candidates are fond of handing out to the poor to attract votes.

Politicians are among a steady stream of clients for the revolvers and machine pistols Jose produces in the backyard of his home in Danao City on the central Philippine island of Cebu.

"Usually we sell a lot when an election is coming and on our part we are very happy," Jose told Reuters in his stuffy one-man workshop devoted to churning out the crude, illegal but highly effective weapons.

With as many as one in 80 Filipinos owning a firearm, and gun licences regarded as optional, shootings over trivial incidents such as traffic altercations are commonplace.

After several shootings sparked by My Way, the Frank Sinatra favorite has become a song to avoid at karaoke bars.

But it is during the Philippines' bitterly fought elections that gun violence traditionally surges as rival clans with long histories of enmity battle for dominance and to settle scores.

Jose is one of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people in Danao who work in the gun trade -- as many as one in 10 of the population -- giving it the dubious distinction of being the gun capital of one of the world's most trigger-happy countries.

Many of the 6,500 people murdered every year meet their end from the barrel of a gun turned out by makeshift factories such as that of Jose.

"We are just doing this for our livelihood, for the money," he said. "If we could feed our families with other jobs we would do it."

Since World War II, when traders in the area supplied Filipino guerrillas with weapons to fight the occupying Japanese, Danao has armed everyone from political barons and security guards to Muslim rebels.

Most of the gunmakers, who work secretly in backyards, or in the surrounding sugarcane fields and rolling hills, are well known to the police, but they typically turn a blind eye in a city where there are few jobs and high unemployment.

"I guess some of them just pity these guys because they have no other work and they feel they may go into some other really illegal things, like maybe joining the subversives," said Ramon Durano III, mayor of Danao City, referring to Communist rebels active there and in troubled Mindanao province to the south.

Critics say the police and the military allow the trade to flourish because they profit from it themselves.

There are certainly profits to be made. Jose sells machine pistols for up to US$215, with small calibre .38 revolvers going for a bargain US$27 -- still equivalent to a few weeks' wages for many.

By contrast, the city's 50 legal gun makers work in a cooperative and have to split the proceeds from sales of just 10 to 15 firearms a week.

Police estimate there are 800,000 registered guns in the country and at least another 400,000 illegal ones.

Many of the Danao weapons end up in Mindanao, the main base of several Muslim rebel groups fighting the government.

Japanese "yakuza" gangsters and Taiwanese criminals are said to have been customers, smuggling the weapons home on fishing boats.

About 100 people died in election-related violence in limited national polls in 2001, 31 of them either incumbent officials or candidates.

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