Sat, May 07, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Filipino gunsmiths are making a killing

BOOMING BUSINESS Although illegal, homemade firearms are ignored by police and used by political officials in an industry more lucrative than farming or fishing

AFP , Danao, Philippines

Ronberto Garcia picks up a freshly-made, well-oiled automatic sub-machine gun from a formica table under a huge gazebo and screws on a long silencer.

"We sell these guns to anyone, provided they have money," Garcia says, proudly showing the weapon to a group gathered in his heavily secured concrete home.

The gun is his top-selling product and helps him make a killing, financially, in a nation where weapons sales are big business.

Garcia is the leading arms broker in Danao, a sprawling town of 100,000 people in the central Philippine province of Cebu and the center of the lucrative arms trade.

It is here in workshops tucked away in tiny back streets of Danao that self-taught gunsmiths churn out faithful replicas of arms from Israeli Uzis to 45-caliber handguns and KG-9 assault rifles used by American Navy Seals.

The illegal trade has become so large that it has surpassed the more traditional and legal methods of earning a living such as farming and fishing, according to townsfolk.

Many of the gunsmiths are former coconut farmers who have found that making guns is a more lucrative way of making a living than hanging from a tree harvesting coconuts for a few hundred pesos a day.

While there are no official statistics, thousands of people probably rely on gunmaking for money to send their children to school and to build modest cinder-block homes in Danao.

According to the Philippine National Police there are some 900,000 registered firearms in the Philippines and possibly as many as 450,000 unregistered. And that does not include the 150,000 firearms estimated to be in the hands of criminal gangs, warlords, communist and Muslim insurgents.

The local gunsmiths use thick sheets of metal salvaged or bought from ship-breaking yards in Cebu City, the bustling main port city some 35km to the south.

They used to churn out dozens of six and eight-shot revolvers called "paltiks," but as Garcia says "times have changed, and people want more powerful firearms."

Garcia is actually a fictitious name used by Danao's leading arms dealer whose family is among the pioneers of the illegal trade that dates back to the early 1970s.

"We are just plain businessmen who sell something people want," the portly 53-year-old Garcia said in his home, which is hidden from the main road and accessible only by a dirt road. You enter the heavy metal gates after passing several houses and a latrine guarded by dogs.

The copy KG-9 in Garcia's range looks exactly like the original, down to the insignia on its barrel that says: "Scorpion. Navy Seals Logistics. US government property."

Well-crafted high caliber guns are sold for up to 20,000 pesos while handguns fetch as much as 4,000 pesos a piece -- far better than the several hundred pesos typically earned by farmers on a good day of toiling in the fields.

While gunmaking is illegal, authorities have for decades turned a blind eye because it provides an alternative livelihood for the people than relying on subsistence farming and fishing.

"The sound of gunshots echoing in the air are welcomed by the townsfolk because it means money," Garcia says.

"The only time you see a lot of people in the market is when gun sales here are up. People cannot just rely on fishing and farming all the time," Garcia says. "Here, people are happy when they hear gunshots."

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