THEN the loud pop-pop-pop of a gun is heard, some people in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (Barrm) dive for their mobile phones.
Soft tick-tick-ticks form on a glowing screen. And when the typist hits send, the words reach the Critical Events Monitoring System, or CEMS, a SMS-based reporting system that captures conflict incidents and tensions in communities that may or may not lead to the eruption of violence.
Shooting incidents in BARMM stood out as the most common of reports transmitted to the CEMS as they tallied 424 cases for 2020 (or one case a day) even as figures have yet to include December.
The system covers BARMM’s five provinces of Basilan (including Isabela City), Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao (including Cotabato City), Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
According to CEMS operator, the Philippine office of International Alert Inc., Maguindanao has the highest total number of shooting incidents for the last 10 years at 2,408. Of the five provinces, Maguindanao was also consistently highest on a yearly basis, the London, United Kingdom-headquartered non-profit group’s local office said. Lanao del Sur followed with 1,236, Basilan with 799, Sulu with 779 and Tawi-Tawi with 116.
THE most brutal and bizarre shooting during the pandemic year sent to the CEMS was the murder of nine men in Kabacan, Cotabato.
On August 29, locals living near the campus of the University of Southern Mindanao heard a streak of gunshots and later discovered the bodies strewn along the highway of Aringay Road.
Eight died on the spot while one made it to the hospital; only to succumb later to his wound.
A report by government-run Philippine News Agency noted that 32 empty shells from an M16 assault rifle, M1 carbine semiautomatic rifle and a .45-caliber pistol were recovered at the scene.
Some residents linked the “Kabacan massacre” to the killing of the police chief in adjacent municipality of Carmen four days earlier.
Due to the gravity of the crime, Bangsamoro officials had called for an independent investigation of the tragedy. According to a PNA report, the North Cotabato police has formed a special team to study the multiple angles surrounding the incident.
Most of these incidents were reported by a group of men and women in various localities in the Bangsamoro, who share real-time information and work with local governments, key agencies, the security sector and religious and traditional leaders in coordinating quick and context-specific responses to tensions, violent conflicts, disasters and displacement, as they happen.
Command posts are led by International Alert’s local partners TASBIKKa Inc., ERN Lanao del Sur, Maradeca Inc. and Lupah Sug Bangsamoro Women Association Inc.
ANOTHER case sent to the CEMS was the shooting of BARMM Ministry of Social Services and Development (MSSD) social workers last October 13.
Niezel Ladjauddin Asakil and Kevin Pon were injured after getting shot on their way home in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Fortunately, both survived after being treated at a nearby hospital. The Bangsamoro government had directed the police to hasten the investigation to identify and prosecute the gunmen.
Officials believe the shooting may have stemmed from an argument between Asakil and Pon and beneficiaries of government’s conditional cash transfer program.
And, on January 28, it would be exactly a year when Barangay Bagua 1 Chairman Ella Biruar and her two companions were shot by unidentified men in Cotabato City. Biruar died a week later.
The number of these incidents captured by CEMS in 2020 is lower than the 710 and 722 cases recorded by International Alert’s conflict monitoring system in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
The 2020 figure is definitely lower than the 804 shooting incidents and 840 shooting incidents recorded in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The 424 number of shooting incidents in 2020 was, however, higher in the years 2011 and 2012, with corresponding 372 and 302 cases.
March in step
INTERNATIONAL Alert-Philippines Country Director Nikki Philline C. De la Rosa told the BusinessMirror “the proliferation of illegal firearms poses a real challenge to the conflict-to-peace transition in the Bangsamoro [BARMM].”
“Shooting incidents caused by clan feuding, the trade of illegal drugs and illegal guns, rebellion and violent extremist activities inflict far greater human cost in terms of deaths and displacements,” De la Rosa said, pointing to the 2011 to 2019 data from the non-profit group’s conflict monitoring system.
According to De la Rosa, the cost in terms of human lives and displacement is the main reason her group has “consistently advocated for gun-ownership reforms and for a coherent policy that would mediate the national gun law [Republic Act 10591] and the decommissioning aspects of the normalization process.”
“This [advocacy] needs to march in step with intensified efforts to clamp down on the smuggling of illegal arms and weapons and to capture and destroy these [arms and weapons],” she added.
ILLEGAL, unregistered or unlicensed firearms have figured prominently in notorious high-profile drug heists, violent extremist activities, massacres, homicides, robberies and similar crimes in the Philippines. According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), almost 99 percent of the guns used in these types of crimes are loose firearms.
RA 10591 (An Act Providing for a Comprehensive Law on Firearms and Ammunition and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof) defines a “loose firearm” as unregistered, obliterated or altered, firearm that has been lost or stolen, illegally-manufactured, a registered firearm in the possession of an individual other than the licensee and one with revoked licenses in accordance with the rules and regulations.
According to research done by International Alert-Philippines, Filipinos owned an estimated 3.9 million firearms in 2014. Some 2.1 million, or half of these, are illegal.
Based on this data, “one can safely assume that half of all guns in the country are loose firearms,” according to Francisco J. Lara Jr., senior peace and conflict adviser of International Alert.
Lara said this information should be used to identify where the illegal guns come from to prevent their proliferation and halt the surge of violence resulting from these weapons.
THERE are four sources of illegal guns in the country, International Alert Philippines said.
One is technical smuggling. This is accomplished by importers using fraudulent declaration of guns as metal parts to hide the contraband. This is done not only to avoid taxes and other obligations but also to hide the identity of the end user.
Second are recycled guns acquired from battlefields where violent encounters between government and rebel forces have transpired. These are distributed among the ranks of the rebels or are sold in the black market.
Third are guns with expired licenses with owners failing to file documents required for renewal.
Section 19 of RA 10591 requires licenses to be renewed every two years and the registration of the firearm renewed every four years.
The failure to renew a license or registration within the periods stated on two occasions shall cause the holder of the firearm to be perpetually disqualified from applying for any firearm license.
The fourth source comes from local manufacturers suspected to have made in Danao City, Cebu, hence, the eponymous weapon branding.
ILLEGAL firearms proliferate in the Philippines because of several factors, Lara said.
One is the flaw in regulation. The comprehensive firearm and ammunition act, for instance, focuses on the requirement for owning legal guns and extended the list of personalities allowed to carry a gun in public.
The law allows the following professionals to own a firearm: members of the Philippine Bar; Certified Public Accountants; accredited media practitioners; cashiers, bank tellers; priests, ministers, rabbi, imams; physicians and nurses; engineers; and, businessmen, “who by the nature of their business or undertaking, are exposed to high risk of being targets of criminal elements.”
However, according to International Alert, the said law says little in curbing the illicit gun economy, which can be done by detection, interdiction, capture and destruction of these weapons. The gun law needs to be reviewed and amended, the group said, to comply with the international agreements, treaties and standards.
The Philippines is a signatory to the first-ever Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that establishes common international standards for the global trade in conventional arms. Last year, some 109 countries have already ratified the 2013 international agreement. These countries include ten of the world’s top exporters of firearms.
However, the Philippines, which is a small-firearms exporter, has yet to ratify the treaty. It was submitted to the Senate for concurrence in 2017 and is pending at the committee level as of June 2019.
Trade in arms
THE 2019 edition of the Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer (Barometer) identifies at least seven Southeast Asian countries that produce small arms and/or ammunition on an industrial scale: Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
These countries either have a manufacturing body that is directly part of the government or armed forces or a company owned by the government solely for the production of firearms. The Philippines, which has a “verifiable private industry,” is an exception.
The Small Arms Survey is a project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. The study notes that private-sector small-arms producers in the country cater to the domestic civilian firearms market and export globally.
The study included the Philippines among the largest Southeast Asian exporters of small arms in 2014 to 2016. Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand are the other three.
In the same period, Southeast Asia accounted for at least $1.3 billion worth of small arms imports, which was 19 percent of the global value. Indonesia was ranked as a top global importer in 2016, with imports worth at least $281 million.
The Philippines, along with Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have all expressed an interest in expanding their domestic small arms and ammunition production capabilities, which are directly related to the military modernization efforts and procurement plans of the said countries, the study said.
Ratifying a treaty
THE International Alert has been proposing the review of the local gun law, for the creation of a government agency with the sole task of controlling the proliferation of illegal firearms and for ratification of the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty. These proposals are becoming more obvious as local firearms manufacturing thrives in the country.
According to the small-arms survey, there are 15 licensed private manufacturers in the Philippines, producing mostly handguns and ammunition. Several of these are primarily subcontractors for larger local firms.
The largest civilian producer is the Armscor Global Defense Inc. (formerly Arms Corp. of the Philippines), which manufactures M1911 pistols. The company is said to be capable of producing 200,000 firearms and 420 million rounds of ammunition annually.
In 2018, the Philippine Department of National Defense contracted the company to produce caliber-45 high capacity pistols for the use of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
ASIDE from Armscor, there are 15 other licensed private weapons-manufacturers.
These include the following: Danao Arms Manufacturing Corp. (a cooperative of independent gunsmiths); Floro International Corp. (produces handguns, rifles and the MK-3 sub-machine gun); Shooters Arms Manufacturing Inc. (which exports to the civilian market in at least six countries; and, Jethro International Inc. (a small-scale producer making mostly handgun parts). Except for Danao Arms, the companies also manufacture ammunitions.
Some of the other 11 companies manufacture only ammunitions.
In 2016, handguns from the Philippines made up 99 percent of Southeast Asia’s exports and 29 percent of the region’s overall small-arms exports. About 95 percent of these pistols and revolvers went to the United States.
The Philippines also led the region in the exports of parts and components valued at $7 million in 2016. These included sporting and hunting firearms valued at $1.7 million. Philippine-made ammunition is the most widely-exported category from Southeast Asia.
Since 2014, the country also exported $22 million worth of ammunition to 32 countries. The United States, Thailand, and Germany were the largest importers of ammunition. The Philippines also exported to the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Honduras. The only other Southeast Asian country to have exported significantly to Latin America is Singapore.
WHILE Southeast Asia is not a major small-arms exporter compared to other regions, it is, however, a significant importer.
In 2016, Southeast Asia imported at least $443 million worth of small arms, which represented a 48-percent increase from 2015. The region has imported at least $1.3-billion worth of small arms since 2014.
The largest importer in 2016 was Indonesia—also a top importer globally, with an import value of at least $281 million. Thailand followed with $85 million, the Philippines with $41 million, and Singapore and Malaysia with $15 million each. According to UN Comtrade (the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database) these five countries account for 99 percent of the region’s small arms imports.
In a separate study that focused on the Philippines and Mexico, the Small Arms Survey said that the quantity of illicit small arms and light weapons available in the Philippines is difficult to assess. It added that illicit small-arms and light weapons in the country range from craft-produced shotguns to 81-millimeter mortar systems.
INTERNATIONAL Alert’s data reveal that many of the total incidents of shootings in 2020 did not originate from encounters between government forces and groups that seek to challenge its legitimacy.
The small-arms survey estimates that the firearms held by the Abu Sayyaf Group, Moro International Liberation Front and the New People’s Army vary. The survey cited that most accounts indicate that none of these groups has large reserves of weapons. Of the approximately 1,000 seized weapons and ammunitions studied, more than two-thirds were firearms or for firearms.
Grenades and grenade launchers accounted for approximately 13 percent of seized items, followed by landmines with 12 percent and improvised explosive devices, 3 percent.
Rockets, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), recoilless rifles and mortars were also seized, but in much smaller quantities. The latter four categories of light weapons account for less than four percent of all seized items. This is in sharp contrast to the thousands of mortar rounds, RPGs and recoilless rounds recovered from arms caches in Iraq and Afghanistan, a separate study revealed.
IN July last year, the PNP said it seized 584 unlicensed firearms covering the period of January to June, which is a 300-percent increase from 139 unlicensed firearms seized in the second half of 2019.
The PNP, however, noted that most of these confiscated firearms only lacked documents.
Part of this seized cache were the 84 loose and unlicensed firearms turned over to different municipal police stations in North Cotabato from June 20 to June 26. According to the provincial director of the Cotabato Provincial Police Office (CPPO), the turnover of assorted firearms was part of the continued campaign dubbed Oplan “Tugro,” an Antiqueño term that means “to surrender.”
Data from the CPPO showed that the surrendered firearms included: 12-gauge shotguns; 12-gauge shotgun pistols; two dozen caliber-38 revolvers; five caliber-45 pistols; 40 “light” pistols; pistols and revolvers of various calibres; M79 grenade launchers; an M203 (12-gauge upper) grenade launcher; submachine guns; and Ultimax machine gun; and, carbine rifles.
According to the CPPO, Oplan “Tugro” is aimed at reducing the volume of index crimes in the province. It has admitted too many loose firearms remain at the hands of residents and several armed groups operating in the province.
Authorities in the Caraga region reported seizing 54 loose firearms in August last year. That month, 201 firearms were surrendered. Last October, the PNP announced it seized 85 loose firearms in the City of San Juan. The confiscated firearms were composed of nine rifles, nine shotguns, 19 revolvers and 48 pistols.
ACCORDING to International Alert, shooting a firearm is the number-one manifestation across almost all conflict causes in the Barmm, which consists of three component cities, 116 municipalities and 2,590 barangays in Mindanao. These conflict causes, according to the group, are: shadow-economy issues; identity; governance; and, resource issues.
Shadow-economy issues may include the peddling of illegal firearms or prohibited drugs, kidnapping for ransom and even the less-harmful informal land markets, cross-border trade and informal credit. Identity issues generally refer to Filipino Muslim’s identity while resource issues mainly include land and land-related resources.
International Alert sees gun-related violence as directly related to the illegal trade of weapons.
Lara cited data from the UN Comtrade Database that showed the Philippines imported $17.2 million worth of revolvers and pistols in 2019, which is much less than the $19.4 million reported by exporting countries.
“The missing $2 million worth of weapons have likely leaked into the [black] market,” he said.
Aside from the pending ratification of the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty by the Philippines, International Alert also notes there is no single government agency in charge of eliminating illegal guns. The organization added there is also no proper inventory of discarded weapons that are eventually sold in the black market.
The international peace advocacy group is proposing that a specialized unit be created through an Executive Order within the Department of Justice. International Alert said this unit should be outside the mandate of the PNP’s firearms and explosive office. This agency will be responsible for capturing and destroying illegal guns, the group proposed.
Image credits: BM graphics: Job Ruzgal