Why poor Maguindanao is awash with weapons of war

Ampatuans used public office
to amass mostly illegal guns

First of Two Parts

GUNS GALORE. One of the Philippines' poorest provinces, Maguindanao hosts a bounty of high-powered weapons. This is one of four photographs submitted discreetly by unnamed sources to  the Commission on Human Rights team, during its investigation into the Maguindanao massacre last November. (PCIJ/CHR)

GUNS GALORE. One of the Philippines' poorest provinces, Maguindanao hosts a bounty of high-powered weapons. This is one of four photographs submitted discreetly by unnamed sources to the Commission on Human Rights team, during its investigation into the Maguindanao massacre last November. (PCIJ/CHR)

IN JULY last year, Philippine National Police officers from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (PNP-ARMM) met with representatives from the Arms Corporation of the Philippines (Armscor) for what should have been a fairly straightforward transaction.

The PNP was buying half a million rounds of 5.56-mm ammunition, the kind used by the police and military for the M-16 rifle. The purchase and delivery papers indicate that the bullets were meant for deployment to war-torn Sulu.

But right off, there were some glaring discrepancies: For one, this official transaction was done at a hotel in Manila. For another, the PNP-ARMM officers were paying in cash – P10 million stuffed in a duffel bag – for a government transaction that should have been paid with a check coursed through a state financial institution.

At first, the surprised Armscor representatives worried about carrying around P10 million in cold cash. Then they realized their problem was more basic – how to carry the heavy duffel bag. Still, the unusual transaction was completed without a hitch, and the ammunition was delivered to a Manila port for shipping to Sulu.

But the story, which was told by one of the deal’s participants to PNP Sr. Supt. Danilo Maligalig, does not end there. Four months later, the same ammunition was dug up 397 kilometers away from the intended destination. Instead of arriving in Jolo, Sulu, the bullets – still in their numbered wooden boxes – were found in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, bailiwick of the powerful and feared Ampatuan clan, which has members accused of being behind the November 23, 2009 massacre of at least 57 people in Maguindanao.

One of the poorest provinces in the country, Maguindanao is filthy rich with guns and ammunition, thanks to the proliferation of private armies, a festering rebellion, and a government that has no problem going to bed with friendly warlords.

More specifically, in throwing their full support behind the Ampatuans and their fight with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), government officials directly provided arms and ammunition to the Ampatuans, relaxed restrictions on the issuance and purchases of guns and ammunition, and turned a blind eye toward apparent abuses in gun-control policies.The Ampatuans, by PNP records, have registered and licensed at most 274 firearms, barely a fourth of the total seized from in and around their mansions last month. Their licensed firearms are also barely enough for 10 percent of the estimated 2,000 militias that they had employed and armed while in office.

In the two months since the massacre triggered the declaration of a state of emergency and a state of martial law in Maguindanao and the government cracked down on the Ampatuans and their allies, authorities have so far unearthed some 1,200 assorted firearms in and around properties identified with the clan, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner. These firearms range from ordinary pistols to mortars to 90-mm recoilless rifles that can blow a hole through a tank.

Most of the firearms recovered so far are old, obsolete, and some are of World War II vintage, says Maligalig, who is the PNP Firearms and Explosives Division (PNP-FED) operations chief. But police officials say there are more firearms squirreled away by the Ampatuans and their supporters, many of them of a higher caliber and more high-tech.

Deadly harvest

“One farmer asked the question, ‘Father, we don’t have plantations of guns, but why are we harvesting so many of them’,” says Jesuit priest Albert Alejo of Konsult Mindanaw, a group organized by the Bishops-Ulama Conference to assist in the Mindanao peace process.  “Where are they coming from? Who is selling and buying guns, and who is making a killing out of this war economy?”

As it turns out, the government has been among the sources of these firearms. Of the guns recovered in Maguindanao, 38 have been already been identified as coming from the AFP arsenal, and 23 from the PNP armory. These include:

  • A 60-mm mortar. A check of the serial number showed that the mortar was issued in 1989 to an army unit based in the area.
  • A 57-mm recoilless rifle. “We looked at the serial number, and in the inventory, the serial number corresponds to an M-16 rifle,” explains Brawner. “Maaring tampered ang serial number.”
  • M-16 rifles. Brawner says at least two of these rifles recovered were traced to a missing cache of 60 M-16 rifles allegedly sold by an AFP supply officer who was assigned to the Northern Luzon Command. Criminal charges were filed against that supply officer as early as 2006, Brawner says. How the rifles ended up in Maguindanao is not clear.
  • Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle. Authorities recovered a civilian version of the Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle during one raid. While this version is technically not part of the AFP arsenal, the PNP says Barretts can be acquired only through government-to-government purchases, since these are considered crew-served weapons.

Brawner says that these incidents can be explained as simple pilferage, or losses due to combat. “Pilferage happens, but it is not being ignored by the AFP,” he says, and clarifies: “Even if we have names, for example, of a supply officer, they are not automatically suspects. These could have been lost during a legitimate firefight, or through pilferage.”

This, however, hardly explains the 1,200 recovered firearms, or the other pieces of weaponry that are still believed to be in the hands of Ampatuan allies. Until now, government troops are scouring Maguindanao for more firearms, as those so far recovered are just over half of the firearms believed to have been issued to CVOs.

In late January, the authorities again uncovered a large cache of arms and ammunition, this time at a corn farm in Mamasapano town supposedly owned by former Maguindanao Vice Governor Akhmad Ampatuan, who married his cousin Rebecca, a daughter of Andal Sr.

Gun trucks

In an evidence yard at the PNP Region 12 headquarters in General Santos City sit two trucks painted in green and brown camouflage. Parked beside the crushed wreckage of the vehicles of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre, these are actually gun trucks, home-made and heavily-armed armored personnel carriers.

Steel plating covers every inch of the trucks, even the engine and radiator compartments. On top are multiple gun mounts for .50-caliber machine guns, the heaviest machine gun in the Philippine armory that can throw a half-inch thick slug at 2,910 feet per second. The bullet can pulverize a concrete wall, or punch a hole through the armor of the military’s own armored personnel carriers.

And yet authorities say these are private vehicles belonging to the Ampatuan family, arguably the most well-armed clan in Central Mindanao.

Unlike other private vehicles, these have no license plates, or even a screw to which a license plate may be attached; they are also painted with bright yellow markings that scream PULISYA, PNP, and RMG-PPO (Regional Mobile Group-Police Provincial Office). The machine guns taken from the gun trucks were probably state property, although a police official says their serial numbers had already been filed off to make them untraceable. In other words, the vehicles were illegal, the markings were illegal, and the machine guns were definitely illegal.

But there seems to have been no attempt to hide these vehicles from the military and the police. In fact, reports have it that the Ampatuans would even lend the gun trucks to the local police and military in the fight against the MILF, thus further legitimizing their existence.

Government allies

“He became a natural ally against the MILF,” says AFP Eastern Mindanao chief Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, referring to Ampatuan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., whose last elected post was as Maguindanao governor. “So when he started asking for arms, for special CAFGUs, for CVOs, he was a natural ally. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem was when he became governor, he became so powerful.”

CAFGU stands for Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit while CVO is the acronym for civilian volunteer organizations.

When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed Executive Order 546 in July 2006 authorizing the use and arming of barangay tanods as so-called force multipliers, she effectively gave abusive local officials a free hand in legitimizing their private armies.

In the case of the Ampatuans, the number of their CVOs quickly climbed to 2,000, enough to man four full-strength battalions of the AFP.

“When the Ampatuans were in power, all the CVOs along the highway all the way to Cotabato were their men,” says Ferrer. “They controlled the highway.”

For sure, firearms have always proliferated in that part of the country, with some dating back to World War II. Of the more than 1,000 firearms initially recovered by the government in Maguindanao, 967 guns have no records. The PNP-FED says this may be because many of these firearms were vintage guns such as Springfields, Garands, and carbines, leftover from past wars. These firearms have been hidden by residents long wary of the national government, and lovingly maintained.

“There is that joke that they treasure their firearms more than their wives,” says Maligalig. “You can exchange your wife, but you will save your gun. The culture of old is there, from the times of the datus, that power emanates from the barrel of a gun.”

The PNP-FED estimates that there are around 200,000 loose firearms in the whole of ARMM. For Maguindanao alone, Maligalig says, there are probably 30,000 to 40,000 loose firearms. But only a third of that is owned by the Moro rebels. The other two-thirds are owned by the various warlords who inhabit Maguindanao.



Authorized purchases

E.O. No. 546, however, may have also become a means for the Ampatuans to arm their men, using local government coffers.

Under PNP rules, local governments may purchase firearms for the use of the local police force, or as “force multipliers.” These purchases are covered by an end-user certificate, which specifies who is the firearm’s end-user. These purchases are paid for with local government funds, upon approval of the provincial or municipal council. Interestingly, the Ampatuans had a firm hold on both the province and the region, through then ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and then Maguindanao Governor Datu Sajid Islam U. Ampatuan. The Ampatuans also control eight municipalities in the province, even as a score of clansmen occupy seats in the municipal councils.

“What I know is that they made several gun purchases under the name of the local government unit of the province of Maguindanao,” says Maligalig. “That is government property that they can use.”

He says that the PNP has launched a probe into exactly how many government firearms were turned over to the Ampatuans through this route. “Strictly speaking,” he says, “the end-user should be the PNP or the AFP unit in that area, but part of the investigation now is how some of these sophisticated firearms ended up in the hands of the CVOs and the bodyguards of the Ampatuans.”

Evolution of militias

The CVOs are just another evolution of a long-time principle of using civilian militia in fighting local insurgencies. President Ferdinand Marcos created and armed the Civilian Home Defense Forces, or CHDF, which was heavily criticized for its human-rights abuses. President Corazon Aquino abolished the CHDF and created the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units, which was basically the same thing.

On paper, these government militias take their orders from the military chain of command, and are covered by the military justice system. But over the years, variations have been added to the formula. The latest was the CVO and the Police Auxiliary Units or PAU, which are supposed to be answerable to the local officials and the PNP.

Retired Army Brig Gen. Rodrigo Gutang, who was assigned in Mindanao from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s, says that since militia members received a small subsistence allowance from the military, local government officials would sometimes court these militia members with gifts and money to earn their loyalty.

“Some politicians took advantage of the situation,” Gutang says. “(The CAFGUs and CVOs) have an allowance, but the politicians add to that allowance to win their loyalty, and that was the source of the initial trouble.”

The Ampatuans are said to have done much more. Through the years, they strengthened the CVOs, lavishing these with high-powered firearms and ammunition, say AFP insiders. In effect, the Ampatuans were killing two birds with one stone: getting the local governments to arm the CVOs, and using these CVOs to fight the MILF, thus winning favor with the national government.

“One of the reasons why government has helped the Ampatuans for the past years is because they were helping us in neutralizing the MILF threat in the area,” says Maligalig. “So government in one way or another provided weapons and ammunition to the Provincial Police Office of the PNP, and to AFP units in the area, and there were CVOs organized to help combat the MILF threat in that area.”


But even this “assistance” was not enough. On July 30, 2009, Maligalig was asked to sign a Permit to Transport Firearms and Ammunition form for the delivery of 547,000 M-16 bullets from the PNP Logistics Support Service warehouse in Bicutan to the Sulu Police Provincial Office.

“If I remember right, it was late afternoon, past five,” he recounts. “There was urgency raw to transport the ammunition, because if I recall, there was a situation brewing in Jolo province at that time. So with what was presented to me, I signed the permit to transport.”

Permits to transport arms and ammunition are very specific on the source and the destination, so that the dangerous cargo is not diverted elsewhere.

When government troops started unearthing arms and ammunition caches in Maguindanao province in December last year, part of the cache was traced through its lot number to the shipment bound for Sulu. Maligalig says he has no idea how the shipment he authorized for Sulu ended up in the Ampatuans’ backyard.

Sulu, like Maguindanao, is part of the ARMM. But Maligalig insists the diversion is unusual “because if you get a permit to transport, it is from origin to destination, ’yun lang ang authorized. We are very specific because these are bullets. It is irregular that a batch of ammunition slated for Sulu PPO was diverted to Maguindanao.”

Last January 20, the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group filed a complaint against seven people, including three police officers, for allegedly arming the Ampatuan clan. Maligalig was included in the complaint for his role in signing the permit to transport the bullets to Sulu. The others on the list were Chief Superintendent Bensal Maga Jabarani, deputy regional director for administration of the PNP-ARMM; Superintendent Bahnarin Unas Kamaong, group director of the 15th Regional Mobile Group; and three executives of Armscor, the manufacturer of the bullets.

The PCIJ is still waiting for a reply from Armscor officials to its emailed questions, after the company declined a face-to-face interview. Maligalig, who says the matter is still being investigated, asserts, “It was a misrepresentation. I signed a permit to transport issued in the name of PRO-ARMM, but the destination was Sulu PPO.”

Too, the PCIJ called Atty. Sigfrid Fortun, lawyer of the Ampatuans in the Maguindanao murder cases filed against the clan, to get the side of his clients. Fortun declined to comment, saying he was assigned to handle only the murder and rebellion cases of the clan. Fortun said he would ask his clients to designate a spokesman on the matter but until press time, the PCIJ has yet to be told who this spokesman is.



Gun lovers

The militias, however, were not the only beneficiaries of the Ampatuans’ amazing ability to procure guns. Some clan members were also building up an arsenal of their own, even though the laws limit civilians in general to each own only “one long, one short,” or one rifle and one pistol.

PNP records show that at least 103 persons surnamed Ampatuan have registered a total of 274 firearms, 43 of them classified as high-powered firearms. Three clan members, however, own 66 of these or almost a fourth of the registered total.

Ampatuan patriarch Andal Sr. has licenses for 17 low-powered and five high-powered firearms, for a total of 22 guns. The PNP considers pistols with calibers higher than .40 as high-powered while all assault rifles are considered high-powered. Andal Jr., who is facing murder and rebellion charges, licensed 18 firearms, three of which are high-powered. But it is Zaldy Ampatuan who has the most licensed firearms: 26, of which 10 are considered high-powered.

And these are not just ordinary firearms. PNP-FED records show that the Ampatuans purchased seven Israeli-made Tavor assault rifles, costing some P500,000 each. Zaldy, Andal Sr., and Andal Jr., each have two Tavors, while an uncle owns the seventh.

PNP officials say the Ampatuans used loopholes in the law to amass licensed guns. To begin with, the Ampatuans are gun club members and are therefore allowed to own a maximum of 10 guns each. Then again, this is for guns that are for “sporting use” or competition use, something assault rifles generally aren’t for.

The Ampatuans have been also availing themselves of the numerous gun-amnesty programs over the years. Maligalig says, “When we looked into how they were able to procure all these firearms, some were already in their names even before Martial Law.. And since 1992, we have had 12 amnesty programs, so they have availed of these.”

He says that no questions are asked so long as the applicant for amnesty shows that the gun was not used in a crime, and is willing to pay a stiff fine. One does not have to give up the firearm under the program, but merely has to acquire the papers for it. Too, it would no longer matter if an applicant already owns more than the allowed number of guns, so long as he avails himself of amnesty. “No questions asked,” Maligalig said.

“For the Ampatuans siguro, because they have the money, they can really afford to (apply),” says Maligalig. “The previous amnesty program had very high fees, but they availed of it. The last one had lower fees and they availed of it again.”

Lowell Macabangen, Zaldy Ampatuan’s former protocol chief, meanwhile brushes off allegations that the Ampatuans had illegally amassed firearms. “Those are government firearms,” he says. “Everything they’ve seen came from the PNP and (defense department) arsenal.”

Macabangen, who is related to the Ampatuans, argues that with the family “in the frontlines in Maguindanao against the MILF… alangan namang sumugod ka sa kampanya ng gobyerno, pupunta ka na jolen lang ang dala mo. Hindi puwede na tirador ang dala mo (it can’t be expected to go charging in with just marbles. You can’t fight with just a slingshot.)”

PNP’s Maligalig, however, says that the government erred in arming an unstable ally in a region already awash in guns. He says, “Somewhere along the way… either we lost control or too much power was given to the Ampatuans. The AFP and PNP should be more careful in dealing with our allies who are helping us in the field, there should be more discretion in the issuance of firearms and ammunition.”

“As stated in the Constitution, the AFP and the PNP, and government in general, should be apolitical when it comes to dealing with political personalities,” says the PNP official. “The whole Maguindanao situation is deeply rooted with political overtones and undertones.” – PCIJ, February 2010