RICKY COMES up north to Manila for only two reasons: to visit relatives, or to buy guns and ammunition. In these crime-ridden times, that’s not really unusual — except for two things. Ricky (not his real name) is a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), and he says he gets his guns and bullets from a contact in Camp Aguinaldo. Oh, and he buys government bullets at P5 each, even though the government spends P14 to make each one.
This was last year. When I met up with his former commander, Rey (also not his real name), in early August, I was told the prices have gone way up. Peak season prices, Rey said, because of the coming elections.
The sale of guns and bullets by government troops and some of their officers to rebel groups and warlords is an old cottage industry, say contacts from the NPA and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Long before Lt.SG. Antonio Trillanes IV and his not-so-merry men even learned which end of the gun to point at their enemies, government arsenals have been fair game for rebel groups.
Trillanes was the spokesperson of the rebel soldiers who staged the July 27 mutiny. Even from his holding cell in Camp Aguinaldo, he maintains that he has evidence to show that top government and military officials, including defense secretary Angelo Reyes, have been selling firearms and ammunition to rebel groups.
Military officials have been quick to throw out Trillanes’s allegations. “Preposterous,” huffs AFP vice chief of staff Gen. Rodolfo Garcia. “Hindi natin tinatatwa na mayroong pilferage na nangyayari, pero not in the scale na pinalalabas ng grupo nila (We don’t deny that there’s pilferage going on, but not in the scale that they’re saying).”
“It’s not possible,” asserts Garcia. “It’s just not right.”
The general says there may be one or two supply sergeants who sell a firearm or two. But he says it is inconceivable for any soldier or officer to sell arms and ammunition in bulk.
Former AFP Logistics Command chief Manuel Mariano disagrees. Mariano, who tried to clean up the LogCom when he was in charge in the mid-1990s, had initiated court-martial proceedings against a mid-level officer, a major, who sold more than 400,000 bullets to an unknown group. That, he says, may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Rey himself says, “Tutoo lahat ‘yang bilihan ng baril. Ang supply namin dati, galing pang Camp Crame (That thing about selling of guns to rebels is true. Our supplies in the past had come from Camp Crame).”
Rey was an NPA regional commander until the late 1990s. While still connected with the Left, he has since gone aboveground.
Prices of guns and ammunition fluctuate, depending on the season, he says. Peak seasons are the times leading up to elections and coups d’etat, when demand for firearms and ammunition is high.
On a nonpeak season, an M16A1 can go for P25,000; peak season, it goes up to P35,000. The baby armalite goes higher, P35,000 nonpeak, and P50,000 peak season.
The M16 with a 40mm grenade launcher attached underneath is particularly popular — and expensive. It’s priced at P50,000 nonpeak season, and P65,000 peak season, Rey says. The 40mm grenade goes for P500 nonpeak, and P1,000 peak.
But Rey says that they don’t buy as much guns as they would like, because of the amounts involved. Only one out of every 10 guns held by the NPA was purchased. The rest were captured or given.
Most of the communist rebels’ purchases involve bullets, because these are “consumables.” At least half of the bullets of an NPA rebel were bought from government sources, Rey says.
During nonpeak seasons, the M16 bullet can be purchased at P3 per round, or more than 75 percent below what the government pays for each bullet made by its own arsenal. But Rey says that when times are really tight, the bullet’s price can go as high as P50 each.
MILF VICE CHAIRMAN Ghazali Jaafar, for his part, says they also buy much of their ammunition from government sources. One time, he says, someone offered to sell a tank to the MILF. The rebels laughed off the offer; the rebels had neither the logistics nor the use for a tank in middle of the jungle.
Another MILF insider says that when the government resupplied its troops during the siege of Camp Abubakar in 2000, the MILF also got a shipment of its own… courtesy of government arsenals.
The guns the rebels purchase are mostly used, since there have been very few new guns down the military pipeline in the last decade. In fact, most of the 20-something-year-old soldiers now carry 30-year-old M16 rifles that have been rebarelled, if the soldiers are lucky, or unrefurbished, which is often the case.
Rey says that the rebels have since learned that it is far easier and cheaper logistically to buy weapons and ammunition locally than to import them from abroad. The first batch of imports for the NPAs were Chinese AK-47s, which fired the heavier calibre 7.62mm round. But the use of the AK-47 brought with it a whole set of logistical problems: where to get spare parts like firing pins and barrels, cleaning kits, and most importantly, bullets. Eventually, the AK-47s lost favor with the rebels, who began to rely more heavily on government-manufactured M-16s.
The Abu Sayyaf appears to have less of a problem with logistics. With only a small core group and with finances backed up by ransom money, the group has reportedly been upgrading its equipment with newer and better guns, and even night vision devices.
In 2001, the bandits were supposed to have received a new batch of rifles, the AK-108, which fired the same round as the M-16, but had the ruggedness and dependability of the Kalashnikov. It was not clear if the delivery pushed through. But footage taken around that time by the TV station ABS-CBN had Abu Sayyaf Commander Robot showing off and test-firing a new shipment of high-powered and sophisticated firearms that the ordinary soldier could only have wet dreams about.
The bulk of the group’s firearms, however, still appears to be government-manufactured M-16s. How much of it was purchased from government arsenals, though, is also unclear.
Gen. Garcia brushes aside all these as propaganda by government’s enemies. “What do you expect them to say?” he asks. “That they like us?”
Garcia says the rebels probably have two major sources of ammunition: captured equipment, as well as arms shipments from abroad. After all, he concedes, the rebels don’t have factories churning out bullets in the scale of government’s Bataan arsenal. The MILF had an armory in the old Camp Abubakar, but several reports indicate that, rather than the mass production of bullets, that armory was used more for the manufacture of rocket-propelled grenades that were not organic to the Armed Forces, and therefore harder to source.
Garcia’s assertion, however, seems to fail on a simple test: volume. Theoretically, an M16 fires at a rate of 700 rounds a minute. On full automatic, the gun can empty a 30-round clip in less than 10 seconds. If the NPA, for instance, relied solely on the occasional raids for captured ammunition, it would never have had the firepower to go on a “regularization” program, as it did in the late 1980s, when it started forming company-sized units to confront the military in the battlefield. Even if rebels pick up bullets from dead soldiers, it would not amount to much. The regular combat load for a soldier is 320 rounds of ammunition. After a heated firefight, much of that load would have already been depleted.
Relying on imported ammunition, meanwhile, is more unwieldy and financially nonviable. The government itself has long stopped relying on imports, finding it much cheaper to produce its own bullets and guns locally, even under license.
Asked to explain how the rebels could have sustained three decades of fighting, Garcia himself seems at a loss. “That is what we have to find out, where they get their bullets.”
THERE ARE many ways a soldier can “lose” a firearm or ammunition. Guns, for example, may simply be reported as stolen or lost in the heat of battle. There is no strict sense of accountability here that is seen in other countries like the United States. This can also be seen in the way guns and ammunition are so easily and loosely issued to so-called confidential military and police agents, as well as “friendly” local politicians and warlords, and end up disappearing down the pipeline. Ammunition has even proved to be easily disposed of, since there is never any accounting of the ammunition used in a combat operation.
But even before the guns get to the intended destination, arms and ammunition may be misdeclared at the Military Resupply Points (MRP), through several processes long perfected by the military supply chain.
The military has divided the country into several MRPs, from where arms, ammunition, and materiel needed in the prosecution of the war are farmed out to combat and support units. Mariano says the major who sold 400,000 bullets several years ago had been detailed at an MRP in Region IX in Mindanao. He says, however, that it is unlikely that any selling would get as high as the secretary of defense, as Trillanes’s group claims, since the MRPs are commanded by middle-level officers.
In any case, Mariano relates how some military supplies are declared as having been delivered, when much of it actually ended up being sold in Divisoria, as in the case of military uniforms and accessories. The system could also be used for diverting guns and ammunition.
With the right amount of bribe money, supply inspectors may look the other way while the products are misdeclared. For example, Mariano says, an order of 10,000 tons of sand may be filled up by having a truck or two of sand going into one gate of Camp Aguinaldo, coming out another, and then going back in several times. The same system could apply to ammunition.
Another variation is innocently called “conversion.” But Mariano says conversion has become the bane of the military supply system because of the corruption it breeds. Quite simply, the supplier and the supply officer collude to cover up a ghost delivery. The supply officer signs all the paper work indicating that the delivery was made. The supplier gets the full pay, but forks over up to 80 percent of the delivery value to the supply officer for his cooperation. The missing delivery usually goes unnoticed, first, because of the massive military bureaucracy, and second, because conversion is so common in the supply system that it is often taken for granted.
Gen. Garcia himself admits that conversion is a widespread practice. But he stresses: “Conversion is illegal and unacceptable. We are doing our best to stop it.”
Yet, Garcia is quick to add that conversion gives operating units greater flexibility in their operations in the field. One unit may opt for cash instead of an unimportant delivery, and use the money for other items more urgently needed. The strange truth is that while corruption and field improvisation are worlds apart, they operate from the same principle in this case That one practice can be called ingenuity while another can be called corruption is the supreme irony of the military supply system.
IN 1996, in the middle of a drive to cleanup the corruption in the LogCom, Mariano says he was driven out of the military and forced to retire. He co-authored a book entitled The Power of Reform, detailing corruption in the LogCom. For this, he says he was subjected to harassment.
“Kawawa ang pamilya ko (My family was put under stress),” he recalls. “My phones were bugged, I was under surveillance. All my properties were scrutinized.” Court- martial proceedings were also initiated against him, allegedly for the misuse of a government vehicle. Five years later, long after he had retired, the charges were dropped. It was also five years after he retired that his retirement pay was released. Until now, he refuses to name the officials who “persecuted” him and asked him not to publish his book.
Mariano estimates that for every peso allocated for the government soldier’s basic equipment and needs, more than half goes into the pockets of corrupt officials or suppliers. With that much leakage, it is not surprising that government can ill afford to give better equipment and support for its troops in the field.
In February last year, a marine battalion figured in an encounter with suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits in Maluso, Basilan. After the smoke cleared, I came across a marine trying to replace the pin on a hand grenade. Apparently, he had pulled the pin and thrown the grenade at the enemy, like they teach them in boot camp. For some reason, the safety lever didn’t fly off, and the grenade didn’t explode – at least, not yet.
“Sayang eh (Would be a shame to waste it),” he said, giving me an embarrassed grin as he stuffed the dud back into his fatigue shirt’s pocket. He thought he could fix the problem back at camp and use it again. I don’t know if he ever did.
Another time, an army patrol stumbled upon members of the Abu Sayyaf taking a bath beside a river. What tactical advantage the soldiers had were lost, when the light machine guns they had failed to fire, complained an Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) integree, a lieutenant, who was part of that patrol. The lieutenant was pretty bitter; in that firefight, the army lost more men than the bandits.
On other occasions, I have had the chance to go on patrol with soldiers with the seats practically torn off their pants (a soldier gets a new uniform every three years). Or with live chickens dangling upside down from their backpacks (the soldier’s meal allowance remains at P60 a day). Pack lunches, joked one marine. It was ironic and rather surreal, in a Gary Larson sort of way, that in order to survive several days in the jungle, these men were taking great risks by taking along noisy fowl on a combat operation.
Another time, a small patrol up in the mountains of Basilan broke for lunch, and the lieutenant hunched down beside his men and wolfed down fish and rice straight from a small blue plastic bag. It was almost embarrassing to bring out our cans of corned beef and tuna, while the soldiers looked on longingly.
Then came the mutiny of Trillanes and his combat troops, veterans of battles against the Abu Sayyaf, the NPA, the MILF, and the deprivations of their own corrupt and inefficient system. For some reason, though, they chose to stage their short-lived “demonstration” against the government in one of the country’s ritzier and more upscale neighborhoods.
That, perhaps, was the biggest irony of all.
Ed Lingao is executive producer of “The Correspondents,” a weekly public affairs program aired on ABS-CBN. He is a veteran war reporter, having covered the Iraq and Afghan wars for the network, the ongoing conflicts in Mindanao as well as the July 27 mutiny at Oakwood.