Coastal city is hub of underground explosives trade

Our latest investigation reveals the existence of an underground industry that manufactures blasting caps, or detonators, for explosives. The backyard industry has thrived for years in the scenic resort town of Talisay, Cebu, right under the noses of local officials and police. Until a few years ago, the blasting caps were mainly used by dynamite fishers. But there is evidence that terrorists are now using them as well — with lethal and disastrous results.

On Monday, it will be a month since the Valentine’s Day bombings that killed eight and wounded 150 in three cities in the country. The evidence suggests that the blasting caps used for those bombings were bought by operatives of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist organization in Talisay. There is already firm evidence to show that Talisay was also the source of blasting caps used in the Rizal Day bombing in December 2000 and the 2002 bombings in Gen. Santos, also traced to both JI and the Abu Sayyaf.

The easy availability of the blasting caps has made them a threat, not only to Philippine fisheries but to the safety of Philippine cities. This report reveals that Talisay is the hub of an illegal explosives trade financed and operated by syndicates with close links to the police. Talisay-made detonators are now being exported to Indonesia where they are being used by illegal fishers and where they may also find their way to terrorist cells.

Local officials have turned a blind eye, as the blasting cap industry — like the illegal gun or paltik industry in Danao, also in Cebu — provides livelihood to poor families. But such indifference has had disastrous consequences in terms of human lives and damaged corals and fisheries. Instead of providing alternative sources of livelihood for fishers in the area, local officials have chosen to splurge on, among other things, a P120-million city hall.

Parts of blasting cap and explosive manufactured in Talisay. Click on image for a larger view. [image courtesy of]

TALISAY CITY — Located just 30 minutes away by car from bustling Cebu City, this coastal oasis of relative calm used to be known for its beaches. Yet even then, Talisay already harbored a lethal secret: it was a major source of blasting caps used to detonate explosives.

Today, that underground industry continues to thrive — and with increasingly deadlier results. Originally meant as detonating devices for the explosives used in dynamite fishing, Talisay’s blasting caps are now not only killing fish, but also sowing terror in cities as far as Manila, and perhaps even beyond Philippine borders.

Experts say Talisay-made blasting caps are more “sensitive” than their legally manufactured counterparts and are therefore capable of achieving greater impact. For dynamite fishers, this means a bigger catch; for a terrorist, greater damage wrought on a target.

Official records show that Talisay was the source of the explosives used in the Rizal Day bombings in Manila in 2000 that killed 20 people and injured scores of others. Primary suspect Fathur Rohman Al-ghozi and his alleged accomplice Cusain Ramos told the police that Talisay resident Antonio Reyes had sold them blasting caps, detonating cords, and ammonium nitrate. The explosives used in the spate of bombings that took place in General Santos City three years ago were also believed to have come from Talisay and supplied by Reyes.

When 1.2 tons of ammonium nitrate were seized in General Santos City in January 2002, Reyes was pinpointed as the source. During a police interrogation, Al-ghozi, an Indonesian national who is now dead, said the ammonium nitrate was meant for bombing operations of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Singapore.

Reyes is now behind bars. But there seems to be no stopping the manufacture of blasting caps here in Talisay, where at least 50 households are believed to be churning out the cheap yet deadly devices. In fact, the safety fuses used in the Valentine’s Day bombings a month ago today are similar to the ones used in Talisay.

In the wake of those bombings, which killed eight people and wounded 150 others, the government has pushed for the adoption of stronger anti-terrorism laws and a national identification system to combat terrorism. But it has done little to control the blasting-cap industry here.

Instead, after revoking the license of a Talisay company for its alleged involvement in selling explosives to Al-ghozi, the authorities in March 2003 gave a new license to another company using the same address as that of the suspended firm.

For a long time, local and national government and police officials have treated Talisay’s blasting-cap industry with benign neglect, allowing this backyard business to grow more sophisticated through the years. Observers and Talisay residents alike say that this is partly due to the involvement of some of these officials in the industry and their ties with those who run it, as well as their fear of a public backlash come election time.

These days, Talisay’s blasting-cap trade boasts of a well-established network of financiers, dealers and subdealers, including licensed blasters, and has expanded operations outside of Talisay and into other areas of Cebu province and Bohol. Besides Reyes, no one connected with the illegal trade has been arrested and placed in jail.

This is despite a surfeit of regulations to prevent unscrupulous individuals, including licensed blasters, from making and dealing in explosives illegally. One of these is Presidential Decree 1866, as amended by Republic Act 8294, which prohibits the unlawful manufacture, sale, acquisition, disposition, or possession of explosives, the punishment for which is imprisonment and a fine of not less than P50,000.

The making of blasting caps here starts innocently enough: empty milk cans are formed into cylindrical containers approximately four cms in length and five to six cms in diameter. Then a primary explosive is placed inside the cylinder. This explosive is usually a mixture of ammonium nitrate — a highly regulated substance also used as fertilizer — and gasoline. One end of the cylinder is sealed to keep the explosive ingredients from spilling while the other end is attached to a safety fuse. The cylinder, which is the blasting cap, is next implanted in a mixture consisting of more explosives, mainly ammonium nitrate, inside a bottle from whose mouth protrudes the fuse. This fuse will be lit to ignite the explosives inside the bottle.

No dynamite will explode without a detonating device called the blasting cap, which is actually made in two stages: the formation of the cylinder cap, which by itself is not illegal, since it does not yet contain explosives; and the mixing of the primary explosive and safety fuse. Fisherfolk here say children are commonly involved in the first stage, since blasting caps are usually made in households, where youngsters can easily learn the skills from their parents.

Any activity involving explosives — be it purchase, distribution, manufacture, or trading — is subject to pertinent laws and regulations. The blasting cap trade in Talisay is illegal because the products are produced mainly for dynamite fishers. Republic Act 8550, otherwise known as the Philippine Fisheries Code, prohibits the use of explosives in fishing.

Talisay’s explosives-manufacturing industry is not limited to blasting caps. It also covers the trade in ammonium nitrate, which is a crucial ingredient in blasting caps and also in the making of dynamite. Most nitrates sold in the Philippines are imported. According to the Firearms and Explosives Division (FED) in Camp Crame, there is only one known local manufacturer of these substances: Dyno Nobel in Bacong, Negros Oriental.

Agricultural-grade nitrates are regulated by the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) while the Philippine National Police (PNP) regulates those used for explosives. The FPA, upon the recommendation of the PNP, banned the importation of agricultural nitrates in November 2002. The PNP for a time also suspended the approval of applications to possess, import/export explosives and explosives ingredients pending the inspection and inventory of all storage magazines. These moves, however, seem to have hardly affected the manufacture of blasting caps here and the assembly of dynamite by unscrupulous fishers — and possibly terrorists.

A kilogram of ammonium nitrate could produce eight to ten dynamites the size of a soda bottle. Assuming ammonium nitrate sells at P1,800 per 50 kgs and blasting caps at P30 each, a piece of dynamite could cost less than P20 to make. A blasting cap from Talisay can be used to make two pieces of dynamite since each cap is designed in such a way that it has a cylinder at either end. The safety fuse forms the middle section; when cut, one will have two pieces of cylinders, each with its own fuse.

Talisay’s deadly trade traces its beginning back to the 1950s, when tanks, ammunition and explosive ingredients left behind by Japanese and American soldiers who fought in World War II could still be found in the beaches here. Encouraged perhaps by sightings of fish floating every time a bomb exploded at sea, the townsfolk found use for these remnants of war by devising their own explosives for use in fishing.

Cheap and easy to employ, blast fishing became popular among Talisay’s fishers. But the fishing method has had devastating effects on marine life here, and fisherfolk have since been plagued by steadily declining catch. As a result, many families turned to making blasting caps as their primary source of livelihood, and while some locals still practice blast fishing, many residents say outsiders are the biggest buyers of the blasting caps.

Environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa, who has been trying to convince local officials to crack down on the blasting-cap industry, even says Talisay is already exporting its explosive products to Indonesia, “to Sulawesi in particular, which is part of the Sulu-Sulawesi marine triangle.”

Retired PNP officer Nonie Poliquit, formerly chief of the firearms and explosives division of the PNP regional office in Cebu, himself recalls that some years ago, a visiting Indonesian police official showed him a picture of blasting caps seized from dynamite fishers in Indonesia. According to Poliquit, the caps looked like those made in Talisay.

NGO workers meanwhile have confirmed with police and military intelligence authorities that Talisay blasting caps have made their way into coastal areas outside of the Visayas.

To avoid detection by authorities, blasting cap operations that used to be performed in their entirety in Talisay are now spread out across coastal areas in Cebu and nearby provinces like Bohol. The more delicate stage of putting the primary explosive inside the cap is done in nearby islands, like Calituban, Bohol, which is readily accessible by boat from Cebu.

Yet there may not have been any need for these efforts, considering the laxity of officials here and elsewhere in dealing with those allegedly involved in the illegal trade in explosives and explosives materials.

For example, two years after the cancellation of the license to possess explosives of a company called Pab-Tess in 2002, another firm using the same Cebu address and explosives magazines as Pab-Tess was able to secure a similar license from the Firearms and Explosives Division at Camp Crame.

Pab-Tess was one of two companies in Cebu that were stripped of their licenses after they were suspected of supplying explosives to Al-ghozi’s group. The owner of Pab-Tess, Pablito Santos, is described by Talisay residents as a major financier of the blasting-cap trade here, although the only visible business he has in this city is the Villa Teresita resort in Biasong. It is in the same compound where the resort is located where he used to keep his explosive magazines that were padlocked when his license was cancelled.

Santos is said to be very generous, a trait that residents here say has benefited local police officers. At the very least, residents, among them former Talisay Vice Mayor Lani Abarquez say, local police officials have been seen at Villa Teresita on several occasions. Each visit would last a maximum of 20 minutes each, say those who have seen the officials, prompting one resident to say that would not have been enough time for a dip in one of the resort’s two pools.

Santos declined repeated requests for an interview. Official records show, however, that the company that used the same address as Pab-Tess is FDR Garcia Enterprises, supposedly owned by Santos’s son-in-law, Ferdinand Garcia.

According to Police Superintendent Augusto Marquez, chief of the Regional Operations and Plans Division (ROPD) of the PNP in the Cebu province, Garcia was only a front for Santos to secure another license. He says FDR Garcia’s application with the Cebu Provincial Police Office (CPPO) was sent directly to Camp Crame without any endorsement from FED’s regional office in Cebu. The FED in Camp Crame, for its part, approved the application even without any endorsement from its regional unit-a violation of the standard procedure for all applications for new licenses.

The application also bypassed Marquez’s division, which learned of FDR Garcia’s existence only after it began receiving complaints about some gross violations, prompting an investigation. Among the violations were discrepancies noted in the company’s logbook of explosives, including ammonium nitrate. Even standard requirements were not met, as evidenced by the absence of warning signs that are required to be posted within the vicinity of the company’s magazine, and firefighting equipment. All these-plus the fact that it had used the same address as that of a company whose permit had been previously cancelled indicate that FDR should not have been granted a license in the first place.

Lawyer Oposa says he had asked FED “to investigate its own people” regarding the FDR fiasco. The FED, he says, asked him for evidence. Oposa recalls retorting, “Anong ebidensiya (What evidence)? You gave a permit to a person who used the same address as the person whose license you (revoked).”

Oposa has an ally in Elpidio de la Victoria, head of the Bantay Dagat (Sea Patrol) Commission in Cebu City and national president of the Philippine National Association of Fish Wardens. In a letter dated April 22, 2004 requesting the Office of the Ombudsman for the Visayas to act on the matter, de la Victoria wrote: “We have reason to believe that certain officers of the Cebu Provincial Police Office…are in connivance with certain individuals responsible for possessing illegal explosives/explosive ingredients…The dangers that these people represent threaten not only individual communities but…(also) national interests.”