By Ed Lingao
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
First of Two Parts
JUST A few weeks after the Nov. 23, 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, where 58 people including 32 journalists were executed in a remote barangay in Ampatuan town, officials of the Firearms and Explosives Division (FED) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) were surprised to receive a deluge of applications for gun amnesty from one particular province in Mindanao.
Every once in a while, the national government offers a gun amnesty to the general public. These amnesty offers are a general pardon of sorts, where people with loose or unlicensed firearms are allowed to have illegal guns licensed and registered in their names.
But this batch of applications raised a red flag among officials of the PNP-FED, the agency tasked with regulating gun ownership and use in the country.
First of all, almost all the new applications originated from Maguindanao province, where the massacre occurred.
Secondly, the applicants were mostly members of the local civilian volunteer organizations, or CVOs, the local militia. Interestingly, members of Maguindanao’s CVOs who owed loyalty to the Ampatuan clan, had been implicated in the massacre.
Third, many of the firearms were the highly-priced Bushmaster M4A3, a variant of the M4 carbine used by many special forces units. Just a few years earlier, the Ampatuan clan, through the Maguindanao provincial government, had purchased 50 Bushmasters through gun trader Crisostomo Aquino, allegedly to fight the terrorist threat in the province. The end users of the Bushmasters, priced at P120,000 each, were supposed to be members of the Maguindanao PNP.
Sr. Superintendent Danilo Maligalig, then operations chief of the PNP-FED, recalls that this batch of amnesty applications, “numbering around a hundred,” immediately caught the attention of firearms regulators.
The gun amnesty, provided for through Executive Order 817 signed by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in June 2009 as part of the National Firearms Control Program (NFCP), had expired on Nov. 30, 2009, or a few days before this batch of amnesty applications swamped the FED.
From cops to CVOs
“Sinubukan nilang ipahabol ang mga ito (They tried to get this past us),” Maligalig recalls.
Maligalig says investigation by the FED later showed that these firearms were the same guns issued to the Maguindanao PNP to fight the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other armed groups in the region.
But police officials were puzzled how these firearms found their way to the CVOs, who then tried to acquire legal possession of them through the firearms amnesty program. What made the applications all the more unusual was the fact that the guns had never even been declared lost by the local PNP in the first place.
To Maligalig and other FED officials, this much was clear: firearms meant for the government arsenals had found their way to armed groups loyal to the Ampatuans.
Too, the clan appeared to be scrambling to save its arsenal and retain its armed might in the wake of the government crackdown against the firepower of the Ampatuans.
But more importantly, it was an sign of how the Ampatuan clan, like other well-armed political families, may have mastered the art of finding and taking advantage of apparent loopholes in firearms laws and amnesty programs in order to build, arm, and maintain a parallel arsenal that rivals even that of the national government’s.
At the same time, it put into question the entire firearms regulation system, including the fact that some state agencies such as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) deem themselves exempt from such rules.
Maligalig says that FED officials immediately suspended that batch of firearms amnesty applications while a probe was underway.
The results of the probe were alarming.
Maligalig, who acted as vice chairman of the investigating committee formed by the FED, said they found that many of the firearms bought with government funds supposedly for the local PNP were really meant to be used by the Ampatuan militia.
Under PNP rules, local governments may purchase firearms for the use of the local police force. These purchases are, however, covered by an end-user certificate, which specifies who is the firearm’s real user. In the case of the Bushmaster carbines, the guns were supposed to go straight to police officers assigned in Maguindanao.
“The guns were meant for the local police of Maguindanao, in fact the memorandum receipts (MR) were in the name of the policemen assigned,” says Maligalig. “Pero pirma lang ‘yun (But these were just signatures on paper.) The actual distribution of the guns was made to the militia members.”
He says that a closer scrutiny of the firearms applications showed that some of the CVO members applying for gun amnesty were in fact implicated in the Maguindanao Massacre itself.
“If you look at the pictures on the wanted list,” says Maligalig, “these were the same pictures in the amnesty applications application.”
A number of these CVO members were later arrested and have been included in the Maguindanao Massacre case now pending before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.
Maligalig says it appeared that the clan had ordered militia members to have these high-powered firearms placed under the amnesty program, in order to spare them from confiscation by the government.
“When things got hairy, they (the Ampatuans) attempted to have their firearms placed under the amnesty program,” Maligalig tells the PCIJ. “Pinangalan lang ang mga baril sa mga militia (They just tried to have the guns registered in the name of their milita members).”
In all, some 1,200 firearms were reported by the AFP to have been unearthed, confiscated, or recovered in Maguindanao province following the Maguindanao Massacre, according to AFP spokesmen in 2010.
Most of these firearms were old and obsolete firearms usually issued to members of the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs) and CVOs, the so-called force multipliers authorized through Executive Order 546 signed by then President Gloria Arroyo in July 2006.
A number of these recovered firearms, however, are clearly high-powered and high-end. Among the firearms recovered, as listed by the Mindanao-based news cooperative Mindanews, were:
- Four 60-mm mortars with ammunition;
- Two 81mm mortars;
- A 90mm recoilless rifle (actually a misnomer. The recoilless rifle fires a shaped charge that can punch a hole through armored vehicles);
- A 57-mm recoilless rifle;
- One Barrett sniper rifle (a specialized sniper weapon that delivers a half-inch slug with an effective range of 1.8 kilometers. The model recovered was a civilian version, although Barrett sniper rifles are normally not sold to private individuals but only to governments);
- Three M60 light machine guns (the standard machine gun of the AFP and the PNP);
- One .50 caliber heavy machine gun, also capable of punching holes in armored vehicles; and
- Various high-powered rifles and hand guns
Of these firearms, some 300 guns were turned over to the PNP Region 12 crime laboratory in General Santos City on suspicion that they were directly involved in the Maguindanao Massacre. So far, four of these confiscated guns have already been matched with slugs recovered from the victims and the site, according to Task Force Maguindanao head Chief Superintendent Benito Estipona. It is not clear if any of these firearms were part of the batch that CVOs tried to have registered under the amnesty program.
One long, one short
As a general rule, the country’s laws regulating firearms ownership limits the number of firearms owned by private citizens to “one long, one short,” or one rifle and one pistol.
In addition, private citizens are only allowed to own bolt-action or semi-automatic rifles with caliber no larger than .22 of an inch. The usual exemption is for gun club members, who are allowed a maximum of 10 rifles, but only “for sporting use.”
Yet according to the findings of the lifestyle check conducted by Deputy Ombudsman Humphrey Monteroso on the Ampatuan assets and submitted by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) to the Court of Appeals, the Ampatuan clan has at least 157 firearms of various calibers registered in the PNP-FED’s Firearms Identification Management System (FIMS) masterfile.
Of these 157 registered firearms, 23 are listed under the name of Andal Salibo Ampatuan Sr., and 26 under the name of Zaldy Uy Ampatuan. Eighteen guns are registered under the name of Andal Uy Ampatuan Jr., while another 15 are registered in the name of his brother Anwar.
(An earlier report by the PCIJ, quoting PNP-FED officials, pegged the number of firearms registered to members of the Ampatuan clan at 271, distributed among 103 persons with the surname Ampatuan.)
How then were the Ampatuans able to register so many firearms under their names?
Big cache of guns
Current officials of the PNP-FED refused repeated requests by the PCIJ for an interview. But Police Chief Superintendent Ricardo Marquez, executive officer of the Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management, says “the only way I can think of” how the clan was able to pull off such a feat is through the numerous amnesty programs offered over the years. This is because under the amnesty program, an applicant can register any number of firearms.
Marquez says even long firearms are included in the amnesty program. “The (limit) of only one-long, one-short is effectively overruled (by the amnesty),” he adds.
Since 1992, the government has offered at least 12 amnesty programs that would enable holders of loose firearms to have them registered and legalized for a fee.
But there is yet one more apparent loophole in the amnesty program that allows gun owners to collect and legally own high-powered firearms. Under the country’s gun laws, private citizens are not allowed to own high-powered rifles of 5.56 mm or 7.62 mm. These are the calibers of the standard M-16 rifle and the M1 Garand or the M14 rifle used by the police and the military.
The various amnesty programs, though, allow applicants to own high-powered rifles so long as they do not exceed 7.62mm. This means an applicant for amnesty can, once approved, legally own his own arsenal of high-powered firearms that are not available to ordinary citizens.
A quick inspection of the list of firearms registered under the names of the Ampatuans, meantime, also reveals a proclivity, not just for high-powered firearms, but for “designer guns,” as described by one security consultant, as well.
Of the 23 firearms listed under his name, Andal Sr. owns an Israeli-made 5.56 Negev light machine gun, a belt-fed or drum-fed machine gun that is hardly for sporting use. The Israel Weapon Industries website describes the Negev as “a small, light weight advanced machine gun” that allows “accurate and fast controlled fire for close quarter battle or an automatic mode that allows maximum firepower.”
In addition, Andal Sr. owns a Heckler and Koch MP7 submachine gun, a new generation of submachine guns whose 4.6mm bullets can punch holes through bulletproof vests. Manufacturer Heckler and Koch’s official website describes the MP7’s ammunition as capable of penetrating a bulletproof vest “comprised of 1.6mm titanium plates and 20 layers of Kevlar, out to 200 meters and beyond.”
Andal Sr. also owns 18 pistols and three other high-powered rifles.
Not to be outdone, Zaldy Ampatuan owns a Negev light machinegun, two HK MP7 submachine guns, an HK UMP40 submachine gun, and two Israeli-made Tavor assault rifles, the same rifle now being issued to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This is aside from the 11 pistols and one shotgun that he owns.
Andal Jr., for his part, has 18 registered firearms, according to PNP records. These range from an OAR 556 rifle to a 5.7 caliber Fabrique Nationale submachine gun.
A gun expert consulted by the PCIJ calls these “designer guns” that are very expensive, and hard to come by. An MP7 can be purchased in the Philippines for P 700,000 to P900,000 each because it is so rare, the expert says. The Tavor, with its bullpup design and built-in illuminated sights, can fetch anywhere from P600,000 to P700,000. A Negev light machinegun, because of its functionality, would be worth around P 1.2M in the Philippine market, he says.
In an email reply to PCIJ’s written queries, Andal Ampatuan Sr.’s lawyer, Sigfrid Fortun, dismisses suggestions that the Ampatuans had used the amnesty programs to build up their weapons arsenal.
“Whether they used the Amnesty Program to legitimize their possession of these weapons is arguable,” Fortun writes. “One thing is certain, though, when an unlicensed firearm is brought to the fold of the law and the PNP accepts it to license it, is this not far better than having loose firearms where the government does not even know exactly how many firearms one has in his possession? Now how can this submission to the fold of the law be immoral or illegal?”
Indeed, the argument is echoed by some police officials who see no problem with the liberal application of gun amnesty proclamations.
Marquez and Maligalig, for instance, both say it is better to encourage gun owners to have their loose firearms licensed, than to have these floating around unregistered.
Maligalig says the PNP-FED purposely made the amnesty proclamations more liberal “to ferret out” the loose firearms. He notes, “It was needed so that we could account all of those unrecorded.”
“The aim is to get the firearms registered, get their ballistic characteristics, and stencil them so that when they are used in a crime, they can be traced to their owners,” Marquez points out. “What’s the better situation, more guns that aren’t registered or have an amnesty program that has loose guns registered and stenciled?”
But he says there is an aspect of gun control that does need immediate attention. Over the years, he says, only civilians have been strictly following the letter of the law on firearms purchase and ownership. The likes of the AFP, effectively the biggest armed group in the country, apparently do not believe they have to follow such rules on firearms.
For example, Marquez says that firearms acquisitions made by AFP units outside of the regular arms dealers have largely been unregistered and unlicensed. Maligalig also says that AFP arms purchases go “undeclared.”
For this reason, there are firearms floating around in the grey area between formal military units and the local government militias that the government has no records of. As such, it is much easier for high-powered firearms supposedly destined for the AFP to disappear into a black hole of sorts.
“When firearms are bought from a dealer, they are automatically registered,” says Marquez. “But when firearms are not acquired through that process, they are not registered. Some of the firearms of the AFP were through foreign military sales, so these were given directly to the AFP.”
“Our suggestion,” he says, “is for everybody’s firearms, especially government firearms, to be registered, and their records kept by the PNP, meaning ballistics records, stencils, etc.”
But the paperwork for such a process would probably have to compete with those from local officials who seem to believe they have to have a formidable arsenal in order to govern.
They fancied guns
Lawyer Fortun, for one, describes that the Ampatuans are “public officials who, during their incumbency, fancied guns (like most Alpha males). This was public knowledge.”
Yet he also defends the large number of firearms registered under the names of the Ampatuan family members by saying that the clan “was used by and had assisted the Government to fight the MILF.”
“Unsay (Andal Jr.) was in the forefront of these armed encounters,” Fortun says in his email reply to PCIJ’s queries. “They were the ‘stay-behind units’ ater the army completed its assault on known MILF territories. They took over and held the ground after the army had returned to their secure camps, and they kept the area they held MILF-free.”
According to Fortun, though, many of exotic firearms listed under the names of the Ampatuans were actually “gifts from constituents and others.”
Curiously, a PCIJ report on the guns of the Ampatuan clan published in 2010 also mentioned the fondness of some Ampatuan family members to give guns as gifts as well. Former Maguindanao Martial Law administrator Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer had told the PCIJ that he had been offered one of the Tavor assault rifles of Zaldy Ampatuan as a gift a few weeks after the Maguindanao Massacre.
“Sir, kunin mo na lang, sa iyo na lang daw ang Tavor ni RG (Sir, just get it, RG’s Tavor is yours),” Ferrer recalls the aide of Zaldy as telling him over the phone.
On another occasion before the massacre, Ferrer recalled having received a brand new M4 assault rifle as a gift after a meeting with Zaldy Ampatuan. Ferrer said the gun was thrust on him by an Ampatuan aide while he was leaving.
A basic M4 assault rifle, without accessories, costs from $2,000 to 2,800 when purchased in bulk. – PCIJ, November 2011