Not About Mindanao’s Gun Culture

As if the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao was not shocking enough, in come the seizures of hoarded armaments in mind-boggling number in this Ampatuan clan enclave. So what kind of monster has the Arroyo administration created in Maguindanao? As days pass, I am getting convinced government has to be put to task for this chaos.

The latest find in the Ampatuan warehouse in Shariff Aquak could meet the needs of a battalion of soldiers, Lt. Col. Michael Samson, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Maguindanao told the Inquirer. Another large cache was dug up days ago in a vacant lot in Ampatuan town. The number of seized guns just continues to grow.

If that doesn’t amaze you, here’s a rundown of the warehouse items seized: 6,500 rounds of ammo for M14 assault rifles, 134 propeller missiles for 81 mm mortar, 131 propeller missiles for 60 mm mortar, six rockets for 90 mm recoilless rifles, three rocket warheads for an MG 520 attack helicopter and 92 rockets for 57 mm recoilless rifles.

A simplistic military description of the listed missiles and ammunition found in the warehouse: sufficient to obliterate a small town. No wonder they were “stunned.” Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the AFP’s Eastern Mindanao Command said that the Ampatuan private army could dwarf the other similar groups in the country.

How were they able to amass such a large cache of military hardware, most of them “Department of National Defense” issues, thus allowing then to arm a private force with an estimated 2,000 fighters? Why the obsession for sophisticated firearms? And will recent actions be enough to disable the monster the Arroyo government created?

Those armaments took years to accumulate and were either bought or supplied by the government. Consider the linkage between warlordism and control of local political power. The Ampatuan army is composed of civilian volunteer organization members under the police and military that are in turn subservient to the Ampatuans in office.

A big chunk of the cache could also have been bought, which brings us to the evil that is graft and corruption. No doubt about the wealth of the Ampatuans, as shown by those palatial homes that are anomalies in a poor province like Maguindanao. The clan’s riches are still being audited and I`m sure government coffers are among their sources.

Corruption is also obviously what made possible the transfer of the ownership of the DND armaments to private hands. If so, the Ampatuans must have spent a fortune on them and those in the military must have earned a tidy sum. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think about collusion from military higher-ups, judging from the hardware involved.

Gun culture has often been mentioned as the reason for the propensity of Muslim area residents to procure firearms for personal use. I have heard stories of how farmers in some Mindanao towns till their fields with M-16s slung across their backs. But that culture is abetted by government tolerance, which makes our laws on guns laughable.

What the military and police are currently doing against the Ampatuans shows that firearms, at least in Maguindanao, can be seized and warlords can be put to heel if government just puts its mind to it. It’s not about gun culture, then, or even about clan wars and ridos. It’s about government enforcing our laws no matter who gets hurt.

(I wrote this for my December 11, 2009 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)

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