Phl to probe arms smuggling

Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The government is preparing to investigate alleged arms trafficking involving an unnamed military captain, California senator Leland Yee and a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“It cannot be taken lightly,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said yesterday over radio dzRB. “Certainly, this is a matter that has to be looked into.”

The development came amid an admission by an “arms buyer” that some members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were routinely selling weapons to rebels and other armed groups.

Valte said an affidavit of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent contained information that would have to be probed.

“We don’t tolerate any gunrunning in any shape or form, especially if you belong to the Armed Forces or to any of the security forces for that matter,” she said.

“So that’s why the DND (Department of National Defense) is also looking very closely into this report, as well as the AFP,” Valte said.

She admitted initially giving on Friday a “guarded reaction because we did not have anything (official) on it yet.”

But she said “we trust that the AFP will get to the bottom of it because they are also concerned... should it be clarified that someone from the AFP is allegedly involved.”

She also said they would check with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima whether Yee had indeed visited the Philippines as he had claimed.

“The BI (Bureau of Immigration) is under her and that can easily be checked. I understand that there is a particular date, at least, that was mentioned – 2012 – but we will leave it to Secretary De Lima on how best to go about that,” Valte said.

Based on reports, Yee, who had authored gun control legislation, asked for campaign donations in exchange for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker with links to Muslim guerillas.

Investigators said Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons worth $500,000 to $2.5 million, including shoulder-fired missiles. In an affidavit, FBI agent Emmanuel Pascua talked of how Yee explained the entire process of acquiring weapons from a Philippine military captain and the MILF and bringing the firearms to the US.

An FBI criminal complaint named Lee and 25 other defendants, including Raymond Chow, a one-time gang leader with ties to San Francisco’s Chinatown known as “Shrimp Boy,” and Keith Jackson, Yee’s campaign aide.

Pascua, in his affidavit, accused Yee of conspiracy to illegally import firearms.

Thriving business

An arms buyer said most or 80 percent of the weapons in rebel hands came from the armories of the military and the Philippine National Police.

“Soldiers and policemen are the best source of firearms – they deliver them right at your doorstep,” the arms buyer, who declined to be named, told The STAR.

He said the weapons – including assault rifles and heavy machineguns – would also end up in the possession of other armed groups, including the more violent Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

He said many of the illegally traded assault rifles had been declared lost during encounters. The source said soldiers would often underreport their discharge of ammunition so they could keep and later sell the unspent rounds in the underground arms market.

In some cases, supply officers were made to sign documents on the delivery of 200,000 rounds of ammunition when actual delivery was only 50,000 rounds.

“Of course the supply officer will get his share of the misdeclaration,” the arms dealer said.

He said M-16 bullets costing P7 each are the most in demand ammunition among armed groups, including political warlords in Mindanao.

“The price of the firearms depends on their condition. A brand new M-16 is P30,000; an M-60 light machinegun, P50,000; a 20-mm mortar, P20,000; made-to-order 50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun is priced between P50,000 and P70,000.”

The arms buyer also said Russian-made rocket propelled grenades (RPG) used to be in demand until the MILF began making its own grenade launchers and RPGs.

“The cheapest are the grenades which cost only several hundred pesos each,” he said.

The arms buyer said the rising demand for firearms has prompted some arms dealers to set up clandestine gun factories in remote areas in Central Mindanao. They can even fabricate weapons from car parts.

He said armed groups would also tap the expertise of gunsmiths from Danao City in Cebu for their arms buildup.

Check inventory

Antipolo Rep. Romeo Acop, meanwhile, called on law enforcement agencies and military units to check their inventory of firearms and weed their ranks of misfits who may have engaged in illegal trafficking of weapons.

“I think the urgent and immediate task of concerned government agencies, especially the PNP-FED (Philippine National Police-Firearms and Explosives Division), is to conduct a no-nonsense inventory of firearms held by government and update their database,” Acop, a former police director and currently vice chairman of the House committee on public order and safety, told The STAR.

“Having ‘loose’ firearms in government or those unaccounted for by agencies give rise to opportunities to smuggle them,” he said.

Earlier this month, before Yee’s arrest, a federal jury in Los Angeles convicted three Filipino nationals, including an official of the Bureau of Customs, for illegally conspiring to import weapons to the US.

Acop, who is also chairman of the committee on government reorganization, said the AFP, the PNP, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and other offices with law enforcement units like the Bureau of Customs must conduct frequent checks of their inventory of firearms.

He said certain agencies, like the NBI, are allowed to import high-powered weapons, and that it is possible that such acquisitions are not recorded by the PNP-FED.

He said he has a pending resolution in the House for a congressional inquiry into the unaccounted 900 or so high-powered firearms supposedly in PNP’s safekeeping. – With Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude

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