April 19, 1997, Saturday London Edition 1
SECTION: Perspectives Pg. 4
Graham Greene would have enjoyed Danao, a sleepy coastal town in the southern Philippines and home since 1928 to a thriving illegal firearms manufacturing business.
Under an unforgiving sun and a heavy blue sky, fishing boats or bancas, with bamboo outriggers, bob gently on the calm sea. Fishermen squat in front of rough wicker baskets selling their catch. A cassocked priest glides into the crumbling 19th century Santo Tomas church.
Anti-corruption signs - as sure a sign as any of its unchecked rampancy - rust on telephone poles, overlooking the faded pink bougainvilleas which line the central stretch of the dusty road. "The only way to solve graft and corruption - if there are no givers there are no takers," they warn.
Danao has long been run by one clan: today the local congressman, mayor and vice-mayor are all Duranos.
In the freewheeling culture of the Philippines, where Asian machismo, the American dream and Latino fiesta spirit jostle for pre-eminence, gun ownership, though officially prohibited, is widespread.
In Danao, with its rich history of gun manufacturing, whether of the legal or illegal variety, opposition would be counter-productive since the industry provides a living for 15,000 people, a little less than a fifth of the town's population.
Here, in the relaxed, breezy atmosphere of a small seaside town, gun aficionados can choose from fake Ingram machine pistols, Smith and Wesson revolvers, Colt .45s, Berettas, Ithaca shotguns and, depending on one's firepower requirements, Uzi sub-machine guns.
Ten years ago, the biggest customers were Japanese yakuza crime gangs. "A Japanese guy and his Filipina girlfriend came here once in the early 1980s in a taxi from Cebu, just roaming about without knowing anyone," says the affable Dodong Giango, the epitome of the small-time Filipino gangster.
"They drove past a few times and eventually I signalled to them, 'You want one of these?', demonstrating a gun. He bought 232 pieces, mostly revolvers. He was very gutsy."
Sporting a turquoise vest with the legend "California - where life's a beach", two gold medallions, a pair of shorts and flip-flops and packing a fake Beretta he bought from a friend for 18,000 pesos ($685), Giango is one of the town's leading underground gun-dealers.
Next week he faces arraignment for the possession of a Colt .45, but the prospect of his first brush with the authorities in 23 years of firearms trafficking leaves him unruffled.
"As far as I know, no one has ever been convicted of either the illegal possession or manufacture of firearms. In fact, these days the police are our main customers, along with businessmen, gun-runners and politicos."
He took me to see one of his suppliers, the town's only manufacturer of fake Berettas, as well as the Colt .45, 1911 model, and a Para Ordinance 14-shooter.
Hidden on one side by the tall, green fronds of a sugar cane plantation and on the other by a handful of palm trees, Felicito Montes runs a cottage gun-making industry, like his father and grandfather before him.
On the sound of our approach, fearing it was a police raid, the workers scrambled into the plantation and were instantly lost to sight.
On the small work table lay the tell-tale signs of the illicit trade: a chunk of scrap metal (12 pesos a kilo from the local junk store) crudely cut into the shape of a gun, together with vices, hacksaws and assorted tools. In the furnace-like heat of a tiny space just large enough to house a single bed and a post drill, Montes' 12-year-old son is boring a barrel for the latest Beretta.
For those customers who prefer to buy genuine Philippine rather than fake models, two manufacturers have recently been granted licences. After lobbying for the legalisation of the industry for 10 years, the Workers League of Danao Multi-Purpose Co-operative, based in a steamy warehouse leased for free from Congressman Ramon Durano III, already has one line in production.
The Lapu-Lapu economy revolver, named after the Filipino chief who dispatched the Portuguese adventurer Magellan to his death in 1521, is yours for 2,500 pesos. The Rizal P45 pistol, named after Jose Rizal, the national independence hero, is aimed at the security forces market and will cost 6,000 pesos.
Winnie Banzon, the co-operative's enterprising designer, is applying for 11 patents for his master creation, the top of the range, Bonifacio multi-calibre .357 7-shooter Magnum. As Nestor Sabayton, chairman, observes:
"This model has many new features. For example, the firing pin is only raised when you pull the trigger.
"This is a lot better than a Smith and Wesson or a Colt .45."
With authorised capital of only 325,000 pesos, however, the co-operative is struggling to keep its head above water. All models are hand-made because it cannot afford a fully automated production line.
"There is a big market out there for the military and law-enforcement agencies, but right now we can't sell to them because we don't have the financial capability," says Sabayton. "A foreign investor would be very welcome."