Outlaws: Gunsmiths of Danao

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Photo by Allan Chatto.

It takes approximately one week to make a 9mm in Danao in the Cebu Province of the Philippines. The city and its residents have been celebrated for their skill at fashioning firearms, ever since they crafted guns for the resistance effort against the Japanese in World War II. In the 1940s and early 1950s, farmers armed themselves amidst agrarian unrest and the Maoist insurgency that followed, hammering parts out of junk found in scrap heaps.

Ahead of the congressional elections in the Philippines last spring, the government instituted a ban on carrying firearms, and many of the gunsmiths from Danao making unregistered and unregulated guns — gunsmiths for whom this trade had been a family business for several decades — moved their business from the city to the mountains.

Now backyard gunsmiths set up shop in alleyways adjacent to a ramshackle house with a tin roof, their workspace littered with scrap metal, angle iron, and detritus from abandoned ships. Other smithies hammer, drill and file their materials at the edge of rice fields or by a dry creek, surrounded by bamboo groves. Some of them had legal work before smithing, typically jobs in construction, but jobs disappeared and forced people into the trade to the extent that authorities often turn a blind eye to the workshops that dot the rolling hills and sugarcane fields in the countryside. Two weeks’ work to fashion a snubnosed .38 revolver can net a gunmaker 4000 pesos, or $98 USD.

While guns and gun ownership occupy a large space in the cultural tapestry — they are ubiquitous in shopping malls, banks, and even schools — elections always see a surge in gun activity, as rival political clans seek to settle scores and achieve electoral supremacy. In November 2009, in Ampuatan, a town in the Maguindanao province on the island of Mindanao, 57 people were traveling in a convoy to file a certificate of candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu, then vice mayor of Buluan. On their way, gunmen ambushed the convoy containing family members of Mangudadatu, journalists and many others. The victims were murdered and buried in mass graves. The prime suspect in the subsequent investigation was Andal Ampuatan Jr., son of the incumbent Maguindanao governor and member of one of Mindanao’s most powerful Muslim clans. Authorities, while investigating the family, uncovered more than 1,000 high-powered weapons, mortars and .50 caliber machine guns.

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