MANILA // The Philippine government imposes a total ban on carrying firearms throughout the country today in the run-up to the general elections on May 10. As well, police and military units are moving throughout the nation to dismantle private armies in an attempt to keep political violence down.
Police and the military have identified between 90 and 132 private armies and have designated more than 500 towns and municipalities as "hot spots" prone to election violence. At midnight on Saturday, police had set up 90 checkpoints throughout the 16 cities and one municipality that make up Metro Manila. The gun ban comes nearly two months after 57 people, including 30 journalists and the wife and relatives of a political rival of the Ampatuan family, who have controlled their area for years, were killed in the southern Philippines.
The massacre in Maguindanao on Mindanao Island on November 23 was the worst act of political violence in the country and has prompted calls for the government to impose a permanent gun ban throughout the nation to try to end the culture of violence that permeates Philippine society. The Philippine National Police (PNP) say 1.2 million guns are registered in the Philippines and an equivalent number - ranging from hand guns to assault rifles - are not registered. The law imposes a penalty of 15,000 pesos (Dh1,200) for carrying an unregistered firearm, although legislators want it increased to 100,000 pesos and life in prison for criminals using firearms.
Over the weekend the PNP sent a 75-man commando team to the central province of Masbate to "neutralise" at least three private armies. Chief Superintendent Leocadio Santiago, the director of the Police Special Action Force, was quoted by the local media as saying 3,000 police commandos would be deployed to other provinces known to have high levels of political violence between now and April. "The Special Action Force will be our strategic strike force in the provinces," he said.
Previous elections in Masbate have been marred by violent clashes between supporters and armed men identified with the Khos, the Fernandezes and the Espinosas, the province's most prominent political clans. The defence secretary, Norberto Gonzales, warned that the government, "if needed and if allowed by the courts", would conduct house-to-house searches for unlicensed guns in the campaign against private armies.
"I don't care whose family it is. We will do that," Mr Gonzales said during a conference in the southern Mindanao city of Davao attended by more than a dozen generals. From today no one except the police, military and private uniformed security personnel will be allowed to carry firearms in the country. All gun permits and licences issued by the police will be suspended until June 10. According to the PNP director, Gen Jesus Verzosa, 558 cities and municipalities throughout the country have been identified as "election hot spots".
"As the weather gets hotter, so do the elections," he said during a media briefing. "There will be no exceptions to the ban, not even candidates. It is our aim to keep election violence down as best we can. The general rule is only those in authority, wearing the proper uniform and in actual performance of official duties, are allowed to carry firearms during the election period," Gen Verzosa said.
Elections in the Philippines tend to be tainted by violence. During the 2004 general elections, there were 249 election-related incidents of violence, of which 148 resulted in deaths. In the 2007 midterm elections, there were 229 violent incidents of which 121 resulted in deaths. The federal government will be under intense local and international scrutiny during the drawn-out campaign period, which starts on February 9 and ends on May 8, two days before the polls open.
Three candidates from the Nationalista Party and one supporter of the Manny Villar for President Movement have been killed in various parts of the country since the start of the year. Mr Villar, a self-made billionaire, is one of the presidential front-runners. Gen Verzosa said law enforcement and private security personnel will be required to carry their identification cards and mission orders at all times. "If they don't, they are presumed to have waived their privilege to bear firearms," he said, warning that all gun-wielding individuals in civilian clothing "will be arrested on the spot".
Political candidates will be allowed only two police escorts. The general said the move is to prevent politicians from using uniformed personnel as their private army, like the Ampatuan family has done in Maguindanao. General Victor Ibrado, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the military would help dismantle private armed groups. Gen Ibrado said there were 132 private armed groups in the country; police have claimed 90, with the number of members varying from a handful to more than 100. However Mr Gonzales, the defence secretary, is on record as saying that there are 132 private armies with a combined strength of 10,000 members.
After the Maguindanao massacre, the government set up a special commission to investigate the existence of private armies. Randy David, a columnist writing in the Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday, said the commission's findings could "be so revealing as to explode all our illusions about Philippine democracy". "For all its brutality and barbarism - and the personal tragedies it brought to many families, notably of the media people who were used as human shields - the November 23 Maguindanao massacre gives us a rare opportunity to ask questions about the nature of our political order, and why it has remained incapable of protecting our people from lawless violence. If only because of this, the senseless deaths of 57 unarmed civilians would not be in vain," he wrote.