The Guns of Danao
Handmade Guns for the Yakuza
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
The ideal gun for a gangster is as anonymous as the killer who uses it wants to be: no name, no face, and no number. That is why some 3,000 weapon-smiths in a small, dirty town in the Philippines have established a flourishing business with a counterfeited arsenal, from pistols to machine guns.
Drive for about an hour to the north of Cebu City and you will reach the small city of Danao, a place that you won’t find in the average tourist guide of the Philippines.
The town itself is a sad example of the urban sprawl common to many other third-world countries’ settlements. For the visiting Westerner, this is definitely not a socio-cultural jewel, there isn’t much to see here and yet the city of Danao is famous among millions of Asians from neighbouring countries, especially Japan.
For decades now, the city has been renowned for the quality of the weapons manufactured by local artisans, from handguns to assault rifles to knives, and for generations, the 95,000 inhabitants of Danao have made a living out of it continuing to perfect an art for which they have become famous. Some have tried to get legal jobs, but invariably, job opportunities outside of the arms business prove to be far less lucrative, and the few who dare to go after an honest job, always come back to work alongside their peers.
The workforce of some 3,000 full-time counterfeiters in Danao involved in the illegal manufacturing of contraband weapons represents a staggering figure, which does not include those who indirectly work for the system: money launderers, dealers, runners, etc. All in all, some 20,000 people are involved in the illegal arms manufacture business here.
In 1996, the government of Manila authorized the official opening of the first legal firearms factory in Danao.
The creation of “DAMANCOR” (Danao Arms Manufacturing Company) was meant to put a stop to the illegal manufacture of weapons. In January of the following year, the first police crackdown took place.
Two Danao family homes that were raided contained 66 thirty-eights, 173 38-calibre carbines, 28 twenty-twos, 110 magnum forty-fives, dozens of machine guns and hundreds of other weapons!
Officially, some 10,000 weapons are produced monthly, but this figure represents a conservative estimate that is far less than the actual amount.
Since the first raid in January 1997, a large number of tools and other factory equipment designed for arms manufacture and countless spare parts have been seized.
It is estimated that these raids reduced production to 4,000 items per month. But even after much police intervention and other measures taken in order to discourage illegal production,
Danao continues to produce enough weapons to equip a small army.Everyone knows only too well that occasional raids and inspections would never result in a complete halt to the production of illegal arms in Danao.
After the police raids, the city’s ‘manufacturing machine’ was soon back to business as usual, producing even greater quantities than in the years prior. The fabrication of counterfeit arms is not only an essential source of revenue for underprivileged families but also represents the favourite supply for the local police and army, who openly equip themselves at the local counterfeit shops.
That is another reason for the local police to “turn a blind eye’ and not interfere with this trade, which is as lucrative for the merchants as it is convenient for the customers in uniform.
In Danao, the majority of counterfeit pieces are copies made from existing models. Apart from the world-famous Israeli Uzi (which costs approximately $ 1,500 – a tenth of the price of a real model), all other weapons manufactured here are copies of American brands: the mini-machine gun Ingram, the Colt 45 ($ 100), the 357 Smith & Wesson Magnum (sold for a mere $ 150, while the original costs tens times more - $ 1,500), the Smith & Wesson P38 ($100) and the 22-calibre Ginger. All of these weapons are excellent replicas of their American originals. Locally made revolvers can sell for as little as $ 20!
The true quality of a counterfeit gun is determined by the quality of the metal used in its manufacture. The illegal weapons made at Danao are completely hand-made, with rudimentary machine shop tools: hacksaws, cheap files and drills, etc. The shops are set up in the homes as discretely as possible, in a bedroom behind a false wall, in the kitchen and sometimes even in the garden. Since the latest crackdowns by the police, however, the shops can mostly be found in the surrounding countryside, camouflaged by fields of sugar cane and in other remote sites on the outskirts of town. Without a local guide, it is impossible to find them: nobody offers information for free, especially to Westerners with wallets bulging from credit cards, traveller's cheques and foreign currency, like myself.
After days of hassle and negotiating, and thanks to a few friends I knew on the island, I was lucky enough to earn the trust of locals, who willingly led me to their homes and their hideouts. At first, they were quite suspicious of me, which is only natural – they thought I had been sent by the authorities in Manila to spy on them. And in fact, even though the people here have a tendency to mistrust each other more than outsiders, it is true that their suspicions were justified: two years earlier, I learned, they were framed by two Americans posing as journalists, who were actually police investigators.
In the Philippines, anybody can buy himself a gun without too much trouble. There is, in fact, no paperwork, registration or bureaucracy of any kind. No serial number, no purchaser’s name recorded…
A situation of anonymity which is a dream come true for gangsters and criminals of all types. In the West, all firearms and especially handguns, are sold with strict regulations linked to the transaction: serial number, buyer’s identity, etc. Each bullet is completely unique and marked. With modern ballistic technology, a bullet fired from a Western gun, in a criminal situation, can be traced – like a fingerprint – all the way back to the manufacturer, the wholesaler, the gun seller and eventually, of course, the purchaser. Conversely, illegally manufactured firearms and ammunition make a criminal investigation much more difficult.
A few inhabitants of Danao have been fighting for years for the legalization of the arms manufacturing business.
Mr Banzon Wencescao is one of them: he has developed his own prototypes and wants to patent them to, among other things, help the local economy. One of his models is a prototype assault rifle, a sort of hybrid between the Russian AK47 and the American M16. With the intention of helping out the Philippine armed forces, he sent his prototype to a high-ranking general. “I never received a response, though,” says Wencescao bitterly, “and they kept my prototype.”
“Damancor” is the only factory to have received official authorization to manufacture weapons, with all the copies produced there bearing the “Damancor – Danao” logo. The factory produces approximately 30 firearms per week, sold for prices that range between $ 120 and $ 400 per weapon. Production is centred mainly on the Colt 45 and the Colt 9mm, 22s, 38s and 45s, as well as the local speciality: the "Ozigram”, a sort of hybrid between the Uzi and the Ingram 9 mm. The originals of the same models produced in the United States would cost between 5 and 10 times more. The Damancor factory is currently investing heavily in the development of a 12-shot machine pistol, an assault rifle, a Browning and their very own 38mm. Damancor sells all its products with a two-year guarantee and claims that its firearms have a minimum life expectancy of 10 years.
Security professionals employed by banks, large corporations and other businesses (called the “blue army”- a reference to their working attire), as well as personal bodyguards represent a large part of Damancor’s clientele, amounting to a total of 22,000 men – an impressive number especially if we consider that the enrolled Philippine armed forces account for less than half of this “blue army”! The factory’s president is hoping to be able to strike joint venture deals with countries such as France, with the objective of accessing industrialized countries’ technology and marketing methods, as well as offering them the possibility of purchasing quality material at competitive prices.
Some 120 people work at the Damancor factory, most of them former professional counterfeiters. They earn between 120 and 200 pesos a day (about $ 5 to $ 9), which adds up to a monthly salary of roughly $ 200. The price to pay to work honestly, in an authorized factory, is high indeed. In fact not far from the Damancor factory, people counterfeiting weapons in their homes, kitchens or gardens can manufacture a “home-made” 357 Magnum or Colt 45 and sell it for as much as $ 700! How can one expect these artisans to remain at their factory workstation for long when they know too well that they can easily earn more than double their “official” factory pay at home? Whatever the case, the wide gap in earnings has no effect at all on the official “war” against illegally manufactured firearms in Danao.
For those working clandestinely, it does make absolutely no difference if their product ends up in the hands of sea pirates, organized crime groups like the Yakuzas, the Philippine “Mafia” or other criminals. Money pours in as quickly as production rolls out, and there is no end to this traffic in sight. Today in the Philippines, and on Cebu in particular, the manufacturers are eager to satisfy the customer’s wildest fantasies and the golden rule that affirms that the customer is always right. For example: for 25 pesos ($1), the image-conscious Yakuzas request custom-made handguns as well as other weapons commissioned in Danao.
Luzviminda Mayo, a mother of five children, carries on her manufacturing activity, working from her makeshift workshop, in the garden behind her house. “This is the only way I can get by and feed my children,” she laments, a baby on her hip. “In the past, I tried other jobs, but could never manage to make ends meet …”
An ingenious activity that demands skill and creativity, as well as an illegal business, the manufacture and sales of firearms, using generations-old savoir-faire, is the one and the only thing that the people of Danao know how to do, and they do it well. Superbly, in fact. Their sole source of revenue and survival is the sale of killing machines. To stay alive, they must make things that kill. But for the people of Danao, this paradox is something they can neither comprehend nor afford…