Philippine Gun Smuggling: The U.S. Connection

Times Staff Writer

When Philippine congressman Nicanor de Guzman flew home to Manila from Los Angeles last week, customs agents found some unusual souvenirs amid his shoes and shirts--314 assorted handguns plus spare parts and ammunition.

Mark another case in the California connection, an arms smuggling pipeline in which commercial airlines are increasingly used to smuggle illegal weapons--from snub-nosed revolvers to automatic weapons--into the Philippines.

In the last six weeks alone, police have used a newly installed X-ray scanner at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Air port to intercept 418 guns arriving on a dozen Philippine Airlines flights arriving from Los Angeles and San Francisco.


That figure contrasts with 144 guns confiscated at the airport all last year and 70 the year before, customs figures show. Officials believe far more guns arrived undetected.

“How these guns passed through Los Angeles security, and why almost every day we get people carrying guns from Los Angeles, I don’t know,” complained Zafiro L. Respicio, chief of airport customs here.

“We’ve received reports of a rampant influx of illegal weapons coming into the country from the West Coast,” said air force Col. Claudio T. Cruz, head of airport security.

According to Federal Aviation Administration officials in Los Angeles, screening passengers and baggage for contraband weaponry at U.S. airports is the responsibility of the individual carriers, whether foreign or domestic. In most cases, this screening is done by private security agencies under contract to the carriers.

At San Francisco, for example, Philippine Airlines and most other carriers rely on metal detectors and/or cursory “pat-down” searches to check passengers. Baggage is X-rayed at random.

Philippine Airlines spokesman Enrique B. Santos said in Manila that half the bags on Philippine Airlines’ five weekly flights from San Francisco are checked by X-ray. Six of the 10 flights from Honolulu also are checked, he said.

All U.S. Flights Checked

Airport officials here now use the X-ray scanner for all flights from the United States. Several weapons were detected on Northwest Airlines and Continental flights in June and July, records show. Another 22 guns were found in a ship’s cargo arriving from Tacoma, Wash.

Officials said most of the smuggled weapons are meant for private use or sold on the black market for up to four times U.S. prices. “It’s a very lucrative business,” said Customs Commissioner Salvador M. Mison.

“It’s very possible our own people (in customs) are involved,” Mison added.

Military officials said larger shipments may go to private armies that rule rural areas here, or are destined for transshipment to organized crime groups in Taiwan or Japan.

Philippine laws require gun licenses in advance and limit each buyer to one handgun and one rifle. The country has a total of 453,369 licensed guns, records show.

But the restrictions appear more fiction than fact in a city where house guards openly carry sawed-off shotguns, where discos ask patrons to check their guns at the door and where so many guns are fired on New Year’s Eve that revelers are routinely killed or wounded by stray bullets.

Indeed, the gun culture is so strong that 64 members of Congress tried to import 150 sophisticated Galil assault rifles and Uzi submachine guns from Israel last spring, ostensibly for their own use. The military later confiscated the guns as illegal.

Most of the guns are smuggled in balikbayan boxes, cartons Filipinos use when they return from abroad. Of the 18 people arrested at the airport this year, only one is an American.

On Aug. 21, customs police arrested Dominique C. Adams, 22, of Orem, Utah, after the X-ray scanner detected blurry images inside six boxes of truck parts she took on a Philippine Airlines flight from San Francisco.

Cutting open the parts containers, police found 70 .38-caliber, .45-caliber and .25-caliber pistols. Adams told police she was hired to model in Manila and agreed to deliver the boxes for her employer but did not know their contents. Released on $8,200 bail, she faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

Police in Modesto, Calif., later arrested Adams’ alleged U.S. contact, Richard Pedrioli, an arms dealer who was already awaiting trial on federal firearms smuggling charges.

But the De Guzman case has dominated headlines here. The House of Representatives, already embarrassed by its members’ own shipment of Uzis, voted Wednesday to suspend De Guzman for 60 days.

De Guzman, 57, a former nightclub and casino operator from central Luzon, has denied owning the 314 guns. But customs officials said his name was on most of the boxes and that $490 was paid in extra baggage charges to bring them in. The guns were wrapped in foil and stuffed inside eight metal U.S. mailboxes.

Times staff writer Eric Malnic, in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.