P U B L I C E Y E — A R M I N G T H E E N E M Y
THERE ARE many ways a soldier can "lose" a firearm or ammunition. Guns, for example, may simply be reported as stolen or lost in the heat of battle. There is no strict sense of accountability here that is seen in other countries like the United States. This can also be seen in the way guns and ammunition are so easily and loosely issued to so-called confidential military and police agents, as well as "friendly" local politicians and warlords, and end up disappearing down the pipeline. Ammunition has even proved to be easily disposed of, since there is never any accounting of the ammunition used in a combat operation.
But even before the guns get to the intended destination, arms and ammunition may be misdeclared at the Military Resupply Points (MRP), through several processes long perfected by the military supply chain.
The military has divided the country into several MRPs, from where arms, ammunition, and materiel needed in the prosecution of the war are farmed out to combat and support units. Mariano says the major who sold 400,000 bullets several years ago had been detailed at an MRP in Region IX in Mindanao. He says, however, that it is unlikely that any selling would get as high as the secretary of defense, as Trillanes's group claims, since the MRPs are commanded by middle-level officers.
In any case, Mariano relates how some military supplies are declared as having been delivered, when much of it actually ended up being sold in Divisoria, as in the case of military uniforms and accessories. The system could also be used for diverting guns and ammunition.
With the right amount of bribe money, supply inspectors may look the other way while the products are misdeclared. For example, Mariano says, an order of 10,000 tons of sand may be filled up by having a truck or two of sand going into one gate of Camp Aguinaldo, coming out another, and then going back in several times. The same system could apply to ammunition.
Another variation is innocently called "conversion." But Mariano says conversion has become the bane of the military supply system because of the corruption it breeds. Quite simply, the supplier and the supply officer collude to cover up a ghost delivery. The supply officer signs all the paper work indicating that the delivery was made. The supplier gets the full pay, but forks over up to 80 percent of the delivery value to the supply officer for his cooperation. The missing delivery usually goes unnoticed, first, because of the massive military bureaucracy, and second, because conversion is so common in the supply system that it is often taken for granted.
Gen. Garcia himself admits that conversion is a widespread practice. But he stresses: "Conversion is illegal and unacceptable. We are doing our best to stop it."
Yet, Garcia is quick to add that conversion gives operating units greater flexibility in their operations in the field. One unit may opt for cash instead of an unimportant delivery, and use the money for other items more urgently needed. The strange truth is that while corruption and field improvisation are worlds apart, they operate from the same principle in this case That one practice can be called ingenuity while another can be called corruption is the supreme irony of the military supply system.
IN 1996, in the middle of a drive to cleanup the corruption in the LogCom, Mariano says he was driven out of the military and forced to retire. He co-authored a book entitled The Power of Reform, detailing corruption in the LogCom. For this, he says he was subjected to harassment.
"Kawawa ang pamilya ko (My family was put under stress)," he recalls. "My phones were bugged, I was under surveillance. All my properties were scrutinized." Court- martial proceedings were also initiated against him, allegedly for the misuse of a government vehicle. Five years later, long after he had retired, the charges were dropped. It was also five years after he retired that his retirement pay was released. Until now, he refuses to name the officials who "persecuted" him and asked him not to publish his book.
Mariano estimates that for every peso allocated for the government soldier's basic equipment and needs, more than half goes into the pockets of corrupt officials or suppliers. With that much leakage, it is not surprising that government can ill afford to give better equipment and support for its troops in the field.
In February last year, a marine battalion figured in an encounter with suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits in Maluso, Basilan. After the smoke cleared, I came across a marine trying to replace the pin on a hand grenade. Apparently, he had pulled the pin and thrown the grenade at the enemy, like they teach them in boot camp. For some reason, the safety lever didn't fly off, and the grenade didn't explode - at least, not yet.
"Sayang eh (Would be a shame to waste it)," he said, giving me an embarrassed grin as he stuffed the dud back into his fatigue shirt's pocket. He thought he could fix the problem back at camp and use it again. I don't know if he ever did.
Another time, an army patrol stumbled upon members of the Abu Sayyaf taking a bath beside a river. What tactical advantage the soldiers had were lost, when the light machine guns they had failed to fire, complained an Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) integree, a lieutenant, who was part of that patrol. The lieutenant was pretty bitter; in that firefight, the army lost more men than the bandits.
On other occasions, I have had the chance to go on patrol with soldiers with the seats practically torn off their pants (a soldier gets a new uniform every three years). Or with live chickens dangling upside down from their backpacks (the soldier's meal allowance remains at P60 a day). Pack lunches, joked one marine. It was ironic and rather surreal, in a Gary Larson sort of way, that in order to survive several days in the jungle, these men were taking great risks by taking along noisy fowl on a combat operation.
Another time, a small patrol up in the mountains of Basilan broke for lunch, and the lieutenant hunched down beside his men and wolfed down fish and rice straight from a small blue plastic bag. It was almost embarrassing to bring out our cans of corned beef and tuna, while the soldiers looked on longingly.
Then came the mutiny of Trillanes and his combat troops, veterans of battles against the Abu Sayyaf, the NPA, the MILF, and the deprivations of their own corrupt and inefficient system. For some reason, though, they chose to stage their short-lived "demonstration" against the government in one of the country's ritzier and more upscale neighborhoods.
That, perhaps, was the biggest irony of all.
Ed Lingao is executive producer of "The Correspondents," a weekly public affairs program aired on ABS-CBN. He is a veteran war reporter, having covered the Iraq and Afghan wars for the network, the ongoing conflicts in Mindanao as well as the July 27 mutiny at Oakwood.