'I don't like the job but I need to feed my family' my family
RENE names Tarzan and James Bond as his heroes. Even though he pulls in a monthly salary of up to 20,000 pesos (HK$6,100), the 33-year-old Filipino has no bank account.
Whenever possible, he shares his income with the squatters who spend most of their days scrounging for scraps around Manila's notorious Smokey Mountain.
Rene sounds like a nice guy. In fact, he is an urban pirate.
At least three or four times a month, Rene and his friends attack ships in Manila Bay for cash, cigarettes, appliances and cargo. If someone gets in the way - whether a menacing Coast Guard officer or a captain trying to safeguard his cargo - Rene will not hesitate to shoot.
''If there is no way to get out we will shoot,'' Rene said, during an extraordinary, one-hour rendezvous on a secluded beach off Manila Bay. ''No one can escape our bullets. We've killed a few Coast Guard officers too.'' Rene has the type of weathered face which makes you feel like he has seen it all. With a surprisingly good grasp of the English language, he makes it clear he wants his story accurately reported.
This is the first time Rene and his friends have described their work in detail. The ground rules are no real names and no explicit photographs. Under no circumstance should their story appear in the Philippine press.
As Rene (not his real name) spoke, two ''companions'' - also pirates - looked on. One called Ka Sam was dressed in a camouflage singlet, wore sunglasses and spoke passable English. The salt water stains on his dark forearm testified to a long maritime career.
The third - whose only contribution was to open up a few bottles of San Miguel with his teeth - said nothing.
''He is the dangerous one that's why he is so quiet,'' said Rene.
Somewhere across the polluted waters of Manila Bay, the pirates maintain a large stash of weapons, ranging from Armalites and M-16s to grenades and knives.
Rene conceded some of the arsenal was taken from supplies at the Clark Air Base in Angeles City.
Being a pirate is clearly a risky business, but on the rare occasions when a fellow pirate is captured by the Coast Guard, a payment of one or two million pesos will secure release. ''It's very important to carry lots of money during an operation.'' One of the other pirates added: ''I don't like the work but I need to feed my family. This job is not so easy.'' He said he learned his skills from a close friend when he was a 25-year-old stowaway.
Sometimes, the operations can go wrong, creating deadly consequences, as when Rene's 23-year-old friend got in the way of machine-gun fire from a Coast Guard vessel.
The fatal shoot-out occurred in 1987 in the waters off the coast of Cavite.
''I remember the exact date, it was November 26,'' Rene said, the only time during the one-hour rendezvous when he showed any sign of emotion. ''We had a small mistake with the two-way radio.'' The pirates are also careful to watch for armed crew members. They said Chinese-registered boats were dangerous targets because the crew were sometimes armed.
Foreign crew members will only be killed as a last resort, Rene said: ''The embassy would get angry so we don't kill them, we only give them a warning. When they are killed it is only because of an accident.
''What we do is to say don't fight because we will only surround you.'' Rene dislikes Korean crews because they are ''very impolite'' to Filipinos.
''They treat our people like animals,'' Rene said.
Now 33 years old and with a family of four, Rene has been plying the waters off the Philippine coastline for five years. His career as a pirate has taken him from the remote, southern island of Palawan to the natural port at the former Subic Bay Naval Base.
Asked if he would like to work abroad - like millions of other Filipinos - Rene and his colleagues said they were happy to ply their trade in the Philippines.
A large chunk of the income from the attacks goes towards his family, neighbours and the urban poor. Rene said he tells his wife the money he gives her is borrowed from friends.
''We give money to the poor because it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no hospitals or schools. The government has no time for people like us.
''But I really don't like this job.'' Launching an attack on an unsuspecting vessel is not spontaneous. The pirates said they usually received tips on potential targets from contacts working on the ships or from Coast Guard contacts.
Targets were assigned by an anonymous boss, who was only described as ''very rich''.
When operations got dicey, Rene said a helicopter was sent out to intervene.
A typical approach of the pirates is to sail up to a vessel and claim they are having engine trouble and want to borrow some tools.
Once on board, they declare their real intentions and order the crew to stand back. A search for valuables follows while a watchman scans the surrounding waters for approaching vessels.
If a small fishing boat is the target for the day, it is usually the engine the pirates are after.
All attacks are launched under the cover of darkness.
Having satisfied themselves that they have accurately portrayed their lives on the seas, the three end the interview. A comfortable rapport has been struck up and orders are sent for more beer.
They reluctantly agree to be photographed, but only after heavily masking their faces with cloth and sunglasses.
Before we depart, one of the three asks his visitors to keep in touch. ''If you ever need a man moved out of the way, call us and we can get rid of him,'' he said with a grin.