AMID the public outrage over the epidemic of “laglag bala” scam incidents at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the Aquino government has once again exposed its callousness to the plight of ordinary Filipinos.
During last Friday’s press briefing, Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma urged the traveling public not to be alarmed by the reported “laglag bala” scam incidents at the country’s airports. “We need to put this in the right context. There are thousands using our airports and there are only just a few [passengers who were]found carrying bullets…,” Coloma said.
What Coloma is clearly implying is that we have nothing to worry about because there’s only a slim chance of falling victim to the scam since thousands of travelers go through our airports without incident. Seriously?! What if it was us or our loved ones who fall prey to this “laglag bala” extortionists?
The insensitive response from the Palace’s messaging chief is reminiscent of PNoy’s remarks to a businessman who complained about the deteriorating peace and order situation in Tacloban City after typhoon Yolanda. Complaining about his store being ransacked by looters and being shot at by an armed thief, PNoy retorted: “Eh, buhay ka pa naman, di ba? (But you’re still alive, aren’t you?).”
Malacañang obviously doesn’t give a damn because so far, the victims have merely been a handful of small-time Filipinos and naïve foreigners.
But even one victim is one too many. What about the innocent, working-class Filipino whose life has been turned upside down because some crooked airport staff decided he needed to make some money on the side? It’s well and good if all the victims can afford to post the usual P80,000 bail for illegal possession of ammunition, or hire the services of a private lawyer to defend them in court.
Unfortunately, most of the victims are foreign tourists or overseas Filipino workers who neither have the money or access to good legal help, and who can be easily intimidated, threatened or cajoled into forking over some cash.
The Palace cannot deny that the extortion scam exists. There are the stories by the victims themselves.
More than a month ago, Filipino balikbayan Rhed Austria de Guzman complained about the “laglag bala” scam at the NAIA Terminal 2 in her Facebook post. She said NAIA security allegedly discovered two bullets in the side pocket of her luggage after it went through the X-ray machine. When she denied putting them there, her porter told her to just pay off the NAIA scanners P500. Even though she didn’t do anything wrong, De Guzman coughed up the money so she could get it over with and leave for the US.
We find De Guzman’s story credible. She has no motive to make up such a story especially when she had already arrived in the US and could have easily ignored the incident as a one-off.
There’s also the testimony of Lane Michael White, a 20-year old tourist from Florida, who was locked for five-and-a-half days for allegedly carrying a bullet in his luggage. White, who was traveling with his father, an American pastor, and his Filipina stepmother, to Coron, Palawan, was stopped at the X-ray scanner at NAIA Terminal 4 after a security officer pulled out a .22 caliber bullet from the side pocket of his luggage (the favorite place to drop bullets, it seems).
White denied that the bullet belonged to him and told the security personnel he was not aware of how it got inside his luggage. White says that during their discussion, a male security personnel told him that his problem could be settled for P30,000 but that he refused, insisting he was innocent. So off to jail he went.
We also find White’s extortion claim to be credible. It is highly improbable that a tourist like White would bring one small bullet to a beach destination such as Coron. There is no plausible motive or reason for him to do so.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of the existence of the scam is the case of 56-year old OFW, Gloria Ortinez, who was returning to her work in Hong Kong when she was arrested by airport police after X-ray personnel allegedly found a carbine rifle bullet in her bag. When she was brought to the investigating fiscal, however, NAIA’s airport police presented a different bullet from that allegedly taken from Ortinez’s bag during the X-ray inspection, clearly indicating that the bullet was “planted.” Good thing the alert fiscal smelled the scam and released Ortinez without bail.
Moreover, isn’t it highly suspicious that all those caught in these scam incidents were found to be carrying only one or two bullets? Why would anyone smuggle merely one or two bullets? It simply doesn’t make sense, right?
But to the extortionists in NAIA, one bullet is enough, at least for their purpose. With possession of ammunition, carrying a jail term of 6 to 12 years, be it one or one hundred bullets, most scam victims would rather “settle” than risk prosecution or jail time.
So what has this “daang matuwid” government done to address this thievery in our airports? None, except to say that the cases of bullet-planting are being investigated by authorities. Ang galing-galing!