Aquino orders deeper probe of bullet scam
AT least 40 airport security screeners have been placed under investigation over various complaints against them, including their alleged involvement in an extortion scheme that involves the slipping of bullets in the bags of passengers checking in for their flights.
According to David de Castro, spokesman for the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), the screeners belong to the Office of Transport Security (OTS), an agency under the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).
The MIAA, which manages the four terminals of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), had revoked the screeners’ access passes and they are no longer authorized to enter the airport premises.
De Castro, however, clarified that some of the 40 OTS staffers are facing investigation for complaints that date back to as far as 2010.
Some of them, he said, were charged with offenses ranging from simply not following procedures to the bullet scam that is locally called “laglag-bala” or “tanim-bala.”
The scheme involves the sneaking in of live or blank rounds of ammunition into the bags of unsuspecting passengers as they pass through security checks at the airport.
The passengers victimized in the scheme are then apprehended by airport security for illegal possession of ammunition.
Some have claimed that a syndicate is behind the scheme.
From January to November 2015, a total of 514 passengers were arrested for allegedly possessing bullets, with 30 of them charged in court.
Vice President Jejomar Binay called for the immediate relief of all OTS personnel after an uproar over the spate of “tanim-bala” incidents in airports.
The Vice President sought a thorough review of Executive Order 311 creating the OTS, which he described as a duplication of functions already assigned to agencies like the Aviation Security Group (AVSEC) of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
“On its face, there are overlapping functions concerning airport security. We have AVSEC of PNP that is supposed to have operational control over security concerns in our airports, and yet you have an autonomous agency under the DOTC supposedly having sole authority over airport security,” he said.
The Vice President added that the public needs to know the criteria used by OTS in hiring personnel and whether they are qualified and competent to handle airport security matters.
“The PNP follows a selection process and sets fixed requirements for hiring policemen.
The OTS under the DOTC, however, is a big question mark. Do they have security experts in their organization? What kind of training do they receive and how do they select their personnel?” he asked.
At least five people have claimed to have been recently victimized by the scheme, MIAA’s de Castro said.
Ninfa Fontamillas, 65, was apprehended on Sunday after a bullet was detected inside her bag.
Reports about the alleged scheme have been posted and went viral on social media.
Honrado under fire
At least three lawmakers have asked President Benigno Aquino 3rd to fire retired Major Gen. Jose Angel Honrado, the MIAA general manager, over the controversy.
Honrado, who acted as the President’s head of security when he was still a candidate in the 2010 elections, is credited for having saved his life in the 1989 coup attempt against the first Aquino administration.
Malacanang spokesman Edwin Lacierda brushed aside questions if the President will heed the call to have Honrado fired from his post, saying the DOTC is investigating the matter.
The President on Monday directed Transportation Secretary Jose Abaya to come up within the week with a report on the alleged scam.
“The President has been briefed and has given further instructions in order to refine the efforts under way. The DOTC, as the lead agency, will be updating the public,” Lacierda said in a briefing in Malacanang.
The Palace press office later in the day released pictures of the meeting showing Aquino presiding over a meeting with officials that include Abaya, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Presidential Management Staff chief Julia Abad, Interior Secretary Mel Senen Sarmiento, PNP Director-General Ricardo Marquez, MIAA General Manager Honrado, PNP-Aviation Security Group Chief Supt. Pablo Francisco Balagtas and Communications Undersecretary Manuel Quezon, among others.
Lacierda said the President has ordered the DOTC to identify the real cause of the problem.
“The President’s approach is the correct identification of the problem [which]leads to the correct identification of the solution,” he added. “So we are casting a wide net on the data, on the process and areas for improvements.”
Lacierda at the same time downplayed reports that a syndicate was behind the scam, saying these were just allegations.
“We want a thorough look at the whole situation so that proper solutions can be given and these are long-term solutions that can be put in place,” he said.
Lacierda added that Abaya had ordered the installation of additional closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the airport’s security screening areas.
Airport police: Not us
The Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) also on Monday said it has summoned a taxi driver who was allegedly involved in the bullet scam at the NAIA.
LTFRB Chairman Winston Ginez announced in his Twitter account that the agency will
summon the driver of the taxicab with license plate UVK-190 for allegedly being involved in the “laglag-bala” scam.
In a Facebook post, Julius Niel Habana said his fellow seaman who was about to go to the NAIA nearly fell victim to the scam after he allegedly caught the driver slipping in a .38 cal. bullet round in his bag’s pocket.
For fear they might end up as victims of the “laglag-bala” scam, passengers have their luggage wrapped with cellophane plastic.
No matter what size the bag is, the cost of plastic wrapping at the NAIA Terminal 3 is P160 per bag.
Run by a private concessionaire, the plastic wrapping business at the terminal, albeit not so popular before, started during the administration of airport general manager Alfonso Cusi, according to Terminal 3 manager Octavio Lina.
The original plastic wrapping stall located at the NAIA Terminal 1, however, had been closed for unknown reason.
According to the stall clerk, who refused to be named, luggage plastic wrapping become a lucrative business at Terminal 3 lately when the alleged bullet planting has been exposed.
More passengers leaving NAIA 3 for international or domestic flights have gone to the wrapping stall, the clerk said.
“When the news broke out about the scam, several passengers choose to spend more than a hundred peso for their luggage because they believe it is safer than without plastic wrap,” the clerk added.
Passengers whose bags have been cleared in the initial security check immediately go to the wrapping kiosk to have their luggage wrapped.
Most of the interception of bullets occurred at the airport’s final security check, a few meters away from the boarding area.
A family bound for Davao who had their bags wrapped in plastic commented, “Nakakahiya, kailangan pang magpa-wrap ng ganito [What a shame, we need to wrap our luggage like this].”
MIAA spokesman David de Castro said that, as always, it would be good for passengers to practice vigilance whenever traveling and going to places of public convergence.
“While unsettling that there is fear among our riding public, it is understandable. MIAA assures the public that all concerned agencies are closely looking into this already.
Surveillance has been enhanced ever since reports were brought to the attention of management,” de Castro added.
Need a lawyer?
The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) has offered to help passengers who have been victimized in the scam.
PAO chief Persida Rueda-Acosta, in an e-mail message to The Manila Times, said they can call the PAO hotline at 929-9436.
Those behind “[a]ny incriminatory act of planting/inserting evidence can be criminally charged with ‘incriminatory machinations’ under Article 363 of the Revised Penal Code and may be meted with a penalty of imprisonment of up to four years,” she said
Acosta, who also writes a legal advice column for the Times, said those involved in the scam can also be charged with violation of Section 38 of Republic Act 10591 or the Comprehensive Firearms Act for replanting of ammunitions and may be meted with the penalty of reclusion perpetua or imprisonment of up to 40 years.
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said if he were to act on the infamous bullet scam, he would make the perpetrators swallow bullets.
“I will force them to swallow bullets,” he added.
Duterte on Sunday expressed disbelief over the series of incidents, describing these apprehensions as “incredible” and “impossible to believe.”
On Friday, a 60-year-old engineer was arrested and detained in Davao City after he was found with two live rounds of ammunition in his luggage at the Davao airport.
Augusto Dorde, an engineer commissioned by the Davao City Water District to assess its project, was later released after posting bail amounting to P120,000.
The bullets were discovered as he was entering the airport for his flight back to Manila on Friday afternoon.
Police said the engineer denied owming the bullets.
Chief. Insp. Eugene Balugo, head of the Police Aviation Security Group, also denied his people were behind it.
“There is no such thing here in Davao,” he said.
Duterte believes an organized group is operating in NAIA and he suspects that Dorde was
a victim of the gang.
“There is a syndicate and they are operating inside and outside,” he said.
The mayor warned airport police and other personnel in Davao to not get involved in the racket.
And his warning, “Ipatulon gyud nako nang bala sa inyo. Mamatay man [I will make you swallow your bullets].
CATHERINE S. VALENTE, REINA TOLENTINO, IZA IGLESIAS, ANTHONY VARGAS, BENJIE L. VERGARA AND JEFRY M. TUPAS