THE Liberal Party candidate for president Manuel Roxas II scored critics of the administration Wednesday and suggested that the “tanim-bala” scandal may be part of a demolition job against the government days before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit.
“Is this a plot, a large-scale demolition job to tarnish the image of the government especially that we have an upcoming Apec meeting? Roxas told reporters in Pangasinan Tuesday.
Amid a widening scandal over an extortion racket at the airport in which bullets are planted in travelers’ luggage, Roxas said he was not in favor of stripping the authority of the Office of Transportation Security to inspect bags at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Roxas said a thorough investigation was needed instead of blanket criticism of the government.
“Under the straight path, this is unacceptable. We should uncover who is behind this,” said Roxas, who was himself a former secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communication, which supervises the airport.
Underscoring the need to stop the illegal practice, Roxas expressed belief that the installation of CCTVs could somewhat deter the planting of bullets.
“If this is indeed a racket, those responsible should be caught through an investigation and CCTV may help,” he said.
“What is important is that we are taking action so that this cannot happen again,” Roxas added.
An opposition candidate for senator, Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez said heads must roll at the airport.
“President Aquino should fire airport officials and security personnel for earning public distrust and causing embarrassment and serious threat to Philippine tourism over the unresolved cases of laglag-bala which have victimized a number of overseas Filipino workers,” Romualdez said.
Romualdez earlier called on Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya to crack the whip and personally address the rise in the number of bullet-planting incidents.
“They lost their credibility because of the breakdown in the security management at the Naia and this has resulted in the continued public distrust of airport officials and employees. The fear of traveling by air is beginning to traumatize local and foreign tourists because of their failure to address the mounting complaints [about the] extortion racket,” Romualdez said.
The militant labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno described the Aquino administration as irresponsible and insensitive when it played down allegations of extortion involving airport personnel.
“Extortion of overseas workers and ordinary Filipinos does not evince good governance. The scam at the Naia has exposed corruption and patronage politics under President Noynoy Aquino’s so-called Daang Matuwid”, KMU said in a statement.
The group said Mr. Aquino should also stop boasting about the country’s supposed economic growth through his good governance, while syndicates and extortionists victimize workers and ordinary people through schemes such as the “tanim-bala” and operate under his protection.
“Downplaying the scam is irresponsible and insensitive at best and a poor attempt at cover-up at worst,” it said.
The group also hit the President for falling back on patronage politics in the appointment of top officials at the Manila International Airport Authority, including its general manager, Jose Angel Honrado, who once headed presidential security under his mother, the late former President Corazon Aquino.
“By appointing Honrado in the first place, and refusing to sack him despite the controversy, Aquino is responsible for the scam,” the group said.
KMU also urged the administration and Roxas to stop “making up conspiracy theories.”
“The government agencies’ persistent denial of their involvement in the extortion racket also makes us believe that the “tanim-bala” syndicate has deep roots within various national agencies in transportation, aviation and security. Judging from the way this scandal is unfolding, it may just be the tip of the iceberg of bigger scams in the country’s airports.”
“We are also enraged with the victim-blaming of the Philippine National Police and the MIAA in their effort to cover-up their responsibility for the scheme. It is utterly unbelievable that the increase in the number of victims is due to the victims’ carelessness or in the victim’s belief in amulets.”
Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya on Wednesday insisted there was no syndicate at the airport planting bullets in the luggage of passengers, and that the entire business has been “blown out of proportion.”
Based on records, Abaya said the number of cases in which passengers were caught with bullets nationwide had dropped from 2,184 in 2013 to only 1,394 this year as of November.
He said the figure was based on nationwide data collaged by his office, and that most cases involved bullets used as souvenirs, necklaces, or talismans.
He cited a case involving a mother who put a bullet in the bag of her daughter “because she believed it would serve as an amulet.”
Another passenger, whom Abaya identified as a Japanese national, was recently caught with two bullets placed in his jacket packed in his bag. He said the foreigner admitted he got the bullets as souvenirs after visiting a firing range.
Over the weekend, opposition Senator Nancy Binay offered the opposite view, saying the number of incidents was on the rise at the Naia.
“These incidents have been reported to the authorities before but why are these abuses still happening?” said Binay.
Binay and fellow senators—Miriam Defensor Santiago, Ralph Recto and Alan Pater Cayetano—filed separate resolutions calling for an investigation to look into the alleged presence of a syndicate engaged in the bullet-planting scam.
But Abaya brushed aside this allegation, saying there is no evidence to establish that a syndicate is operating at the Naia. “So far we have not established any facts to show any syndicate,” he said.
He said the government has no intention of letting the incidents slide because what is at stake is the “safety and peace of mind of every Filipino.”
The Cabinet official admitted that any passenger wrongfully charged or who became a victim is an injustice.
“It is not something that the government should ignore. It is a great concern for the state… A single case of injustice merits full government attention,” he said.
On Wednesday, two US-bound passengers were held at the airport after baggage screeners of the OTS found one of them, a 69-year-old woman, wearing a necklace with a pendant that “looks like a bullet,” and a 59-year-old man who had a .22 cal. revolver with five live bullets.
The woman explained that the pendant that looks like a bullet was given to her by a friend to protect her from witchcraft (mangkukulam), said OTS supervisor Elmer Cahatol.
The 59-year-old man was identified as Ramon Laorca of Quezon City, a dental assistant who was about to board a Delta Air flight bound for Seattle via Japan.
Laorca was heard apologizing: “I am sorry, dala ng katangahan ko nakalimutan kong iwanan sa bahay.”
The gun was inside a clutch bag inside Laorca’s shoulder bag and was detected by the X-ray machine.
Liberal Party’s vice presidential candidate and Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo on Wednesday filed a measure that seeks to decriminalize the mere possession of not more than three bullets, as she voiced concern over the rising number of incidents of bullet planting at the airport.
“Let us stop this scam and ensure the safety and well being of the passengers in Naia,” Robredo said.
“This scam has affected a number of our countrymen and foreigners who were on their way to another country or to other places in the Philippines,” she added.
House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. said he was surprised over the increasing number of bullet planting incidents at the Naia after it had been reported in the media.
Belmonte also said he hopes that the issue will not hurt the country’s tourism.
“I am very surprised that after it has been reported in the press, there is still an increasing number of cases,” Belmonte said.
Belmonte also urged the public to exercise vigilance at the airport. With Maricel V. Cruz