By VAL G. ABELGAS
Travelers consider airports the window to a country or destination. With all the bad reports coming out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) recently, travelers must still be imagining a bad picture of the Philippines despite recent improvements implemented in the country’s premier airport.
In the past week alone, three incidents involving travelers who were jailed after a bullet or two were allegedly found in their hand-carried bags when scanned during pre-departure inspection at the NAIA hogged the headlines and elicited angry reactions in social media.
The “laglag bala,” also called “tanim bala” (plant a bullet) scam first came to fore in mid-September when a wheelchair-bound balikbayan resident from Los Angeles, Thea Austria de Guzman, took to social media and complained that she was stopped by NAIA security for allegedly having two .22 caliber bullets in her suitcase. She said she was threatened with imprisonment and a bad record, and was forced to hand P500 to two security screening personnel through a porter. She said she also gave P200 to the porter.
De Guzman said she agreed to pay the P500 for fear that the incident would tarnish her record and that she might not be able to go back to the United States.
Pressed by the angry feedbacks following the De Guzman posting, airport authorities said they had temporarily suspended the two personnel while they are investigating the matter.
Obviously, no investigation was conducted. After the social media outrage died down, the extortionists at the airport were back in business. If there were an investigation, the airport extortionists would have laid low. Either no investigation was really conducted because airport officials were also on the take, or the extortionists have grown so bold no investigation could deter them from going on with their nefarious activities.
Just a few days after De Guzman’s complaint, another traveler, an American missionary on his way to Palawan with his family, complained that airport security placed a .22 caliber bullet in his luggage prior to screening and used the planted “contraband” to extort P30,000 from him.
Because he refused to pay up, 20-year-old Lane Michael White of Florida spent six days in jail and got out only after posting a P40,000 bail.
A spokesman for the Office for Transportation Security (OTS) of the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) insisted that the .22-cal. bullet found inside White’s baggage was not “planted.” OTS spokesman Jonathan Maliwat said the agency conducted an investigation and that the findings by OTS personnel were sufficient to have the departing passenger arrested. Did anyone expect the OTS investigators to conclude otherwise? They were probably also on the take.
A few days later, a 56-year-old overseas Filipino worker, Gloria Ortinez was reported to have been arrested and detained for two days after airport authorities claimed that they found a bullet inside her hand-carry bag at the NAIA Terminal 2.
Ortinez, who has worked in Hong Kong for 20 years, said the bullet did not belong to her and that after traveling back and forth to Hong Kong for years, she knew that a bullet is a prohibited item. Because of the allegation against her, Mrs. Ortinez was not able to leave the country and she could lose her job.
On the same day, a Japanese tourist, Kazunobu Sakamoto, was also alleged to have found two bullets in his bag, and was detained before posting bail of P80,000.
When first asked about the “laglag bala” incidents, Communications Secretary Hermino “Sonny” Coloma downplayed the reports, saying that the public should calm down about the airport scam because it has only happened a few times and those incidents are already being investigated.
Come on, Sonny! You know that it’s highly improbable that four or five travelers who have no known criminal records could all be carrying one or two .22 caliber bullets in their hand-carry bags. It would be more believable if they were illegal drugs or something.
And then a few days later, with the growing public outrage and several senators and congressmen condemning this latest atrocity at the airport, President Aquino finally ordered an investigation into the alleged scam.
If Coloma’s assertion was offline, the explanation of Avsecom spokesman Supt. Jeanne Panisan was comical, if not entirely ridiculous. When asked why apprehensions involving “bullets in bag” doubled to 30 this year, she said it was not because of “laglag bala” but because of their intensified checking of baggage under a new law.
So, airport security should be commended instead of condemned? The figure only means that out of the probably hundreds accosted for allegedly having a bullet or two in their bag, 30 stood their ground and refused to be bullied by extortionists.
In explaining why passengers would keep bringing bullets even though they know it’s banned, Panisan said, “With all due respect to our countrymen, our belief in amulets go deep.” So even the American missionary and the Japanese tourist believed in a bullet as amulet?
OFWs and overseas Filipinos flooded social media with protests and photos of bags with notes telling airport personnel not to plant bullets in their bags and of passengers with their hand-carry bags wrapped in plastic.
If you are a balikbayan or an OFW traveling through Manila’s international airport, you know that such kind of extortion activities are not isolated incidents at NAIA contrary to Coloma’s contention. Passengers ate known to have experienced some kind of “kotong” activities from the porters to screeners to customs and immigration inspectors.
The spouse of a deceased airport personnel told ABS-CBN News that planting bullet or other contrabands has been going on at the airport for more than 20 years with the syndicate earning hundreds of thousands of pesos in extortion money. It is almost certain there have been hundreds of victims who would rather pay up and keep their mouth shut than risk being targeted again the next time they travel to the Philippines.
Some airport personnel deliberately make it difficult for passengers, who would willingly cough up a few hundred pesos just so they wouldn’t miss their flight, or so they could finally leave that chaotic hell of a place, or so they wouldn’t end up in jail.
NAIA has just relinquished its claim of being the worst airport in the world, a title it infamously held from 2011 to 2013, to becoming “just” the eighth worst, and now it is certainly in contention for being the most corrupt airport in the world, which would be a fatal blow to the country’s tourism industry, not to mention to the Aquino administration’s “daang matuwid.”