‘Tanim-bala’ scam: is NAIA still the worst?

BY RAIZA JAVIER


The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) has recently been removed from a travel survey’s World’s Ten Worst Airports for 2015, but a Facebook post that went viral last September exposed a fiasco that might as well have put NAIA at the top of the list.

Filipino-American Rhed Austria de Guzman recounted on a Facebook post how two bullets were “found” inside her luggage in Sept. 18 before her flight to Los Angeles. According to De Guzman, she insisted the bullets were not hers, but the airport personnel “threatened” her that the incident will be reflected on her travel records.

It was then that an airport staff whispered to her, “Ate, ayusin mo na lang. Pwede na ‘yan sa P500 (Five hundred pesos will take care of that),” she said in her post. De Guzman agreed to pay the amount to avoid any further complications.

Weeks later, several other passengers came forward to share their own experience of the scheme later called “tanim-bala.”

NAIA has recently been removed from the World’s Ten Worst Airports for 2015, but a Facebook post that went viral last September exposed a fiasco that might as well have put it at the top of the list.

The tanim-bala scheme involves airport security officials who intentionally place live ammunition into a passenger’s luggage in order to extort money from them.

According to Republic Act No. 10591 or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act, the transfer of firearms, or their parts and components and ammunition from one country to another without authorization is considered arms smuggling. It is also unlawful for anyone to possess firearms and ammunition without license to do so.

It was for the latter offense that American national Lane Michael White was detained for six days at the detention cell of the Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) of the Philippine National Police (PNP), an Inquirer report said.

According to the report, White was caught allegedly carrying a .22-cal bullet in his luggage at NAIA in Sept. 17 by baggage inspectors Ma. Elma Cena and Marvin Garcia.

It was then that an airport staff whispered to her, “Ate, ayusin mo na lang. Pwede na ‘yan sa P500.”

“When his luggage went to the X-ray (machines), all the security personnel were looking at the screen. Doon po sinabi sa kanya na may nakita daw po sa bagahe niya. Pero hindi po pinakita yung X-ray sa amin. Hindi din po sinabi kung ano (That was when they told them they saw something in his baggage. They did not show us the X-ray, or even tell us what they saw),” White’s stepmother, Eloisa Zoleta said in an Inquirer report of the Senate investigation of the case.

Zoleta said in the report a certain Police Insp. Adriano Junio of the Aviation Security Group (ASG) told her “Usually naman pinapalampas namin ang mga nagdadala ng ganyan, sinasabi naming anting-anting pero dito kasi pag inareglo natin yan dito, P30,000, pero ‘pag napasa sa headquarters P80,000 (We usually let these cases go, we just say the passengers bring the bullets as amulets. We could settle the matter here for P30,000, but if this goes up to the head quarters it would take P80,000).”

White’s family claimed the reason he was detained was because he refused to pay P30,000 in exchange for his release.  

President Benigno Aquino III, however, said in a press conference in November that he doubted the existence of such scheme, according to another Inquirer report.

Aquino, on his first statement on the issue, said only a very small percentage of NAIA passengers were involved in a bullet case, and cited that out of 34 million passengers every year, only 1,200 incidents have been reported.  

The bullet-planting scheme has been going on unabated for 20 years before it was reported by the media.

The PNP-ASG meanwhile, recorded 30 alleged cases of tanim-bala from January to November this year, a CNN report said.

However, according to an anonymous source in an ABS-CBN report, the bullet-planting scheme has been going on unabated for 20 years, and before it was reported by the media, the modus operandi would normally victimize 20 passengers a day, extorting up to hundreds of thousands of pesos.

According to the source, who was a spouse of a deceased airport security screener once involved in the scheme, the operation involves a syndicate of airport security screening personnel and hired “spotters” who would help them find passengers to prey on.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), while recently confirming the existence of the bullet-planting extortion scheme at NAIA, dismissed the allegations of an organized syndicate operating behind the scam, according to a report by the Philippine Star.

Several OTS personnel have been involved in the scam, NBI investigations showed. However, according to Department of Justice Undersecretary Emmanuel Caparas, the likelihood of a syndicate was not established in the investigations because “while corrupt airport officials may be behind the scheme, the group is not big enough for it to be called a syndicate.”

The operation involves a syndicate of airport security screening personnel and hired “spotters” who would help them find passengers to prey on.

The NBI filed criminal charges against six airport personnel involved in White’s case, including Office for Transportation Security (OTS) personnel  Cena and Garcia, and four ASG officers including Junio. The Pasay RTC Branch 119 on the other hand dismissed the illegal possession of ammunition case filed against White.

The PNP ASG in cooperation with the Airport Police Department (APD) at NAIA would deploy additional cops in the four terminals to make sure the airports are safe, according to the Philippine Star report.

Still, the number of reported tanim-bala incidents created a chilling effect on local and foreign passengers alike.

From plastic wraps to packing tapes, passengers have come up of various countermeasures just to make sure bullets would not get into their luggage.

The number of reported tanim-bala incidents created a chilling effect on local and foreign passengers alike.

The scam, having gained a considerable amount of foreign exposure via Time Magazine and the BBC, has been dubbed by netizens as an “international embarrassment.”

According to a Business Mirror report, this is a potential setback for the tourism department, especially now that its goal is to generate $4.6 billion tourism revenues, attract 6 million tourists, and create 3 million jobs by 2016.

NAIA, while no longer named one of world’s worst airports–a title it held for three years–remains in the “Asia’s Worst Airports” list. ✒️

Header image from Inquirer.net

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