A 77-year-old Filipino-American bound for Los Angeles was the latest victim in an alleged “laglag-bala (bullet planting)” scheme targeting passengers at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Santiago Peñaflorida was stopped after Department of Transportation and Communications-Office for Transportation Security personnel saw a bullet inside his backpack on the x-ray scanner, Inquirer reported.
Peñaflorida, who had come to NAIA for a connecting flight from Iloilo Airport, said no bullet was detected in Iloilo. He refused to have his bag opened and examined until after media arrived, after which a .32-caliber bullet was found. He was then brought to the PNP Aviation Security Group for questioning and missed his flight.
A list of similar cases has been publicized throughout the last several weeks where Filipinos and foreigners alike have fallen victim to what is locally known as the “laglag-bala (dropping bullets)” or “tanim-bala (planting-bullets)” scam. This alleged scheme involves planting bullets in travelers’ baggage and threatening lawsuits unless they give money. Airport personnel are allegedly behind the scam, Rappler reported.
The Aviation Security Group says has resulted in 30 recorded cases of illegal possession of ammunition from January to early November this year. Last year, there were 12 cases; in 2013, there were 21; in 2012, there were 20, Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group Supt. Jeanne Panisan told reporters at a press briefing.
Legislators respond to scam
Lawmakers have called for an investigation into the alleged scheme and Malacañang has vowed to put an end to the scheme.
“Government is there to make sure everything will be in order. Whatever is happening there, we’ll look into it. We assure the public that we will go after whoever the culprit is,” said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, according to Manila Bulletin.
Sherwin Gatchalian, a member of the tourism committee in the House of Representatives, said the ongoing incident is becoming an “international embarrassment” and warned that perpetrators are “not afraid to prey on foreigners.”
In a statement, Sen. Francis Escudero said NAIA personnel should stop “assassinating” Filipinos passing through the airport, as in the case of former Senator Ninoy Aquino who was shot and killed at the airport tarmac in 1983.
“Planting bullets in the baggage of Filipinos and tourists passing through the NAIA is a great disservice to the memories of the late senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. who died from the bullets fired by dishonorable men,” Escudero said.
“The government must seriously act now to stop these figurative assassinations of Filipinos and tourists. We must hold accountable to the fullest extent of the law these dishonorable airport officials and personnel,” he added.
Among lawmakers seeking a probe into the scheme are Sens. Miriam Defensor Santiago and Alan Peter Cayetano, who announced Friday, Oct. 30, they filed resolutions for an investigation into the matter.
Santiago proposed the creation of a task force to investigate “alleged illicit activity” of state agents.
Cayetano proposed improving surveillance by upgrading the airport’s 20-year-old analog cameras with IP surveillance videos, implementing a 48 hour rule where airport officials must catch culprits of scams and send them to prison within 48 hours or resign, and implement a rule where supervisors rotate so as to reduce the time and opportunity for theft and extortion in airports, Rappler reported.
Santiago said that the scam could affect tourism, instill fear in foreigners and decrease the public’s trust in law enforcement.
Jess Martinez, assistant head of the Media Affairs Division of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), said the fear of the traveling public is unsettling but 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,” she told Philstar.
President Benigno Aquino III has been called on to fire MIAA general manager Jose Angel Honrado because of the scandal, but Malacañang said its priority is to identify the problem correctly — not fire Honrado.
“Because we only have what media is reporting…. That’s why the president wants to cast a wide net. Let’s look at the entire picture,” Lacierda said.
Honrado, who is Aquino’s cousin, was appointed by the president. He said he would not resign unless Aquino instructs him to do so.
Victims of the alleged “laglag-bala” scam
Among victims of the scheme were Lane Michael White, a 20-year-old American missionary, and Filipino balikbayan Rhed Austria de Guzman.
White was supposed to be on a flight to Palawan but spent six days at the NAIA Terminal 1 police aviation facility. On Sept. 17, he accused airport personnel of allegedly planting the bullet in his baggage and trying to extort P30,000. White was only released after posting P40,000 bail.
On the way to Los Angeles on Sept. 18, de Guzman said she was forced to give P500 to two NAIA personnel at Terminal 2 upon the discovery of two bullets in her luggage. She denied the bullets were hers, according to Rappler, but paid airport personnel after they allegedly threatened to document the incident on her travel records.
On Sunday, Nov. 1, Nimfa Fontamillas, 65, was stopped from boarding her flight to Singapore after a bullet was found in her bag through the x-ray scanner; on Oct. 25, Hong Kong-bound overseas Filipino worker Gloria Ortinez, and Japanese tourist Kazunobu Sakamoto, were arrested for the illegal possession of ammunition. Sakamoto also posted P80,000 bail.
All three individuals denied that they owned the bullets.
Some passengers detained were released upon finding that bullets were blank, while others were taken to court for refusing to pay fines, BBC reported.
Bullets as charms
Not all travelers stopped for possessing bullets have denied owning them.
On the same day 77-year-old Peñaflorida was detained for the bullet found in his luggage, three females were stopped for possessing ammunition.
Milagrosa Cadiente, 48, was stopped at NAIA for having a bullet in her wallet. She said she was aware bullets are prohibited at the airport but forgot to take the “charm” out of her bag, Inquirer reported.
“It is just stupid to put people in jail for having one or two bullets. They have to understand that Filipinos carry them as charms,” Cadiente said.
Another woman, Rowena Otic, 33, who was not a traveler but was dropping off her sister, was stopped at the airport for possessing two .38-caliber bullets. Otic told reporters she carried them to ward off danger but forgot to remove them from her handbag.
“I also thought only passengers were inspected and arrested for having bullets,” she said.
Marilou Rose Espinola, 27, who was bound for Bacolod, was also stopped for possessing ammunition. She admitted to putting the bullet in her bag but said she did not know it was banned at the airport.
Travelers wrap luggage, OFWs threaten to reduce remittances, NAIA workers deny allegations
Airport terminals are offering luggage wrapping services for P160 per bag, while travelers have also opted to seal their bags at home with packing tape to avoid falling victim to the scheme.
Meanwhile, OFWs abroad are threatening to slash the amount of money they send back home as a means of pressuring the government to stop the bullet scam.
“OFWs and our families should act decisively versus the laglag-bala that victimizes our fellow OFWs, thus we need to launch a campaign that will pressure the government to put an end to this extortion scheme at NAIA airports,” John Leonard Monterona, Migrante Middle East regional coordinator, said in a statement.
Although airport personnel have been accused of perpetrating the scheme, NAIA porters who help travelers carry luggage say they have been affected by the allegations.
“The passengers must understand that this is our livelihood and we will not do anything to lose their trust,” Porferio Lavado, 42, who has been a porter at NAIA for 17 years, told Inquirer in Filipino.
Inquirer reported an incident witnessed between a female passenger at NAIA and porter who offered to help her with her luggage.
“Get away from me,” the publication reported the female telling the porter. “I don’t want you to plant any bullet on me.”
The porter said he used to help about 20 passengers in 24 hours. However, as of Monday, Nov. 2, he was helping less than 10 since reports of the scam went viral on social media.
“We rely on [passengers] to survive,” Lavado said.
“We have everything to lose and nothing to gain if we went around planting bullets like they accuse us of,” he added.