Ninoy Aquino International Airport bullet planting scandal
The Ninoy Aquino International Airport bullet planting scandal, locally known as laglag bala ("drop bullet") or tanim bala ("plant bullet"), was a scandal in the Philippines from late 2015 to mid-2016, in which airport security personnel at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Metro Manila are alleged to have planted bullets in the luggage of passengers in order to extort money from them. Victims of the alleged plot were generally Overseas Filipino Workers, but also included non-Filipinos, including tourists.
At least thirty cases of the scheme were recorded in 2015, according to the Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group (PNP-AVSEGROUP), with the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) recording only five such incidents. The government denies it is responsible to the scheme.
The scandal began on 17 September 2015, when a 20-year-old American missionary, Lane Michael White accused the airport personnel of extorting ₱30,000 from him and planting a bullet in his baggage. White, who was headed to Palawan, spent six days at the airport police facility and was freed after posting a ₱40,000 bail. It was followed by some Filipino and foreign passengers, who were only freed after they posted bail amounts of up to ₱80,000.
Multiple instances of apprehending passengers at the NAIA for allegedly bringing bullets started in late 2015. In some instances, if the passengers were arrested, they would refuse to pay any penalties because they denied bringing the bullet. The passengers were freed only on the condition that they signed the logbook. The bullet planting scheme targeted passengers as old as 60. The tourists are even targeted by this scheme.
In November 2015, President Benigno Aquino III (son of the politician for whom the airport is named) ordered the Department of Transportation and Communications to conduct an investigation of the alleged scheme. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) later confirmed that an extortion syndicate was behind the bullet planting scheme, based on their initial findings. According to the NBI's investigation, some porters were involved in identifying potential victims for the bullet planting scam. Allegedly, airport officials in the security and immigration services present in the four terminals of the airport then pursued target victims after their identification by porters. The usual victims were the elderly and "Overseas Filipino Workers" (OFWs).
On 31 October, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago filed a resolution at the Senate calling for the creation of a task force to tackle the issue. On the same day, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano called for the resignation of airport officials if they would not determine and catch those responsible for the bullet planting incidents within 48 hours. Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, a presumptive presidential candidate in the 2016 Philippine presidential election, further alleged that a syndicate is behind the series of incidents. Duterte said the operation had been going on for more than two years.
However, on 4 November, former Interior and Local Government Secretary and ruling-party presidential candidate for the 2016 elections Mar Roxas defended the administration over the controversy, stating that bullet carriers have to take responsibility, saying: "If you enter the airport with contraband, then how does that become the government's problem?" He further stated that government data showed these cases mostly involved tourists coming from shooting ranges and had bullets for souvenir. He told reporters that it was inconsistent with the administration's Daang Matuwid (Straight Path) slogan to extort money from people. During a press briefing at the NAIA earlier that day, transportation officials said 6,000 cases had been recorded since 2012.
Government and critics
On 6 November, Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz announced the creation of an inter-agency team tasked to monitor and assist OFW victims of the bullet planting scam. The inter-agency team was to be composed of representatives from the Department of Labor and Employment, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, among others; the team would coordinate with the MIAA, the PNP-AVSEGROUP, the Office for Transportation Security, the NBI, and the Department of Justice.
On 23 November, during a coffee meeting with reporters at the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, President Aquino said that the statistics presented to him did not necessarily add up to the possibility that an extortion racket exists inside NAIA. He said that the controversy on the supposed "laglag bala" extortion racket in airports had been "sensationalized" and used by certain groups to put his administration in a bad light. He expressed sympathy toward "innocent airport employees" who had been affected by the controversy. However, in another GMA News Online report posted the following day and culled from an exclusive report by Jun Veneracion on GMA News' early evening newscast 24 Oras, a memo from the Office for Transportation Security (OTS) dated 3 June 2015 showed that the OTS has a cash reward policy for finding contraband items such as weapons and explosives at security checkpoints, providing for rewards of up to ₱1,000 for explosives, weapons, "stunning devices" and dangerous drugs found by OTS personnel or Security Screening Officers (SSOs). Transport Security Risk Management Bureau assistant administrative director Roberto Almadin confirmed the existence of the memo, but he said only two to three people had been given rewards. He also asked the public to disassociate the memo from the "laglag-bala" extortion scheme. The memo, signed by OTS administrator Roland Recomono, also stated that the rewards were instituted "to boost the welfare and morale of OTS personnel". A later memo dated 8 July had a revision of the category list, indicating that OTS personnel could claim rewards for a single piece of explosive and for every five pieces of ammunition found per month. Spocky Farolan, the legal counsel of an overseas Filipino worker who almost lost her job due to the alleged scheme, said the memo's lack of publicity could make the public more suspicious of the agency.
The following day, 25 November, GMA Network's Unang Balita reported that another overseas Filipino worker, Gerard Ubarde, on his way to Macau for a vacation, was prevented from boarding his flight on 23 November when he was caught with a bullet in his bag at the NAIA. The bullet was allegedly found in Ubarde's bag containing medicines. Ubarde said it was impossible for a bullet to be in his bag since he knew it was against the law to carry one. He was immediately released after the case was dismissed. Meanwhile, the MIAA installed disposal booths at NAIA to give passengers a chance to rid their bags of banned items.
Meanwhile, also on 25 November, the camp of American national Michael Lane White expressed disappointment in the Philippines' justice system, which they perceived to be slow in resolving their "laglag-bala" case. White's camp expected the court to junk the case that day; a counter-motion from former Office for Transportation Security screeners prevented this. "Every time we come in here were expecting it to be dismissed and it just keeps getting kicked down the road so I don't know. We have hope in the Lord but our hope in the court system here is fading fast," White's father, Ryan, was quoted as saying in a report from 24 Oras. White said his son was already feeling ill due to the stress he was facing from repeatedly having to attend court hearings. He also said they were not pleased with President Aquino's recent statement on the incidence of "lagla-bala" at the NAIA. "If this is just a few random bandits running around and extorting people, this would have been squashed long ago. But the fact that it is still going on means that the entire airport is corrupt," he said. Ryan White was alleged to have had a bullet in his luggage when he checked through NAIA last September, possession of which is a crime in Philippine law. White's camp was reported to be holding out hope that their case would be resolved the following week.
On 6 July 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered new Aviation Security Group chief Mao Aplasca to its personnel that no arrests will be made nor conviction on airport passengers caught with bullets in their luggages.
Social media and applications
There was public outcry among Filipinos on social media. An online petition decrying the incident was started with about 12,000 people signing the petition as of 31 October 2015. Internet memes also spread on Facebook against the government and Roxas for their downplaying, and/or denying, the "laglag bala" scheme as a problem. One meme also pointed out the MIAA chairman's (retired major general Jose Angel Honrado's) being a cousin of President Aquino and the Department of Transportation and Communication secretary's (Jun Abaya's) being a great-grandchild of turn-of-the-20th-century revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo (recently depicted in the popular movie Heneral Luna as a possible traitor).
Mobile game applications launched by Kulit Games and Mesocyclone Studios, entitled Tanim Bala, were inspired by the NAIA bullet planting scheme.
A Japanese TV show satirically re-enacted the scandal, showing the theory of how the NAIA personnel may have supposedly planted bullets in travelers' bags. The host explained that the personnel would plant the bullets in the travelers' bags at airport security. Upon finding the bullets through the baggage x-ray machine, the personnel would open the bag to retrieve the bullets and offer the victim a fine to skip questioning and detention. It then showed footage of bags being wrapped in plastic.
Hong Kong news sites Hong Kong Free Press and The Standard published their own reports over the "laglag-bala" scheme. On 4 November, Thursday, Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren on her program On the Record criticized Filipino airport authorities allegedly involved in the extortion scheme. She also said in a Facebook post, "The Philippines may get mad at me, but this airport bullet planting scam deserves to be called out!".
Complaint against airport employees
On 10 December, the Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) pressed charges in their behalf against of the following:
|Office for Transportation Security (OTS)||Maria Elena Cena|
|Philippine National Police-Aviation Security Group (PNP-AVSEGROUP)||SPO2 Rolando A. Clarin,|
Police Chief Inspector (P/CINSP) Adriano Junio
SPO4 Ramon Bernardo
SPO2 Romy Navarro
These accused allegedly tried to extort money from Lane Michael White—an American missionary who allegedly fell victim to the 'tanim-bala' scam at the airport on 17 September. The money allegedly asked amounted to ₱30,000. Clarin, Junio, Bernardino, and Navarro face charges for Violations of Article V, Section 38 (Liability for Planting Evidence) of Republic Act (RA) No. 10591 (the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act); robbery/extortion; and violations of RA No. 7438 and RA No. 3019.
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