BANK robberies are bad enough anywhere. But in the Philippines these days, it's unclear who are the bad guys: the police or the thieves.
Public distrust of police has risen so high that after a blazing bank robbery on June 6 in Manila, officials of the Monte de Piedad Savings Bank refused to let even the police superintendent enter the building.
The bank is just three blocks from the city's police headquarters. Among many Filipinos, police involvement in many bank heists almost is assumed.
The incident comes just weeks after a scandal rocked the Philippines National Police (PNP), revealing a deep-seated corruption and indiscipline inside the country's law-enforcement agencies. On May 18, policemen killed 11 bank robbery suspects in handcuffs in two vans. The summary street justice, or "rub out" as local media called it, was allegedly ordered by ranking officials.
Murder charges were filed against nine police officers, three of whom are generals, who resigned from their posts immediately. And a Senate hearing on the incident was carried live on several TV channels. Policemen in Manila's western district wore black armbands in a muted protest against what they labeled as trial and conviction by publicity.
The police have in the past similarly executed noted criminals in their custody, but public approval muted any backlash. It is the fight against big syndicates within the police force that officials find frustrating.
President Fidel Ramos, who took office in 1992 with a clean image, announced he would reorganize the PNP. But his credibility is on the line. This will be his second attempt to revamp the 100,000-strong police force. In 1992, he fired the PNP chief and 28 other generals who were charged for corruption. The police chief was widely believed to have controlled a large gambling syndicate.
During the 1972-86 dictatorial rule of the late Ferdinand Marcos - under whom Mr. Ramos served - the police force built up its reputation for controlling syndicates and for kidnappings for ransom, bank robberies, gambling, and executions of crime suspects.
The latest killing of bank suspects was revealed when two policemen went to the media to claim they witnessed the rub out. The police crime laboratory corroborated their testimony.
Since January, there have been at least 15 bank robberies in the Manila area. In one robbery in April, gunmen got away with $2 million.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Rafael Alunan ordered an anti-bank-robbery task force formed earlier this year to crack down on robbers. He acknowledges that most of the major bank robberies and kidnappings of businessmen for ransom were carried out by either active or inactive policemen and soldiers.
The heists and abductions bore the hallmarks of military precision: The gunmen usually used high-powered firearms and wireless radios, which they had easy access to in the police forces.
The crime situation perpetrated by uniformed men has given the Philippines such a black eye overseas - since many victims have been foreign businessmen - that Ramos created a Presidential Anti-Crime Commission in 1992.
But after three years, the PACC's record is wanting. Last month's killing of the bank robbery gang had the participation of PACC men. PACC chairman, Vice President Joseph Estrada, said earlier that the suspects "deserved to die," but later said he was misquoted.