Manila airport security accused of planting bullets in passenger bags

Authorities in the Philippines have discovered 30 cases since January. What can travelers do to protect themselves? 

REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Airline passengers with baggage wrapped with plastic, which they say is to avoid being victimized by what they say are "bullet-planting" incidents, inside Ninoy Aquino International Airport terminal 3 in Pasay, Metro Manila November 4, 2015. Philippine President Benigno Aquino on November 2, 2015 ordered a thorough investigation into an alleged "bullet-planting" scam at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, reported local media. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Some passengers arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila say they are being framed by airport security workers for bringing live ammunition through security checkpoints.

As CNN Philippines reported, in just the last two weeks, Manila airport officials have discovered at least five alleged incidents of airport security personnel placing bullets in passenger bags to extort money from innocent travelers. Domestic workers, a Japanese businessman, and an American pastor are among those claiming to have been victims of the scheme. 

The scheme is called “tanim bala” (planting of bullets in luggage) and has persisted since January. The Philippine National Police-Aviation Security Group has discovered at least 30 similar incidents in 2015, involving multiple airports. According to Philippine law, the penalty for planting evidence can be life imprisonment.

On Sunday, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya said people should not be worried about the scam, and Rappler reported his agency would combat the problem by “studying the structure of aviation security, setting up additional CCTVs, changing handling procedures, and stepping up the investigation.” At least 40 personnel from the Office for Transportation Security (OTS) are under investigation. 

And on Monday, a spokesman for the Aviation Security Group told Rappler airport police have no involvement in the scheme, noting that his agency’s officials only become involved in passenger screenings when an illegal item is caught by an official from the Department of Transportation and Communication, which is directly responsible for the screenings.

Passengers concerned about the possible scam should know their rights, says attorney Joseph Plazo, who wrote on his law firm’s website about tips to avoid getting snagged in the Philippines bullet scam.

First, prepare your luggage to make them less vulnerable. Use bags that have a hard case and don’t have pockets on the outside. Hard plastic ones that don’t have zippers and can be secured with sturdy padlocks are ideal. If you must bring your designer luggage, Plazo says, at least cover it with plastic wrap, which makes it hard for someone to sneak in a bullet.

Second, know your rights. If an official claims your bag contains ammunition, you have the right to delay inspection until the official’s supervisor is present in addition to a lawyer or third party witness.

Moreover, in the Philippines, you have the right to remain silent. Do not admit responsibility under an official’s pressure. Plazo warns corrupt officials will “set bail” by telling framed passengers they must pay a certain amount and then they are free to go. Police officers do not have this power regardless of whether the contraband is truly owned by the passenger.

In the post 9/11 era, fortified state security apparatuses and the increasing power delegated to these government agencies have clashed with civil liberties. But this latest case is just one manifestation of the Philippines’ rampant culture of corruption, despite slightly improving its ranking among other countries.   

In 2010, The Christian Science Monitor reported on the aftermath of a devastatingly mishandled hostage situation in Manila that left eight tourists dead. “The bloody debacle intensifies scrutiny of the Philippines police, which has been accused of corruption, torture, and ineptitude,” contributor Kristen Chick wrote.  

At the time, lawmakers, media, and government officials all acted in concert to denounce the brute force and call for reforms.

In the case of the bullet luggage scheme, public outcry is building. Filipino domestic workers staged a protest on Sunday in Hong Kong over the arrest of a maid who may have fallen victim to the scam. They are calling for the Manila airport’s general manager to resign over the scandal.

“As overseas foreign workers like Gloria Ortinez, we are quite aware that carrying ammunitions is prohibited under Philippine and Hong Kong laws. Why would we destroy our name and our future in exchange for one bullet?” said Sheila Tebia, one of the protesters.  

Remittances from overseas Filipino workers (about 2.3 million people) make up nearly 10 percent of Philippine gross domestic product and hit an all-time record high of $26.9 billion in 2014.

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