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Run lifestyle checks on airport security officials

MANILA (Agencies) : Bishop Ruperto Santos called on the government to run lifestyle checks on airport security personnel in the wake of the revelation of bullet planting in people’s luggage to extort payments to hush up their trumped up security breach.

The bishop believes that a check would reveal whether they are living beyond the means that their salaries could support and this would form grounds for their finances to be fully investigated.

Bishop Santos told CBCP News that the authorities should investigate those who are tasked with inspecting baggage, especially those who have claimed to have apprehended people with bullets concealed in their baggage.

“They should look into their work records and lifestyle,” the chairperson of the Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People said.

The scam, which to date has been described as everything from a simple extortion racket to a sophisticated plot to undermine the administration of the president, Noynoy Aquino, has been in operation since January.

Both local and foreign travellers have been victimised. It has drawn foreign media attention and placed The Philippines at the centre of a fresh controversy involving Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

Bishop Santos added that the tanim-bala (bullet planting) scam has been taking advantage of a 2013 law that prohibits and penalises the import or export of restricted items, such as bullets.

While the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act may have the welfare and security of the country at heart, the bishop said that it has been exploited by some airport security personnel wanting to extort money from passengers.

“Perhaps it is time for our lawmakers to revisit this law to make it clearer and more effective in warding off the real security threats to our country and not be used by criminal-minded people to prey on the innocent,” he said.

The Inquirer reported that between January and October this year there had been 88 incidents of bullets being reported to have been concealed in luggage. Forty-eight were live bullets and 21 empty shells.

The remaining 15 were amulets or good luck charms. These too were confiscated.

The communications secretary, Herminio Coloma, said the issue should be put in proper context since there have only been a few affected passengers compared with the thousands of daily arrivals at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

However, Bishop Santos said that is not the point and that instead of seeing the incidents as merely isolated cases, the administration of the president should move to put an end to what he described as a growing problem.

CBCP News reported that Sister Gloria Felix, a member of the Philippine National Police Advisory Council, spiced the argument when she suggested it may be a conspiracy against the government.

While she admitted that extortion seems to be the bottom line, she queried, “What would a passenger do with a single bullet? It looks like a diversionary tactic.”

The racket came unstuck when one security personnel claimed to have found a bullet in the luggage of a missionary from the United States of America and asked him for 30,000 pesos ($5,250) in hush money.

The missionary refused to pay and was subsequently arrested, but he then involved the embassy from his nation to The Philippines, which used the country’s political clout to bring the issue to the fore.

While Filipinos often carry bullets as amulets or good luck charms, they usually have the gun powder removed and are filled with oil or some other substance, which means that technically they are no longer prohibited by the firearms act.

However, instead of sticking to squeezing small amounts out of migrant workers who cannot afford the delay of being arrested, someone got greedy and tried to hook a big American fish, which internationalised the issue.

Nevertheless, as the mess grows bigger, Malacañang is assuring the public that the reported cases of bullet-planting are being addressed.

“We once again call on our government officials to put an end to this shameful practice; investigate and punish those who are behind this,” Bishop Santos said.

He added that no amount of downplaying of the incidents by the government can allay the fears of the public, especially migrant workers and foreign tourists.

“The airport authorities seem to dismiss these as small incidents, but tanim-bala is a big thing to our migrant workers. It should be a big thing for our country’s reputation too, because it gives lie to the tourism slogan.”

While many things may be more fun in The Philippines, Bishop Santos says that being falsely accused and having money extorted by a security official at the airport is not one of them.

The authorities also seem to overlook the fact that people who really are guilty of importing or exporting banned substances are probably getting away with it simply by paying a small bribe.

Meanwhile, a senator, Alan Cayetano, has filed an administrative suit against Manila International Airport Authority general manager, José Angel Honrado; the Office for Transportation Security administrator, Roland Recomono; and Philippine National Police-Aviation Security Group director, Pablo Francisco Balagtas; for neglect of duty.

Cayetano claims that the bullet racket had been known about for at least one month before any meeting was called to discuss a response, which constitutes a neglect of duty and administrative dereliction.

It is not simply a matter of extortion, but a threat to national security. And even in The Philippines there is no fun in that.