Aquino orders probe of ‘tanim bala’ racket amid outcry

MANILA — Malacañang on Saturday vowed to make travelers feel safe again at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) after President Benigno Aquino III ordered an investigation into the “tanim bala” racket that extorts money from airline passengers.

In tanim bala (planting bullets), airport staff drop bullets into the bags of unsuspecting airline passengers and demand money from them in exchange for the dropping of charges.

“The President has instructed Secretary [Joseph Emilio] Abaya to thoroughly look into this so-called tanim bala incidents,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said over government-run Radyo ng Bayan.

Pictures of passengers wrapping their bags in plastic, with some writing an appeal to airport staff not to plant bullets in their luggage, have gone viral on social media.

Complaints from victims of a recent series of arrests at Naia have caught the attention of lawmakers, who have called for an inquiry into the extortion allegedly involving the Office for Transportation Security (OTS) at Naia.

The complaints of foreign victims of the racket have drawn foreign media attention and the reporting has placed the Philippines at the center of a fresh controversy involving Naia, once labeled the worst airport in the world.

A party-list group representing migrant workers has urged President Aquino to fire Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) General Manager Jose Angel Honrado for allowing the racket to thrive at the airport.

Lacierda acknowledged that the incidents were disturbing, and promised that the government would look into the allegations of a racket run by a syndicate at Naia.

He gave assurance that the government would solve the problem, and promised that the people behind the racket would be called to account.

“We want to take away that fear from [passengers],” he said, referring to the public apprehension that followed the series of arrests at the airport involving the same alleged offense.

“We will ensure the safety of each and every passenger who uses our terminals,” he said.

Lacierda said Malacañang itself became curious about the series of arrests at Naia involving passengers allegedly caught with bullets in their bags.

“It’s one too many. In our discussions with Secretary Abaya, he mentioned there were six cases, maybe more,” Lacierda said.

He cited the arrest of migrant worker Gloria Ortinez, who he said “does not seem to fit” the profile of someone who needed or used ammunition.

Ortinez, 56, has worked in Hong Kong as a domestic worker for the past 20 years. She was on her way back to Hong Kong when she was arrested at Naia after luggage inspectors found a bullet in her bag.

Ortinez, like all the other victims, denied knowledge of the bullet, but was turned over to police for detention. She was released after two days.

Lacierda said the investigation would determine how the bullets got into the luggage of the passengers through a review of procedures and the staff involved in airport security.

Initially, he said, the Department of Transportation and Communications will install more security cameras at the airport.

Valenzuela Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian and Yacap Rep. Carol Lopez have asked the House of Representatives to investigate the arrests, citing “international embarrassment” to the Philippines.

Their intervention came after the arrests of Ortinez and Japanese traveler Kazunobu Sakamoto, in whose bag OTS staff supposedly found two bullets.

Two bullets were also supposedly found in the bag of US missionary Lane Michael White, who complained that OTS staff demanded P30,000 from him in exchange for the dropping of charges.

“OTS personnel do not only shamelessly victimize [Filipino migrant workers], but are also not afraid to prey on foreigners,” said Gatchalian, vice chair of the House committee on tourism.

On Wednesday, the OFW Family party-list said President Aquino should look into Ortinez’s case and fire the MIAA’s Honrado.

OFW Family Rep. Roy Señeres, a presidential candidate in next year’s general elections, said Honrado’s term had been “marked by mismanagement and controversy.”

He said the extortion of passengers involving “shameless” airport staff should be the last straw for Mr. Aquino and the President should fire Honrado.

Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao, the world boxing champion, has offered free legal assistance to victims of the racket.

In a statement issued to reporters in General Santos City on Friday, Pacquiao condemned the racket and called for a government investigation.

“This [racket] is destroying not only the image of our country, but also the reputation of innocent [migrant workers] and [the] other victims,” Pacquiao said.

Citing the case of Ortinez, Pacquiao said: “She was released, but the damage had already been done.”
Pacquiao urged Malacañang to do something to protect travelers, especially overseas Filipino workers.

“Christmas is approaching and many of our countrymen are deeply longing to see their loved ones returning home from abroad to spend the season with them. I hope there will be no more Aling Glorias,” Pacquiao said, referring to Ortinez.

“I am extending free legal assistance by providing lawyers to the victims of [this racket]. They (the victims) can contact one of my lawyers, Atty. Jojo Bondoc, through his mobile phone, No. 0920-9211162, for further details on this,” he said.

In Davao City, police are investigating the arrest of a 60-year-old engineer from Quezon City in whose bag two bullets were supposedly found at the local airport on Friday. Chief Insp. Milgrace Driz, spokesperson for the city police, said Augusto Dorde, who is working for a project of the Davao City Water District, had denied owning the bullets.

Chief Insp. Eugene Balugo, head of the local Aviation Security Group, said Dorde was detained but released later on P120,000 bail. Balugo said police wanted to determine whether Dorde’s case was another incident of the tanim bala racket, which may not be limited to Naia.