We call it tanim-bala, directly translated as “planting bullets.” It involves one or two untraceable bullets conveniently hidden in the palms of airport personnel and inserting these in the baggage of unsuspecting travelers passing through Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia). Those travelers are then extorted, threatened with investigations, delays, missed flights, or worse, lost employment, if they do not cough up hard cash, which they are certain to be carrying.
Whistleblowers say the extortion starts at $2,000, negotiable down to $ 500. Small enough for a quick and dirty deal. The official record so far is, inside the last 10 months, 107 instances of bullet-carrying travelers and tourists, exponentially ratcheting up in recent weeks from only 14 in 2014.
The victims are mostly overseas Filipino workers, as those comprise the bulk of travelers. But foreigners have also been victimized, including a missionary. Age, gender, nationality, even religious persuasions do not seem to matter to the obviously well-connected syndicate appointed to the airport by even better connected political factotums. As is typical, criminals are equal-opportunity victimizers. They do not discriminate.
Ironically, authorities have trouble running after high-net-worth crooks and are flatfooted when prosecuting political allies for sugar and grain smuggling that come in gigantic 40-foot container vans and 1,500-ton dry-bulk barges. They are suddenly keenest and apply dura lex sed lex quicker than they can Mirandize, when their prey are the defenseless elderly, and the planted effects, tiny two-inch ordnance.
In view of the forthcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, this is the kind of embarrassing criminality perpetrated by government personnel and anyone else, from security guards to the police that quickly spreads globally, painting negative images of the Philippines.
Are we a nation of extortionists? It certainly seems so.
The Naia is not simply our front door, but the agency at the foyer is the first travelers encounter in this country that the Department of Tourism, or DOT, is more fun than others.
The Naia is also the last that travelers see and represents the final wave from a country we boast as the most hospitable.
Despite the travel advisories that paint negative images of the Philippines whenever tourists are kidnapped, their heads lopped off, their bodies riddled with bullets from friendly fire, public markets bombed, ferries torched and buses blown apart, those fates are far less worse than the public beheadings of our contract workers in Middle Eastern public promenades. Yet, on the latter, hardly any travel advisories are declared and even less heeded by Filipinos desperate for employment where they find none locally.
The imageries on arrival and departure should, in part, be the responsibility of Tourism Secretary Ramon J. Jimenez Jr., although, apart from the slick posters seen at the Naia, there is little he can do to control what sick criminality victimizes innocent travelers.
The DOT is left out, uninvolved, perhaps derelict of its charge to protect the interests of travelers. Protection is the responsibility of the Office of Transportation Security of the Civil Aviation Board. The Cabinet-level department in charge, among others that officiously have their fingers on the levers, is the Department of Transportation and Communications—the department that fails to make trains run on time or even run at all; cannot deliver driver’s licenses as promised; and has made a darned convoluted mess of the vehicle sticker and license-tag system.
One deeply negative effect is that returning Filipinos seeking the warmth of their families for the coming yuletide have decided to continue their self-exile indefinitely, preferring to slave away for strangers in some distant inhospitable land than fall prey to victimization right at our front door.
According to the 2015 Global Peace Index, the Philippines is the most violent country in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, it is violence we inflict on ourselves. Tanim-bala. That’s the kind of welcome we offer our own.