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Abaya: Only .004% of travelers nabbed

Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya watches as airport personnel check the luggage of passengers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 yesterday. Kriz John Rosales

MANILA, Philippines - Faced with an alleged extortion scandal at the nation’s main airport, the head of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) wants the public to put things in perspective.

Of the 34.2 million travelers who passed through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) last year, only “0.004 percent” constituted cases of bullet possession, according to Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya.

The 0.004 percent translates to 1,510 people. But Abaya, in a press conference yesterday, lamented that the so-called laglag-bala or bullet planting scandal had been blown out of proportion and there is no syndicate known to be behind the scam.

The incidents involved empty bullets as souvenirs, necklaces and talismans as well as live ammunition.

Incidents of passengers caught with bullets in their baggage in the airport are not new, as Abaya noted that such cases have taken place in previous years.

Data from the Office of Transportation Security (OTS) showed there were a total of 1,214 ammunition interception incidents in the country’s airports in 2012; 2,184 in 2013; 1,813 in 2014 and 1,394 as of October this year.

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“It appears that cases have been blown out of proportion. Let us be mindful that when allegations cast aspersion on all, it is not far-fetched to think some of those tasked with our security will suffer from low morale. This will be a disservice to all,” Abaya said.

He also said that to date, the government has not found a syndicate behind the laglag-bala scheme.

The scheme is allegedly being undertaken by erring airport personnel to extort money from passengers.

While the number of cases may be small and no group has been found responsible for the scam, Abaya said the government would continue the investigation and implement measures to ensure the safety of passengers in the country’s airports.

“Although we are talking about statistics in the decimals, let me emphasize that a single case of any passenger wrongly charged, extorted upon by planting and unjustly charged in court is unjust. It is not something that government should ignore. It is something that it should put full force and attention to and likewise it is a great concern for the state,” he said.

He said a government official found to be involved in the scam could face penalty of reclusion perpetua or 40 years in prison.

He noted it is the government’s priority to ensure the safety and security of the public and to examine its procedures as well as come up with solutions when incidents threatening safety and security take place.

Among the steps undertaken to address the incidents of laglag-bala are the modified procedures in handling baggage, where only passengers are allowed to carry them, as well as installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the screening stations.

The government likewise intends to put up clearer and larger signs to remind passengers of prohibited items in the airport, particularly live ammunition.

In response to calls to resign from his post for failure to put a stop to the scheme causing trauma to passengers, Abaya said he would leave his post if his actions are not in line with President Aquino’s daang matuwid (straight path) campaign.

A complaint was filed by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption against Abaya and Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado before the Office of the Ombudsman, citing neglect of duty in connection with the scam.

President Aquino wants a complete picture of the alleged bullet-planting scam at the NAIA terminals and is ready to fire whoever is proven guilty of involvement in the irregularity, Malacañang said yesterday.

“The President wants to fire whoever is guilty. As a matter of fact, that’s what he wants to get to. Is there someone guilty?” Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said over ANC’s Headstart.

Almendras said the timing was bad and that he was worried about the country’s image abroad because of the reported scam.

He said personally, he was getting a lot of text messages and they had to deal with the impression that Malacañang was not doing anything about the issue.

On the contrary, Almendras said the President called for meetings and took “people to task” since it was very important for Aquino to understand whatever was happening amid reports that either a syndicate was involved or a demolition job was being carried out against the administration.

He said the Palace wanted to know what the situation really was, just like the clamor from the public to find out the truth about the matter.

Asked if the President was looking at a possible demolition job, Almendras said there was no conclusion at the moment, only that Aquino “acknowledged” the fact that the situation was such an ideal political issue.

Almendras said reports were being studied along with legal issues that Abaya raised during their meetings.

He said the country has “strict laws” on illegal possession of ammunition – when all “four components” of the bullets were present.

Almendras said a relative was detained in Hong Kong for two nights a few years ago because she yielded a bullet that was given to her as an amulet.

He said Hong Kong authorities were treating the issue in the same manner as the Philippine side was. – With Aurea Calica, Jess Diaz, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero, Marvin Sy, Jaime Laude, Mayen Jaymalin

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