Bullet scam: Palace cool to sacking airport chief

Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star

Honrado won’t resign unless...

MANILA, Philippines - Amid calls for President Aquino to fire Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) general manager Jose Angel Honrado over the laglag-bala (bullet-planting) scandal, Malacañang indicated the priority is to “identify the problem correctly” rather than firing the airport chief.

Aquino called a meeting yesterday wherein he directed Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya to conduct a thorough probe of the alleged laglag-bala scam at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda briefed the media after the meeting and was asked about the calls for the replacement of Honrado, a cousin of the President.

“I don’t want to speculate on any action to be taken,” Lacierda said. “Let’s identify the problem correctly so that ... we can identify the solutions also correctly.”

Honrado said he would not resign unless the President, who appointed him, tells him to do so.

“Pag sinabi ng appointing authority na mag-resign na, not a minute longer, not a second longer,” Honrado told GMA News. 

He said he respected the opinion of lawmakers, but if they press for his resignation he would think twice.

Honrado was a member of the so-called Yellow Army, providing security to Aquino’s mother Corazon during the Marcos dictatorship and throughout her presidency.

Abaya, as military aide of Mrs. Aquino when she was president, used to be under Honrado’s supervision. Abaya still calls Honrado “sir.”

Lacierda said “the basic premise and the basic dictum, guidance of the President” is to first identify a problem properly.

“He is always meticulous with data and so the instructions were given and the only thing that I can say for now is DOTC will take the lead and explain to the public and inform the public of the measures,” he reiterated.

Calls for Honrado’s resignation mounted following reports of the laglag-bala extortion racket at the NAIA.

The laglag-bala cases at the airport are isolated incidents but they should be studied very carefully, especially since the Japanese tourist had admitted owning the bullet that was found in his luggage, Lacierda said. “Because we only have what media is reporting… That’s why the President wants to cast a wide net. Let’s look at the entire picture.”

“He admitted that he came from the shooting range and he brought the bullet with him. So there were no allegations of planting bullets,” Lacierda said.

He refused to acknowledge the presence of a syndicate at the airport preying on unsuspecting passengers and said the reports should be validated.

“We are a free country, you are free to express your opinion whether rightly or wrongly. But all we’re asking the public is that let’s wait for the DOTC to come up with their findings and they will let you know,” Lacierda said.

The DOTC has ordered the Office for Transportation Security (OTS) to arrest individuals found carrying even just one bullet in their baggage. 

DOTC’s Abaya said finding one bullet would be sufficient for a passenger to get arrested.

If the bullet found is an empty shell, he said the arrest would no longer be necessary, but the item would be confiscated.

In case the bullet satisfies the four requirements for live ammunition, the passenger would have to be arrested.

‘Bawas padala’

Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) abroad are now threatening to cut down their dollar remittances to pressure the government to stop the laglag-bala syndicate at the NAIA.

John Leonard Monterona, Migrante Middle East regional coordinator, said OFWs are planning to stage a bawas padala drive or limit remittances.

Monterona said the bawas padala campaign would dramatize the OFWs’ disappointment over the government’s failure to stop the laglag-bala syndicate.

“OFWs and our families should act decisively versus the laglag-bala that victimizes our fellow OFWs, thus we need to launch a campaign that will pressure the government to put an end to this extortion scheme at NAIA airports,” Monterona said in a statement.

LTFRB probes taxi

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) summoned the operator and the driver of the Virgil taxi with license plates UVK 190 that was allegedly involved in a laglag-bala case near the NAIA.

LTFRB’s announcement was posted on the agency’s official Twitter account yesterday morning.

LTFRB chairman Winston Ginez said that the board would issue a show cause order against the operator and driver of the taxi requiring them to appear at a hearing on Wednesday morning to give their side about the scam that has been circulating online.

Julius Niel Habana posted on Facebook some photos of the Vigil taxi on Oct. 30 warning OFWs who will be going abroad.

Habana said that his seaman friend was on his way to the NAIA on Oct. 29 when he was almost victimized by the laglag-bala scam.

He said his friend noticed that the taxi driver had placed something inside his bag. 

Habana said the seaman sent him a text message asking for his advise and he told his friend to go to his place first before going to the airport.

He said when his friend arrived he took the bag from the taxi and they found a .38 caliber bullet inside.

He said that because his friend was catching an international flight, they did not file a complaint against the taxi driver and the seaman took another taxi to the airport.

The Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group (Avsegroup) clarified that the agency does not have a role in the security screening of luggage of airline passengers arriving and leaving the country.

“I want to grab this opportunity to tell the public that Avsegroup has no part when it comes to security screening of luggages. We don’t put luggages in the X-ray machine. We are being called by the OTS (Office of the Transportation Service) only after they notice some violations in the procedures, like when a passenger is believed to be carrying ammunitions, guns or explosives,” Avsegroup spokesperson Supt. Jeanne Panisan Panisan told reporters in a press briefing in Camp Crame, Quezon City.

Panisan said there has been an increase in the number of persons arrested for illegal possession of ammunitions at the airports this year compared to 2014.

“There were 30 incidents of illegal possession of ammunitions from January to Nov. 1 this year. There were only 12 cases in 2014, 21 in 2013 and 20 in 2012,” Panisan added.

Panisan said some passengers brought bullets as amulets to protect them from harm while away from their families, but most of the suspects accosted for illegal possession of ammunitions denied bringing the bullets.

She explained that there are two layers of security scanners inside the three international airports and a domestic airport.

Panisan said that based on their initial investigation, there is a remote possibility of a syndicate behind the laglag-bala scam.

She said most incidents of bullet discovery happened at the initial screening area where the big luggages are processed.

When the individual gets off the car or taxi, only the passenger has contact with the luggage or bag, unless they get a porter to carry their belongings.

The passenger carries the luggage about 15 meters to the conveyor, so it is hard to plant something, Panisan said.

She advised airline passengers to personally pack their luggage to ensure that no prohibited item is put in their baggage.

Contrary to media reports that only one bullet was found in luggages indicating it was sneaked in by someone from the airport, Panisan said some of the passengers accosted for illegal possession of ammunition had more than one bullet, and some even carried a whole box of bullets.

Panisan said they welcomed the inquiry to be conducted by an independent body to help Avsegroup clear its name.

The House of Representatives is set to conduct a probe into the bullet planting racket at the NAIA.

Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian, vice chairman of the House committee on tourism, filed a resolution saying that the bullet-planting extortion racket is a serious problem.

An official of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) yesterday asked the Aquino administration to thoroughly investigate the laglag-bala scam.

CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Migrant an Itinerant People (ECMIP) chairman Bataan Bishop Ruperto Santos issued a statement condemning the repeated incidents of bullet planting that prey on OFWs.

Vice President Jejomar Binay yesterday called for the streamlining of the overlapping functions of aviation and security offices following numerous reports of bullet planting cases at the NAIA.

Binay also called for a thorough review of Executive Order 311 creating the Office for Transportation Security (OTS), which he described as a duplication of functions already assigned to agencies like the police Avsegroup.

“On its face, there are overlapping functions concerning airport security. We have Avsegroup of PNP that is supposed to have operational control over security concerns in our airports, and yet you have an autonomous agency under the DOTC supposedly having sole authority over airport security,” he said.

Sen. Grace Poe called on MIAA chief Honrado to immediately stop the bullet planting scam.

In a statement, Poe said that there are several steps that the MIAA could take immediately to address the situation that is giving the country a bad reputation all over the world.

Poe said that the personnel of the OTS should be replaced by other security agents in the meantime as a first step, while the other security measures are being prepared to eliminate the scam.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano is set to file a complaint against airport officials at the Office of the Ombudsman today in relation to the laglag-bala scam. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Rudy Santos, Evelyn Macairan, Helen Flores, Marvin Sy, Robertzon Ramirez Paolo Romero, Louella Desiderio, Edith Regalado

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