Failure of government
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 20, 2014 - 12:00am

If the government doesn’t want to revive ransom kidnapping as the No. 1 industry in Sulu and neighboring areas, it should make sure any ransom paid for a German couple is recovered and the perpetrators caught and punished.

Obviously this is a job not just for security forces. There is strong international cooperation against money laundering, especially against a group officially listed as an international terrorist organization like the Abu Sayyaf, so the government should find no lack of assistance in sniffing out the money trail.

There are several versions of the denomination used as mode of ransom payment, but all the figures point to variations of similar amounts: four million euros, $5.5 million or P250 million.

That amount should prove tough to conceal, whether in cash in bed mattresses or through paperless transactions in the banking system. In the age of the Financial Action Task Force against money laundering, we have laws requiring automatic reporting by banks of single transactions involving a threshold amount of P500,000.

Our anti-graft and internal revenue investigators are authorized to conduct, on their own initiative, discreet lifestyle checks on public officials in Sulu. Over the weekend there were discussion in radio talk shows about widespread suspicions that government, military and police officials in Sulu all have a modus vivendi for sharing the spoils of kidnapping with the Abu Sayyaf.

For now suspicion is focused mainly on Sulu-based officials. But speculation is starting to spread to the national government, which has jurisdiction over the departments of defense as well as the interior and local government.

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Previous kidnapping sprees in Sulu reinforce the speculation. In 2000, at the height of the kidnapping rampage by the Sulu-based Abu Sayyaf faction led by Ghalib Andang (the main faction was in Basilan), there were also reports that government and military officials were getting large chunks from the ransom payments.

Among the captives of Andang, a.k.a. Commander Robot, taken from the Malaysian island of Sipadan were three German tourists. German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the German secret service had intercepted satellite phone conversations indicating that the Abu Sayyaf gave 40 percent of a $20-million ransom to Robert Aventajado, the chief government negotiator and adviser for flagship projects of then President Joseph Estrada. Erap himself got a 10 percent cut, Der Spiegel alleged. Erap and Aventajado threatened to sue the magazine for libel.

The $20 million was paid by Libya. Andang also received at least P6 million more – plus satellite phones, wristwatches and even boots – for holding several Filipino journalists hostage.

Little wonder that not long after, Abu Sayyaf bandits ventured across the Sulu Sea to raid a Palawan resort in May 2001. That led to the beheading of an American hostage and the death in a rescue operation of another American and a Filipina nurse.

A congressional investigation was launched on accusations that military officers received a cut from ransom payments at the start of the hostage crisis. The payoffs were not established.

These days there is speculation on how high up the sharing went for the German couple.

There is no such thing as a free lunch with the Abu Sayyaf. From previous incidents, we all know that at the minimum, the bandits always demand “board and lodging fee” – typically six-star hotel rates for jungle accommodations and daily meals consisting of little more than camote or sweet potato and boiled rice.

Instead of insisting that there is a no-ransom policy, the government should presume that money changed hands and make sure no one profits from crime.

Yet Malacañang seems to have zero interest in tracing the reported ransom payment, instead tossing the issue to the Anti-Money Laundering Council. Palace officials also point to a military pursuit of the bandits.

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The pursuit itself is intriguing. Last Friday as the public waited for the Abu Sayyaf to carry out its threat of beheading Okonek on the dot at 3 p.m., military officers said they already had the bandits and the captives in their line of sight, but were prevented from moving in.

Governments follow a no-ransom policy and refuse to negotiate with terrorists to protect their citizens from more attacks. If ever ransom is paid, the idea is to secure the hostages’ release and capture the kidnappers.

If the military had the Abu Sayyaf surrounded before the Germans walked free, how did the kidnappers manage to slip past those troops?

This latest kidnapping spree – and it is a spree, with about 10 more foreigners in Abu Sayyaf captivity – also highlights the failure of government in Sulu.

The province has dense jungles and mountains dotted with caves for hiding, but it’s not the size of Texas. The government is represented all the way down to the smallest community unit, the barangay. Village officials are supposed to know – or at least try to get to know – every single member of the barangay, especially when the population is small. The same goes for police personnel, who are tasked to look out for potential troublemakers in their areas of responsibility.

Their activities are supervised by mayors and the governor. Consider what a more efficient local executive like Davao City’s Rodrigo Duterte would have done to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf threat – and his city is much larger than Jolo. On the national level, think of how the late Jesse Robredo would have responded.

Those Abu Sayyaf bandits need supplies in their mountain lairs. They have relatives, including in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Tracking down these bandits shouldn’t prove to be Mission: Impossible.

Unless there is no interest in neutralizing them. It is said that if you don’t share, you go to hell. Abu Sayyaf bandits must have perfected the art of sharing for survival.

If those kidnappers are not caught, the government should worry about its tourism targets. The Germans were snatched from a yacht off Palawan after island-hopping in Mindanao, and they have horror stories to tell.

And if that P250 million disappears into money laundering havens, we should prepare for more kidnappings for ransom. The enormous profits are worth the risks.


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