THE number of passengers apprehended with bullets in their luggage has shot up 775 percent this year, from only 12 incidents in 2014 to 105 cases from January to November this year, data from the Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group showed.
In a phone interview, Supt. Jeanne Panisan of the PNP AvSecGroup attributed the spike not to an extortion racket at the airport but to “tighter security screening.”
This year’s figure is the highest recorded in four years, with only 20 passengers apprehended in 2012 and 21 passengers in 2013.
Panisan said the arrests this year yielded 514 bullets, 24 magazines, 20 firearms, 139 accessories or parts of firearms, and 20 replicas.
An airport official said Monday at least 40 personnel of the Office for Transportation Security are under investigation over allegations that they planted bullets in the luggage of unsuspecting passengers in an attempt to extort money from them.
But Manila International Airport Authority spokesman David de Castro said the OTS personnel cannot be immediately fired as they might be “demoralized.”
The OTS personnel being investigated, however, will have their airport access passes revoked as part of the protocol.
Earlier, Vice President Jejomar Binay, a presidential candidate in next year’s election, called for the immediate relief of all OTS personnel over the widening extortion scandal.
Independent candidate for President Senator Grace Poe, on the other hand, said MIAA General Manager Jose Angel Honrado must put an end to the extortion syndicate within a week or resign.
Lawmakers on Monday dismissed accusations from administration supporters that the spate of bullet-related arrests at the airport was the work of the political opposition and aimed at embarrassing the administration and hurting the chances of the ruling Liberal Party’s candidate for President, Manuel Roxas II.
Instead of addressing the issue, the Palace and its supporters are trying to mislead the public of the Aquino administration’s failed anti-corruption drive, said Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate.
“It is better for the Aquino administration to bite the bullet and fire its incompetent airport officials like MIAA Manager Jose Honrado,” Zarate said.
1-BAP party-list Rep. Silvestre Bello III said the reactions from Aquino supporters showed they were in “panic mode of the highest degree.”
Bello was referring to the accusation by Aquino supporter and co-convenor of the Black and White Movement Leah Navarro that the political opposition was behind the planting of bullets at the airport to discredit Roxas.
Parañaque Rep. Gus Tambunting said the Aquino supporters were making the bullet-planting controversy a political issue when it is not.
“It is an issue of competence and effective governance,” said Tambunting of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance.
Tambunting also lambasted the government for pointing fingers whenever there are issues that it cannot handle competently.
But a Palace ally, Quezon City Rep. Jorge Banal said the concern raised by the Aquino supporters should not be dismissed out of hand.
“Anything is possible. But it would be better for the authorities to swiftly implement measures that will ensure the safety and convenience of all passengers,” Banal said.
Earlier, several lawmakers led by Davao City Rep. Karlo Alexei Nograles and Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz demanded the resignation of Honrado to allow a more competent manager to run the country’s airports.
Nograles reminded Honrado that the country’s international airports, particularly the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, is the nation’s window to the world but with the reports about an extortion racket there, the country is now the subject of worldwide ridicule.
“Travelers using our airports are now too terrorized that they even wrap their luggage with masking tape just to stop Naia people from planting bullets into their bags. This is really embarrassing. In no airport in the world can you find this kind of paranoia [among travelers]. Only in the Philippines,” Nograles said.
De la Cruz urged Honrado and all other officials involved in the operations and security of Naia and other international airports around the country to submit their courtesy resignation, especially given the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leader’s Summit in Manila.
Amid persistent reports of an extortion syndicate operating out of the airport, President Benigno Aquino III met Monday with officials from the Department of Transportation and Communications and ordered a wider investigation of the bullet-planting incidents.
“The President has been briefed and has given further instructions to refine the efforts under way. The DoTC as the lead agency will be updating the public,” said Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda.
Over the weekend, DoTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya ordered the installation of additional closed-circuit TVs at the airport, Lacierda said.
“We are casting a wide net on the data, on the process and areas for improvements. So, all of these will be tackled by the DoTC. So at some point, DoTC will, and hopefully soon, be informing the public of the situation in the Naia,” Lacierda added.
Asked if there was an order to fire Honrado as lawmakers have demanded, Lacierda said they must first identify the problem.
“Let’s correctly identify the problem so that we can come up with the correct identification of the solution. So that’s the instruction given by the President to DoTC,” said Lacierda.
Lacierda said the President wanted the DoTC investigation to be done by next week.
Lacierda also said not all incidents in which bullets are found in luggage should be assumed to be part of an extortion operation.
He pointed to a Japanese tourist, who admitted he had come from a shooting range and brought a bullet with him.
“So there were no allegations of planting bullets,” Lacierda said. “So we have to look at all the assumptions that came out in the media.” With Macon Ramos-Araneta and Vito Barcelo
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