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UN Advises Staff to Mind Luggage

THE United Nations has advised all its personnel who have to use airports in the Philippines to secure their luggage amid fears of a scam in which bullets are planted in travelers’ bags as part of an extortion racket.

The advisory was first reported by Floyd Whaley, a senior correspondent of The New York Times, in his Twitter account.

“United Nations advises staff using Manila airport to ‘keep your luggage with you, lock your luggage, and consider wrapping your luggage,’” Whaley said in his tweet.

Whaley eventually posted a copy of the internal memo from the UN Department of Safety and Security ([email protected]) with the subject “SECURITY ADVISORY: Naia-Bullets in luggage.”

Controversial airport. A traveler retrieves her luggage at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where workers of the Office of Transportation Security face investigation as a result of a bullet scam that has victimized many travelers and given the country a bad press abroad. Eric Apolonio
“Officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport [Naia] are allegedly slipping bullets into passengers’ bags and then trying to extort money from them when bullets are ‘found’ by security. Surveillance at the airport has been stepped up since the complaints began and an investigation has been launched into the personnel accused of involvement. Staff members are advised to keep your luggage with you, lock your luggage, and consider wrapping your luggage in plastic as an extra security measure,” the memo reads.

Teresa Debuque, national information officer of the UN Information Center Manila, confirmed receiving an internal note from the UNDSS  Tuesday  morning.

“There is an internal note, but the details are meant only for UN staff and are not meant to be circulated to the public,” Debuque said.

President Benigno Aquino III has ordered an investigation into the scam, which has been picked up by international media organizations such as the BBC and Time magazine.

Data from the Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group showed 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.

Supt. Jeanne Panisan of the PNP Aviation Security Group 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.

On Tuesday, the Department of Labor and Employment cautioned departing overseas Filipino workers to guard their personal belongings from unscrupulous airport personnel.

The Labor secretary said the best way to avoid being victimized is for passengers to be always watchful of their luggage, and not allowing anyone to touch it.

“I urge airline passengers, OFWs particularly, to be alert, careful, and vigilant with regards their luggage,” Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said in a statement.

“OFWs should hold on to their luggage, or be very close, never away from these, while these are being checked, and report any suspicious activity or movement of airport personnel handling their luggage,” she said.

“Don’t leave your luggage. Don’t keep them away from your view. Better still, inventory the contents of your luggage before you leave for the airport and keep this inventory with you. Show them to the authorities if necessary before they check or screen your luggage,” Baldoz said.

The Labor secretary said she was disappointed over the numerous incidents in which overseas workers were victimized by the racket.

On Tuesday, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption and the Network of Independent Travel Agents filed a complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman against Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya Jr., Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado, Office for Transportation Security administrator Roland Recomono and Philippine National Police’s Aviation Security Group director Pablo Francisco Balagtas, over the failure to do anything about the bullet-planting syndicate.

At a news conference in Quezon City, Cayetano, a candidate for vice president, hit the government’s inaction and failure to stop the extortion racket.

“Seven years ago, a journalist had been telling that the  laglag-bala  extortion was already happening then at the airport,” he said.

He said they filed the complaint against Abaya, Honrado, Recomono and Balagtas for violation of Executive Order 226 of 1995, or neglect of duty under the doctrine of command responsibility, and presumption of knowledge.

“The controversy has become an international issue. The  laglag-bala  scheme has already come to the knowledge of concerned officials, but they have not done any preventive or corrective measures,” he added.

“The  tanim-bala  scheme was made public in September, but the government only acted on it and had a meeting just last Monday, or 44 days later. At first, Malacañang said it was just an isolated case,” he said.

He also asked Honrado to explain why his agency was constantly getting a failed bid for the airport’s closed-circuit TV system.

“Public office is a public trust,” he said.

Dante Jimenez, VACC founding chairperson, said they have been receiving numerous complaints of not only the tanim-bala extortion scheme, but also of other bogus arrests.

“Let me emphasize that there is a syndicate out there destroying the reputation of not only our airports but also of our seaports. Most often, victims would just keep silent,” he told the conference.

Jimenez also took a shot at President Benigno Aquino III for his failure to act on the problem sooner.

“We call on President Benigno Aquino III to resign and turn over the power to Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno so that he could concentrate on the 2016 elections. He is a lame duck president,” Jimenez said.

Topics: bullets in luggage
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