SPEAKING for the first time on the infamous bullet-planting controversy at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), President Aquino said he doubted an organized “tanim-bala” extortion scheme existed.
And just like his Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya, who earlier drew widespread condemnation for dismissing the questionable arrest of passengers as merely a small percentage of the total number of air travelers, Mr. Aquino likewise downplayed the controversy by citing similar statistics.
“How many people pass through the NAIA per year? The figure is 34 million. How many of those were involved in a bullet case? What they reported out of the 34 million is 1,200 incidents,” the President said in a press conference Sunday night in Kuala Lumpur where he attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
“Medyo ang liit naman yata (That seems a little small),” he told reporters.
He said he was told of three passengers who complained that airport personnel had tried to extort money from them to drop illegal possession of ammunition charges so they could board their flight.
One of the three eventually admitted the bullet found in his bag was his, Mr. Aquino said.
“If the report that three out of three million is true, how can we say there is an epidemic—that there is a high probability you will get into trouble or that you can say there is a chance you will fall victim to the racket?” the President said.
He said he felt bad for the innocent airport security scanners who were doing their jobs and had actually intercepted firearms and ammunition in other incidents at the airport.
“I have to balance it. In the end [we need] proof. Is there proof that will confirm or deny the tanim-bala scam?” the President said.
But he said he also felt bad for the passengers.
“So I am not saying there is no such [scam]. That is what should come out in the investigation. But those are the initial statistics,” he said.
He then accused the media of sensationalizing the news on the tanim-bala cases.
“Like out of 10 (people) who will go to the airport, how many will be victimized? For every 10—two, three? That is not what happened. It was sensationalized and there were those who benefited to sensationalize it,” he said.
“Those who thought of this, we will include them in the investigation,” he added.
Meanwhile, the initial police investigation into the tanim-bala scam at the airport practically debunked it as an “urban legend.”
“There is no such thing as tanim-bala, there is only extortion,” a source from the Aviation Security Group (Avsegroup) told the Inquirer.
“It is just not possible for a security screener to carry bullets in his pocket and plant them in passengers’ baggage. Sleight of hand is out of the question. Nobody’s that fast or that bold,” he said, adding that the Avsegroup had not found proof of tanim-bala.
A review of closed circuit TV footage of the security checkpoints showed no evidence of the scheme, he said.
The source, who sought anonymity for lack of authority to speak on the matter, said the surge in supposed bullet interceptions was due to a reward system put in place by the Office for Transportation Security (OTS), an attached agency of the Department of Transportation and Communications.
He also pointed out that in many of the cases, the passengers admitted carrying the bullets either as souvenirs, mementos or talismans.
“Unscrupulous OTS personnel jump at this chance and extort cash from these passengers who do not want to be inconvenienced by a trip to the police station and risk missing their flights,” the source explained.
OTS Deputy Administrator Robert Villanueva said the agency did set up a system of citation for security screening officers aimed at improving their efficiency and boosting their morale.
“Awardees are given certificates of commendation and cash,” he said.
Justice Secretary Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, meanwhile, has agreed to extend by 15 days the deadline given to the National Bureau of Investigation task force investigating the tanim-bala incidents at the Naia.