The Department of Transportation of the Philippines is under fire after more than 20 people have come forward claiming airport officials planted bullets in their luggage to prevent them from boarding flights unless they paid a bribe.
Quartz reports that the cases have occurred in the capital city’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Foreign passengers are claiming that airport security staff intentionally planted bullets in their luggage, which are illegal to carry onboard a plane, and either levied a large fine or requested bribes to absolve them of their supposed violation of the law. The outlet notes that some of those detained were delayed from traveling for days and only those who paid extra fines were let out expeditiously.
The scam appears to be years in the making. A review of Manila on TripAdvisor from 2012, uncovered by the local outlet Coconuts Manila, describes one such incident. A British woman claims she was stopped by airport security and shown bullets they claimed had been lodged in her bag, which she had packed the night before and was certain did not contain bullets. The police then solicited a bribe:
He then told me that I needed to calm down, and to move to the side. So I did, and he quietly told me that if I stopped making a fuss, he could erase the image for me, and no one who ever know. He said “he would help me, if I helped him,” and it was obvious the “helping him” would come down to cash being exchanged. I asked how much, and he said US$1000, money that at the end of our trip, I simply did not have.
The recent incident that has returned this scam to the spotlight involves 20-year-old American missionary Lane White, who accused airport authorities of trying to extort almost $1,000 from him after allegedly finding bullets. He spent six days in jail in lieu of paying up.
Other victims of the scam include Nimfa Fontamillas, a 65-year-old grandmother accused of packing bullets in her bag, a Japanese tourist, and a visitor from Hong Kong whose argument that gun laws in her native country would not allow her to have such ammunition went unheeded.
Philippine senators have begun to object to the practice. Senator Ralph Recto noted to authorities that legislation to organize airport security was necessary, as “there is no working system that is guarding the guards.” Philippine Senate Majority Leader Peter Cayetano has officially filed a complaint against the Department of Transportation in the country. Sherwin Gatchalian, vice-chairman of the tourism committee in the House of Representatives, called it simply “an international embarrassment.”
The Philippines National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has begun soliciting similar stories to help further its investigation into the airport. The Philippine Star reports that the investigation has been brought about at the behest of security at Ninoy Aquino airport who wish to see their reputation absolved. Until then, the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) has posted new signs in the airport requesting all passengers inspect their own luggage before handing it over, and officials are hoping that the international spotlight on the airport will keep the perpetrators of this crime at bay.
Not all government officials have reacted so harshly to the practice, however. Quartz quotes a presidential spokesman as saying that one factor contributing to the number of arrests over bullets is the “cultural thing” of carrying bullets as good luck charms: “I don’t share that cultural thing of bringing amulets, but I understand a number of people do consider bullets as amulets. So that’s also being looked into.” Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya told reporters the incidents “have been blown out of proportion.”
MIAA Assistant General Manager for Security Jesus Gordon Descanzo took another approach to the problem, hoping the media exposure would help remedy it. Descanzo told the Star that he expects the number of cases to diminish because “with too much exposure from media and from social media, they would not do that but they would still do their work.”